It is nearly 20 years since Agha Shahid Ali, the eminent Kashmiri poet, died aged 52. Rereading his books — especially his first, 1987’s The Half-Inch Himalayas — gives one an insight into the particular imagistic representation that sharply captures the experience of a Kashmiri Muslim, or indeed any in Pakistan, writing English poems.

Many so-called poets who are garlanded as the leading voices of their time are mere repeaters of poetical clichés updated in the latest trendy vocabulary. There is a subtle difference between what is commonly accepted, accorded widespread admiration and even considered worthy of some prestigious award, and the genuine article.

A secondary, and incidental, pleasure for Pakistani readers of Ali’s poems is an evocation of great Urdu poetry, as if the work of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir and Faiz Ahmed Faiz was the passionate inspiration flowing in his veins.

Take the poem ‘A Butcher’ as an example of the real thing. On the surface, it is no more than a simple description of the poet in the old Delhi bazaar near the Jama Masjid, buying meat from a vendor. Watching the butcher wrap the meat in sheets of newspaper, he notices the newsprint’s ink stain the butcher’s knuckles. The Urdu words are “bloody at his fingertips”, but the Urdu that the butcher is speaking “is still fine on his lips.”

As he finishes wrapping the meat, the poet, responding to the butcher’s fine Urdu, quotes a line from Ghalib. The butcher completes the Ghalib couplet by reciting the next line, smiles, and in his turn quotes a line from Mir, and the poet, in his turn, completes the Mir couplet. The purchase concluded, money is exchanged and the poem, itself written in couplets, ends with a single line, because the sound of the cluttering money, interrupting their courteously spoken Urdu, has sounded like a Ghalib ghazal had been left unrhymed.

Now, nothing is said in the poem, which looks like a simple description of a charming little moment in the poet’s life. But the poem continues to whisper in one’s brain, like a cat purring in one’s lap, its claws pressing into one’s skin, drawing new meaning.

Because of the blood in the meat he’s wrapping, the words from the newsprint are wet in the butcher’s palms — that’s what has become of the elegantly spoken language of the Mughals, for we are in old Delhi, as the poem’s opening couplet simply states, in a lane “near Jama Masjid” — and all we have left is a memory of the language that is slipping out of our hands.

We remember lines from it spoken by its great poets, Ghalib and Mir, but they, too, are not fully audible. What looks on the surface to be a light snapshot is a dark picture of the deeply felt pain of the Kashmiri — and Indian — Muslim.

It is not a new subject in post-Partition poetry, and many poets from Pakistan, whether continuing to live there or obliged to remain in exile, have the question of their roots at the heart of the puzzle of their existence. Among the earliest Pakistani poets, there is an expression of bewilderment at their place in society and in the general human condition, as in some very fine poems by Maki Kureishi and Shahid Hosain.

In Kureishi’s ‘Christmas Letter to my Sister’ — most of it beautifully recollected memories of childhood — the poet inserts the simple remarks, “the long, repeated journeys looking for/ something you’ve left behind”, and “you, homesick and not/ eager to come home, are foreign everywhere”, and one hears the pain of alienation.

That pain is felt in several of Agha Shahid Ali’s poems, expressed quite directly in some of them, as in ‘A Wrong Turn’, which begins: “In my dream I’m always/ in a massacred town”, or ‘A Call’, in which the father is heard to ask during Ali’s phone call to Kashmir, “When will you come home?” but the “line goes dead” when he answers.

Ali’s alienated other will not leave him, and appears repeatedly in his dreams as in one of his finest poems, ‘I Dream it is Afternoon When I Return to Delhi’, which begins: “At Purana Qila I am alone, waiting.” No foreign reader can begin to appreciate the pain expressed in this poem, nor indeed will later generations of Pakistani and Indian Muslims for whom it will very probably read like a familiar, quaint poem on the theme of memory.

But for those alienated natives who continue to endure their exile without being reconciled to it, the poet’s dream is obsessively their own and the imagery projecting his interior horror in the final stanza could not be more painful, its lines not simple, its meaning not more profound:

Once again my hands are empty,
I am waiting, alone, at Purana Qila.
Bus after empty bus is not stopping.
Suddenly, beggar women with children
Are everywhere, offering
Me money, weeping for me

The Himalayas in their half-inch scale scroll across our imagination and, such is the enlargement projected by the force of Ali’s poetry, we find ourselves on precipitous peaks. But then, after this extraordinary volume, what happened to his work?

He produced a great deal of it, became famous in America, where he lived to escape the horrors of his beloved Kashmir, writing obsessively about news of his homeland and about his family. But too many of the later poems are no more than the expected poetical gesture and what punch there is to the language is journalistic, not an explosion in the reader’s mind that’s set off by a fresh image.

Unfortunately, that sort of generalised response to political events is considered serious poetry by some critics and the majority of readers, including the judges of literary prizes such as the National Book Award, of which the most inferior of Ali’s collections, Rooms are Never Finished, was a finalist.

But in the end, that matters little. It is enough for the poet’s reputation that, seeing his half-inch Himalayas, we find ourselves on a dazzling height.

The columnist is a literary critic, Professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions
Veronica and the Góngora Passion

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 7th, 2021

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