I try not to say much when I am a little overwhelmed. Agha Shahid Ali overwhelmed me a while ago – when I started to seriously read his collected works. Over the years, I have mentioned him many times here, or quoted his Faiz translations or highlighted writings on him. But when I began to go through his poems, I stopped. At first there was too much grief. The poems on his mother, on Kashmir, on murders in Kashmir. So, I put it aside, as my own griefs were too raw for other griefs to lay nearby.
Many months later, at home, in a different world, I began to read from him. This time, the grief surrendered to smiles and Kashmir dwindled to reveal America.
This essay, which I was reluctant to write, is a bit of revisionist take – on him as a poet of exile, and on the capacity to see past the somberness of his grief to his smiles. There is a lot more I want to say – on his translation of Faiz and Darwish, and his tonal poems and the usage of Shi’a imagery. Some other time.
Hope you like it (the online version has some italics issues and I will post pdf once I get it).
Postcard from Kashmir, The Sunday Guardian, Jan 15, 2011:
In a sense, Hafiz, Ghalib or Faiz (but really, if we are to talk of Ali, we ought to include Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Mahmoud Darwish) have their work enhanced by reams of commentary, of scholarship and of cultural weight. Shahid Ali remembers that he grew up in a household where those names, and their words, were oft recited and fondly remembered. Ali, who died on December 8, 2001, has not attracted that kind of attention yet. By which I mean, specifically, an attention to his contribution to the language of human emotions. Tonight the air is many envelopes/again. Tell her to open them at once/and find hurried notes about my longing/for wings. Tell her to speak, when that hour comes,/simply of the sky. Friend, speak of the sky/when that hour comes. Speak, simply, of the air. Thus concluded the thirteenth, and final, canto of “From Another Desert” — Shahid Ali’s telling of Laila and Majnoon guised in that Poundian structure. Yet what it contains — a rumination on love, on defiance, on the ways in which epic and belief coincide in religion and poetry — makes “From Another Desert” that rarest of creations, a masterpiece, one that Faiz would gladly claim for himself. Certainly that sour Muhammad Iqbal would.