The Veiled Suite by Agha Shahid Ali, published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
Once in a while you come across a book that changes your expectations from literature, endows you with a new sensibility and rediscovers for you the enchantment of words. The Veiled Suite, the anthology of Agha Shahid Ali’s collected poems is one such rare masterpiece.
What does one look for from an anthology of poems by a poet one has only infrequently read? Ideally, ecstasy. That inexplicable sense of joy, wonder and overwhelming emotion you feel when you come across expressions, lines or texts that almost transport you to a different world – a world where words branch out in constellations of meaning that almost illuminate the unexplored recesses of your own heart and clothe you in showers of light. Agha Shahid Ali does that.
Even those even remotely acquainted with Ali’s poetry know that he is a master of melancholy and a miner of nostalgia. This is something that keeps coming back in his early collections such as the Half-Inch Himalayas where we see a typical nostalgic longing for one’s homeland, common to many diasporic authors, but with a rare appreciation of the pluralities that often go missing from the imaginary homelands that migrants conjure, as evident from the following lines on his grandfather where Sufi mystics merge with Napoleon, Plato and Socrates:
Grandfather, a handsome boy
Sauntered towards madness
Into Srinagar’s interior.
In a dim-lit shop he smoked hashish,
Reciting verses of Sufi mystics…
As he grew older, he moved toward Plato
Napoleon on his lips…
In his cup,
Socrates swirled. (56)
The same plurality appears in “The Season of the Plains” where the memory of the Kashmiri speaker’s mother merges him with Thumri singers of Benaras, one Hindu and the other Muslim, and their longing for Krishna:
…the monsoon, when krishna’s
flute is heard on the shores
of the Jamuna. She played old records
of the Banaras thumri singers,
Siddheshwari and Rasoolan, their
voices longing, when the clouds
gather, for that invisible
blue god. (44)
Remarkably such syncretic tapestry is accompanied by monsoon on other occasions as well and the rains provide Ali with the occasions of penning some of his most beautiful lines where nature and psyche find themselves interwoven in glittering synaesthetic craftsmanship that virtually renders the rain alive to your senses:
Malhar longs to stitch the rain,
Wrap you in its notes: you elude
completely. The rain doesn’t speak,
and life once again closes in,
reasserting the earth where the air
Meets in a season of grief. (55)
Rain reappears again in The Country without a Post Office, perhaps Ali’s most celebrated anthology, where it also merges with a remarkable and potent yearning whose very simplicity makes it radically contrast the world of blood, fire and death which constituted the matrix of Kashmir in the nineties: “O, those days of peace when we were all in love and the rain was in our hands wherever we went” (195). Significantly, this ‘we’ in Ali’s poetry is never either a Muslim brotherhood or any singular parochial sect. This is why the fratricidal violence in Kashmir evokes a heart-wrenching cry of lament from Shahid who even imagines himself as Ishamael, a name that embodies within itself those cultural intersections that oppose any singular vision of identity and the violence that it entails:
In the heart’s veiled temple all statues have been smashed
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.
He’s freed some fire from ice, in pity from Heaven:
He’s left open – for God – the doors of Hell tonight.
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee –
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight. (195)
The same inclusive ethics again registers itself, drenched with rain, in Shahid’s tribute to Hans Christian Ostro, a Norwegian hostage killed by militants. Lamenting his demise, Shahid identifies him as the oxymoronic “Blessed Infidel” for whom Kashmir can only conjure a tearful, spectral farewell:
…. And draped in rain
Of the last monsoon-storm
A beggar, ears pressed to that metal-cry
Will keep waiting on a ghost platform
Holding back his tears, waving every train
Good-bye and Good-bye. (237)
However, Shahid’s vision is never restricted within Kashmir. His poetry recurrently moves along a multilocal trajectory where Kashmir merges with such places as Sarajevo, Chechnya or Palestine and weaves a network of solidarity in suffering that even poetically unbalances the existing geopolitical structures of power. This is precisely why he can claim, “By the Hudson lies Kashmir, brought from Palestine” (297) or ironically trace the geography of separation by recalling the movement of River Indus which flows across India and Pakistan without bothering about borders and LoCs:
So what is separation’s geography?
Everything is just that mystery,
everything is this roar that deafens:
this stream has branched off from the Indus
in Little Tibet, just to
find itself where Porus
Miles down, (there it will join the Jhelum)
lost to the Greeks. It will become
in Pakistan, the Indus again. (276)
Significantly, such aesthetic gems are also designed and crafted through Shaid’s recurrent deployment of ghazal form which also highlights the postcolonial dimension of his poetry as he effects a beautiful cross-pollination between his Urdu and Persian literary heritage and the English language. In a post 9/11 world where the air is rife with the rhetoric of civilizational clashes and a politics of xenophobia and jingoism, Shahid’s poetry offers an alternative aesthetic space – a non-local unbounded space, “a map of longings with no limit” where every here opens a window there and thus creates a syncretic, deterritorialized voice that embraces multiplicities. Perhaps the most telling example of this art is an English ghazal on Arabic where he claims:
This much fuss about a language I don’t know? So one day
Perfume from a dress may let you digress in Arabic…
When Lorca dies they left the balconies open and saw
On the sea his qasidas stitched seamless in Arabic…
I too, O Amichai, saw everything just like you did –
In Death. In Hebrew. And (please let me stress) in Arabic.
They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: Listen, listen
It means ‘The Beloved’ in Persian, ‘witness’ in Arabic. (372-73)
Agha Shahid Ali’s poetics thus traverses forms, authors, languages and continents with a seamless interplay between love and loss and as he “move[s] in [his] heart between sad countries”, we too are moved to bear ‘witness’ to his journeys.
– Abin Chakraborty