From the picture perfect postcards in The Half-Inch Himalayas to the crumpling postcards of Rooms Are Never Finished, there is a shift in Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry which redefines the act of writing as a means to critically examine the past and understand the politics of the present. In this regard, the layers of inter-textual references in the later works offer the primary cognitive apparatus for the poet to understand history, how it shapes his own identity, and that of his land, Kashmir.
In Ali’s early poetry, myth and memory create a postcard of the past that is too neat in its construction. “I always loved neatness,” writes Ali in his poem, “Postcard from Kashmir”; but, in his later poem, “I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World”, there is a realization of this created world being “always a tableau”. Ali comes to understand that history is a living mosaic and he, as a poet, is also contributing to its formation. His development as a poet is triggered by the realisation of memory being a “black and white film”. Ali’s “Kashmir with a history of saints” is much like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome in Xanadu, an exercise in creating from memory where the development of the poetic form becomes an allegory for gathering together that which is essentially elusive in nature. Coleridge’s wish to revive the Abyssinian maid’s symphony and song is reflected in Ali’s wish to recreate a temporal experience.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida observed that the desire to write is the desire to launch things that come back to you as much as possible. This desire to articulate from memory and the wish to return is reflected in the poem “Postcard from Kashmir”: “Now I hold the half-inch Himalayas in my hand. This is home. And this is the closest I’ll ever be to home.” This circularity of movement and the wish to return to the past is emblematic of the desire of memory to gather everything in a neatly constructed postcard. However, Derrida argues that if historical memory follows this circular movement then the “catastrophe of memory” will testify to the fact that the circle can never be completed. To quote him, “the past is irretrievably lost.” In the aforementioned poem, Ali’s yearning to return home is tinged with the realisation that “When I return, the colours won’t be so brilliant, the Jhelum’s waters so clean, so ultramarine.” As his “paradise on earth becomes hell”, Ali realises that he cannot take recourse to memory because he is confronted by a present which has stolen his “utter disbelief”. His poems are like letters to a “papier-mâché” country without a post office; his place of birth has become a “city that was robbed of every Call”, and is, thus, a city that is denied even the redemptive grace of prayer. Ali writes in the poem “The Country Without a Post Office”:
Empty? Because so many fled, ran away,
And became refugees there, in the plains,
Where they must now will a final dewfall
To turn the mountains to glass.
Reality has become too gruesome for him to return in the way he had imagined, he can no longer look forward by looking back through memory. It is a reality that is too painful to derive comfort from the past, as it constantly ends up questioning and challenging the past. In one of the letters in The Postcard from Socrates to Freud and Beyond, Derrida writes:
We are lost because of the truth, that horrible fantasy…We are still more foreign, more ignorant, more distant from what ‘really happened’ and that we believed we said to each other, recounted to each other, more deprived of the knowledge than ever (Derrida 46).
Thus if we see truth in the light of this statement, for Ali, it “…has two faces. To us the holy emblem was a sword hanging over us.” There is a disjunction between the two faces, that is, the past as he remembers it, and the past that is a shared truth. Both worlds are narratives shaped through individual perspectives and lived experiences rendered from memory but it is in this very condition that they are exposed in their palimpsestic structure. History is a text that can be written and rewritten, therefore, defying complete encapsulation and unity. If it is created through presences, there must also be an acknowledgement of the absences.
The dream world of Kashmir that Ali creates through his act of writing is different from the spectral Eqbal Ahmed’s (political thinker from Kashmir) haunted hell into which Ali is offered a glimpse in the poem “I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World”. In it, “Only the wind… has lived here, in awed fright of boots, of soldiers…Already it is night? Or light? Here one cannot tell.” Paradoxically, this haunted hell is actually the shrine-island of Kashmir in Ali’s vision where he goes to visit his dead mother but there is nothing sacred anymore, history is not sacrosanct or left untouched, the distorted reality is reflective of the fact that all is water and subject to change. This is clear in his evocation of the past, “O water. The old conquerors left, the new conquerors arrived.” Like Coleridge’s pleasure dome in Xanadu, Keats’ forlorn world of imagination where his nightingale takes him, Ali’s night and light world of Kashmir is a romanticized abstraction of reality, an imagined ideal where return is possible only through the act of writing but where he can never actually return: “to be rowed forever is the last afterlife.” It falls apart when cross-examined and juxtaposed with other narratives that, for instance, which the slain Eqbal Ahmed would provide. As shahid, he is both the witness and a martyr to the changing currents of history, erasing and erased, participating and perceiving.
In the eleven parts of the Eleven Stars Over Andalusia, a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, Granada becomes an allegory for Kashmir in Ali’s rendition of the poems in the collection Rooms Are Never Finished. For Ali, Kashmir gradually becomes like Granada of the poem, “made of gold”, an act of memory that is a “law unto herself”: “it befits her to be whatever she wants to be: nostalgia for anything long past or which will pass.” These poems help us understand, perhaps, the poetic shift in Ali’s poetry much more than any other work; here Ali is aware of the act of writing as a wish to evoke the past but it is a death wish because the past is not a fixed image, “a world that is no longer my world.” In the very act of his exodus from this world and his estrangement from it, he has rendered it into an intangible dream and in the act of rewriting, he is a “stranger who sees the unseen more clearly than a reality that is no longer real.”
Ali is acutely conscious of the fact that in the ‘postcards’ that he used to create, the past became “weightless”, insubstantial and immaterial when confronted with the present. Ali’s translation of a poem from Faiz Ahmed Faiz in the aforementioned collection, called Memory, encapsulates the poet’s gradual awareness that history, like a poem, offers a fictional narrative – it takes one to a country without a post office and, therefore, the wish to return is impossible. This narrative is “desolation’s desert”, and though Ali finds himself with only shadows, he still comes to understand that in this act of translating and rewriting, in creating an inter-textual web and network of allusions, he can criss-cross through the multiple narratives of history. He abandons the desire for circumnavigation because there is “no road anywhere for my journey” and the wish to return to the past is a mere “howling for a golden time.” A road would imply a clear linearity in terms of movement but as Ali comes to realize that his country, his history and his identity are like palimpsests, narratives with layers, there is also a realization that there is no past to go back to, it is irretrievably lost. Yet, in its impossibility it makes it possible to embark on that journey.
From being “out of focus…black and white, still undeveloped”, Ali’s poetry emerges as being consciously “emptied of its eternity,” seeking disruption in the continuum as he is “no longer untouched.” The dream world of memory “is a beautiful place, but to exist here is so lonely,” writes Ali. Therefore, he becomes a voyager, moving between “sad countries” and acknowledging that history is not just his own, it is shared, a process in which he must participate. He is in exile from his land as well as part of the community which undertook exodus.
It is important to note here the cessation of a circularity of movement and the awareness of the impossibility of such a movement due to dislocation from the past, due to displacement, exodus, exile and estrangement. The poetic form begins to take shape as a cognitive apparatus rather than a cultural exercise to understand the past; history is layered – it is particular as well as universal, it is singular as well as collective. In the poem “Snowmen”, the real burden of the heirloom that he has inherited from the past is not the skeleton that has passed under his skin from his ancestors, it is the promise that he has made “to ride into spring on their melting shoulders.” Hence, history cannot be left “untouched” or “perfect” because, as Ali realizes, history is in the making in his very act of writing: it is not an heirloom or a skeleton under his skin but, as Jawaharlal Nehru put in The Discovery of India, an “ancient palimpsest” much like the complex, multi-layered and multidimensional structure of poetry.
Ali, then, is the “Adam of the two Edens, I who lost paradise twice” in the poem “There is a sky beyond the sky for me.” This is an evocation of the fact that human history is riddled with loss and that each and every human being is dislocated from their paradisiacal origins. As the angel of rains and rivers in the poem “Things”, he is like Benjamin’s angel of history who looks at the debris of the past and understands the true import of the loss in that it is through mourning and not memory that he can truly connect with that past. It is in the acknowledgement of his loss that he is afforded a connection, however brief, with this world. Hence, Ali comes to understand that the wish to return to the past is a death wish, driven by thanatos in a land where eros is thwarted: “love doesn’t help anyone finally survive”, not even the love for god because “I see desecration, God’s tapestry ripped.” Therefore, neither any institution such as the state nor identity can be made fully comprehensible. History cannot be rendered completely into the present because it has been arrived at through exclusions. “Who am I after this exodus?” questions Ali, echoing the question of each and every human being who has been expunged from historical narratives through displacement and dislocation from their place of birth.
However, there has to be a location or a place to be dislocated or displaced from, a norm from which they are an exception. Ali questions this very place or norm and tries to understand its character because the creation of history is a selective process, an endeavor in narrating the past, and that always happens through erasure and rewriting, through palimpsests, which poetry such as his is. There is no one past to go back to, just as this loss of paradise is not the first for Ali. In “Son et Lumiere at Shalimar Garden”, he writes, “We watch the wind. And unhealed, the centuries pass…splintering the future into wars of succession, the leaves scattered as the wind blows an era into another dynasty’s bloody arms.” Thus history is as one makes of it, a story told by those who wield the pen and a cracked portrait coming into shape on the artist’s canvas. Thus, Ali can bypass years of history and become Adam, Ishmael, the snowmen who crossed the Himalayas, the angel of rains and rivers, the ancient philosopher Averroes, in the realisation that he is a part of the philosophical tradition, the living mosaic of history and just as texts are permeated with cultural codes of reference, an assemblage of one’s learning and experiences, a varied landscape, similarly history or the past too is an assemblage, nuanced, layered, and, in the end, limited.
He writes, for instance, that “in exodus, we remember the lost buttons of our shirts, we forget the crown of our days, we remember the apricot’s sweat, we forget the dance of horses on festival nights.” Thus, history is always an incomplete recapitulation of the past and something will always escape the artist’s gaze and the historian’s pen: our perspectives are limited and, therefore, history, like a poem, is speculative in its composition. But, “there is a sky beyond the sky for my return,” and it is in this hope that Ali strives towards infusing life into a thing that is long gone: hence, “Shahid, when you smile, it seems your mother has returned to life.” This realisation is testimony to the fact that we are never finished with the past, that the rooms are never finished and the task of understanding the past is always ahead of us. Derrida observes that the impossible act of endeavouring to recreate the past provides us with the very impetus to undertake historical investigation. As history is always haunted by specters of the past, complete comprehension is impossible and the dream to arrive at a picture perfect postcard of the past is doomed to disappointment. But in the act of mourning, Ali bears witness to a past that demands that its story be told even though it is irretrievable. In ‘How can I write above the clouds’, there is a euphoric evocation, “So sing of the chivalry of those who ascend, moon by moon, to their death in the Beloved’s alley…Granada is for singing, so sing!”, and so the poet must sing.
The inter-textual references and allusions that we see in his later poetry are reflective of the poet’s attempt to trace the past and unpack the layers in the hope to provide a rubric to understand the present. Daniel Hall in his foreword to The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems writes that Agha Shahid Ali was a “beneficiary of three cultures – Muslim, Hindu and, for a lack of a more precise rubric, Western.” The complex permutations and combinations of these influences are perhaps more evident in his later poetry and become fundamental to Ali’s perception of history. The literary allusions, evocation of the ancient legends and tales (Islamic, Hindu or Christian) and references to contemporary culture and literature not only shape his poetry but also history as he sees it. In fact, history, like his poetry, is understood as an inter-textual web of remembrance, recognition and rewritings. Therefore, the poems cease to be postcards, comfortably fitting into his mailbox, a product of the aesthete’s nostalgia. The rooms remain unfinished as history becomes a series of “cracked portraits” and thus, the desire to write is actually an exercise in re-furbishing those rooms. The “Urdu of Ghalib” and the “Persian of Hafiz” become a “common tongue beyond English”, atheist lands, amethyst lands and the promised land all blend into each other, so much so that the Wailing Wall, the Holy Sepulchre and the Holy Mosque cannot be differentiated from one another in Ali’s “chronicle of loss.” Nothing is safe or sacred from the artist’s gaze because nothing is fixed. The poem bears witness to the changes in the poet just as the poet bears witness to the “trashheap of change” in history. There is no solidity of construction; everything becomes fluid, and every name, Ali writes, has two meanings – just as his name Shahid means witness, it also means martyr – and every act of writing has a much deeper significance.
Therefore, in engaging with his past, there are two currents of movement: “this erasure tilts words toward memory or tilts against your word.” Ali begins his poetic career by tilting towards memories of glass bangles, cracked portraits, dacca gauzes, Begum Akhtar, Faiz Ahmed Faiz – hence, a past neatly fitted into a postcard. But in the poem “A Wrong Turn” in The Half-Inch Himalayas, we are already led to anticipate a shift to a country whose “name is erased from maps, no road signs to it”, a gradual awakening to the fact that this wish to neatly gather together is doomed to disappointment. Thus, he takes recourse to tilting against the word because when there is no God, there is no word to adhere to – hence, the suspension of laws and rights, the dissolution of the state, the loss of lives and identity. History ceases to be a sentimental re-visitation of the past through memory and myth making. There is no wish to seek to live forever but a need for radical discontinuity, and Ali asks, “Shahid, will a hurricane ever be named after you?” as he bids farewell to the “museum-people” of memory and Apollo becomes just another “heartbreaking Greek in marble.”
Ali writes, “in vain time turns to let me salvage my past from a moment that gives birth to my exile,” and it is in the confluence of these currents that history is formed. For Ali, the conflict in the political scenario finds resonance in the act of writing where “one wants certainty, not in art…but, why, in life.” If history dislocates, literature attempts to relocate; if the past is a narrative, then philosophy attempts to deconstruct that narrative; if religion is no comfort, then poetry offers a redemptive grace. Thus, Ali no longer looks back; he becomes a voyager, flitting between many worlds disregarding temporal constraints. As reality lies shattered, the poet understands the fissures and fractures in the past along with the impossibility of return. However, this profound loss is transformed into a redemptive promise through Ali’s poetic vision as he is a part of the tradition to which he can contribute through his individual talent. Hence the final evocation:
The world is full of paper.
Write to me.
Ali, Agha Shahid. “All is water.” Web. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/thales/#H7>.
Ali, Agha Shahid. The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems. Penguin Books, 2009. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. The Postcard from Socrates to Freud and Beyond. The University of Chicago Press, 1987. PDF.
Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. The University of Chicago Press, 1978. Google ebook.
Dooley, Mark, and Liam Kavanagh. The Philosophy of Derrida. Acumen, 2005. Print.
Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. Routledge, 2007. Print.
Coleridge, Samuel T. “Kubla Khan.” Web. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173247>.
Amrapali Saha is a final year postgraduate student of English at the Centre of English Studies, School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.