Shahid in Srinagar: Arif Ayaz Parrey

Guest post by ARIF AYAZ PARREY

Photo by Muhabit-ul-Haq /

I must go back briefly to a place I have loved
to tell you those you will efface I have loved [i]

Exactly ten years after he left us, Aga Shahid Ali returned to his Kashmir. A couple of days earlier, many parts of the valley were blessed with the season’s first snowfall, signalling an end to Harud, the autumn season in Kashmir, and ushering in Wande, the winter. The sky over Srinagar was overcast too, as it has been for the past few days, maybe because this year Moharram has been particularly demanding, with mourners not being allowed to mourn because “the processions might be used by separatists to whip up anti-India sentiments”. The reason for the ban is announced from the same bureaucratic offices which, during the summer, employ the entire state machinery to ensure that people from the plains can climb up the mountains into a cave where Amarnath wants to spend some private time with Parvati so that he can explain to her the mysteries of immortality (Which must include, one would like to presume, the secrets of the longevity of a fragile mountain ecology.) Some like to define this variance in state policy and practice as “secularism”. The connection between the tyranny of Karbala and the present-day Kashmir is firmly established, once again.

“What have you known of loss”, Shahid asks at the beginning of his poem Beyond the Ash Rains, quoting Gilgamesh, “that makes you different from other men?” This is a question which has become central to the identity of generations of Kashmiris who have been witness to collective loss. Which, of course, is not to suggest in any way that loss is not a universal human theme. It very much is (and is one of the reasons why Shahid summons universal appeal). So is the difference between loss and change so subtle that half of human history has been consumed in separating its strandswhere the former is defined as largely enforced, and the later a result of the volition of the affected. We can go further and list two broad categories of loss itself: one, for which nature is responsible, and the other which occurs due to human agency. Shahid concerns himself with both.

But how can a human being, even a poet, respond to the loss for which nature is to be blamed except by lamenting:

 …How dare the moon I want to cry out,
Mother shine so hauntingly out
here when I’ve sentenced it to black waves
inside me? Why has it not perished?
How dare it shine on an earth
from which you have vanished? [ii]

The other loss, however, is a different story altogether. In a way, the whole edifice of justice is built on one simple principle: No human being should suffer losses at the hands of another human being. Therefore it becomes very difficult for a person, community, people, country, civilization to reconcile with the loss suffered at the hands of another person, community, people, country or civilization. It raises existential questions of a most tormenting kind. In that torment lives humanity and its hope.

It is this second kind of loss which Kashmiris have known only too well in the last 600 years, as innumerable attempts, mostly successful, have been made by outsiders to steal, rob and trade their land and its resources, including their labour; and the honour, culture, history and memory of the place; and even the existence of the people as a people. It is this kind of loss to which Shahid returns back again and again in his poetry. Consider the title of the volume which earned him the recognition of his people, The Country Without a Post Office (Some officials of the Indian government had expressed their discomfort at Shahid using the term ‘country’ for Kashmir. Not for him the lily-livered subtleties of cultural academies and sahitya awards), or the two epigraphs at the beginning of the self-addressed letter, Dear Shahid:

No idea, even an idea as close to many Russians as the indivisibility of Russia, can justify a war against a whole people — ELENA BONNER, open letter to Yeltsin on Chechnya.

No human being or group of people has a right to pass a death sentence on a city — CHARLES SIMIC.

or the many occasions in his poetry where he expresses an inability to ask questions of the soldiers so that they may pose those questions to themselves

We can’t ask them: Are you done with the world? [iii]

or chooses not to believe the facts so that ordinary people, Kashmiri even, turned into the robots of the Indian state, pause to examine the incredible outrageousness of their acts

My lost friend Vir! Srinagar is his city, too, he wouldn’t have ordered its burning. It’s not him. Someone else with a smile just as kind, the face of a man who in dreams saves nations. Or razes cities. [iv]

or simply states the facts of life

the monsoons never cross
the mountains into Kashmir. [v]

and death

Death flies in, thin bureaucrat, from the plains. [vi]

and the abnormality of the circumstances

to get news of our death after the world’s. [vii]

The anguish is pervasive, slap-like in its immediacy and force. The cause of the anguish is also unambiguously stated; things need not be the way they are, things could be different had the outsiders, formidable and ruthless, the thin bureaucrat with his idea of indivisibility and the soldiers who dream of saving nations but raze cities, let Kashmiris be. There is nothing natural about a Grand Indian Empire and its self-styled unity in diversity. It is a human idea which cannot justify a war against a whole people. It is a politics.

It was to celebrate this poetry and, more importantly, underline this politics, that some of us had assembled in the conference hall of Hotel Grand Mumtaz, Srinagar, to mark the tenth death anniversary of the beloved Kashmiri-American poet. (Similar events were held in Delhi, London, New York and Singapore.) One way to look at Shahid’s poetry is to imagine that it is structured like the DNA molecule, with his Kashmiri, sub-continental, American and world identities as the four bases which multiply themselves in many permutations and combinations on two strands, one of the self and the other of the Order history, the future and justice. (In this scheme, imagine Kashmir as a complex structure evolving out of varied influences, and imagine the genetic engineering being attempted by the modern Indian state, which wants only the Indian base, that too in a strict modernist constitutionalist sense, to continue while all others are forcibly removed. What will remain of the DNA but a solitary, drab gene not comparable even to that of the simplest unicellular organism the entire history of evolution reversed.) Those of us who spoke about Shahid the person and Shahid the poet at the gathering tried to recognize the base-pairs in this structure.

Parvaiz Bukhari, who was also moderating the evening’s proceedings, spoke first about the relevance of Shahid to Kashmir and about the mastery he had over his craft. He then announced that a recording of Shahid reciting his own poetry, a section of Bell Telephone Hours from the collection A Walk Through the Yellow Pages, was to be played next. It is well known that Shahid had a very sweet voice and mesmerizing style, so the gathering waited eagerly to listen to the recital. But as soon as Shahid’s voice broke out, the electricity went off. It is not clear whether this was the electricity department’s idea of treating Shahid the same way it treats all other Kashmiris (except those who are tortured, and those who help in the torture, for whom there always is ample electricity), or if it was Shahid’s manner of protesting against the enforced darkness of the mornings and evenings here. For the next fifteen minutes or so, “in there, it” was “deliberately dark, so one” could “sigh in peace,” [viii] as Shahid would put it. We lit two candles which, in this long month of Muharram for Kashmir, were the “eyes darkened with laments found on our lost lips” [ix]. The longish power-cut meant that it was not possible to restore Shahid’s voice to the evening. Perhaps it was only right then that it was substituted by a moving recital of A Pastoral by Ather Zia, a US-based Kashmiri anthropologist, and a reading by Parvaiz of the poignant tribute by Dr. Suvir Kaul, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, brilliantly describing what that poem, which is dedicated to him, and the poet, meant to him. The darkness of the hall complemented the greatly non-illuminated matter of Pandit-Muslim relationships in the future Kashmir. Just before Parvaiz handed over the dais to Irfan Hassan, one of Shahid’s closest friends in Srinagar, the hall was again flooded by light.

If Parvaiz had recreated the Kashmiri-Subcontinental base pair in Shahid, Irfan was to reconstruct the Kashmiri-American synapse as he gave a wonderful account of his friendship with Shahid, full of touching details about the experiences in Kashmir and in the US. Ather read another poem, this time her own affecting tribute to Shahid, and suggested that Shahid, spending those fulfilling years in the states, was really more immersed in the tradition and identity of the whole of sub-continent.

This was followed by a marvellous Kashmiri play written and directed by Arshad Mushtaq and wonderfully performed by his duo of actors, which underlined the importance of ‘bearing witness’ (the performance was also a play on the word, and acknowledged the fact that Shahid had grown into his name) and inter-generational transmission of memory. Interestingly, the next generation in the play was not wearing the older generation’s pheran. (We will return to this idea shortly.)

I was scheduled to speak next and, despite myself, managed to state some obvious facts, including the dangers of disengagement of poets from poetry without the anchor of a tradition of reality and its idiom, thereby stumbling upon the Kashmiri-world base pair in Shahid. My unrefined idea about the dignity and self-respect in Aga Shahid Ali’s poetry, and the invincibility it gives to the Kashmiri people in the face of a military occupation, was honed by Usman Ahmed, of Mercy Corps, who proposed that this invincibility be seen not coming from the hardness of a shell but the softness of the heart. He gave a charming account of the lovely time he had spent with Shahid in the US and how ‘Bhaiyya’ came across as a person with a very large heart, always a jovial person, and this aspect of his personality is remembered as much as his poetry. The last speaker of the day was also the youngest; Fahad Shah gave a rousing tribute to Shahid by not only reciting Dear Shahid, but also reading his own tribute to the beloved witness.

The audience was mostly young; the new generation whose second (and sometimes even first) language is English, not Urdu, and not Persian. The primary appeal of English in Kashmir, apart from the hegemonies of globalization, is that it is easily employable as a tool of politics. Kashmiris, historically conscious of the fact that they are weak in comparison to the murderous armies of the plains to the south, have now, with the universal potential of justice globalization can offer, begun to reach out to a larger audience. So, even though Shahid does not have the revolutionary gusto of an Abdul Ahad Azad, or the cheerful Kashmiriness of a Mehjoor, or the clayey taste of a Mehmood Gaami, or the local imagery and metaphor of a Rasool Mir, to name just a few, and so may never be as important to Kashmir as these luminaries, he represents a certain transition in the society whether it is change or loss, it is difficult to determine at this point in time.  Shahid writes to Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Twenty days before your death you finally
wrote, this time from Lahore, that after the sack

Of Beirut you had no address…I
had gone from poem to poem, and found

You once, terribly alone, speaking
to yourself: “Bolt your doors, Sad heart! Put out

the candles, break all cups of wine. No one,
now no one will ever return.” But you

still waited, Faiz, for that God, that Woman,
that Friend, that Revolution, to come

at last. And because you waited,
I listen as you pass with some song,

a memory of musk, the rebel face of hope. [x]

Everyone who spoke about Shahid at the event struggled with the letters, because after the sack of his city, Shahid too has no address. A poet whose grief is so overwhelming that he employs another language to express it is sad, but also transcendental; a people doing the same, a universal tragedy. But still, there is the wait, like Faiz, for that God, that Woman, that Friend, that Revolution. It was with these thoughts that the gathering dissolved, taking the rebel face of hope into the lawn, where a few candles were lit in the vigil of the witness. When enough candles had been burned, the clouds, which had been holding back their tears, broadcast their homage.

What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain? [xi]

Index of poems of Aga Shahid Ali which have provided the lines in the text:

[i] I Have Loved
[ii] From Amherst to Kashmir
[iii] Farewell
[iv] “Some Vision of the World Cashmere”
[v] The season of the plains
[vi] Moharram in Srinagar, 1992
[vii] A Pastoral
[viii] Rooms Are Never Finished
[ix] From Amherst to Kashmir
[x] Homage to Faiz Ahmed Faiz
[xi] Ghazal: Even the rain

(Arif Ayaz Parrey is a writer. He lives in Islamabad/Anantnag.)

From Kafila archives:

See also:

Previously in Kafila by Arif Ayaz Parrey:

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