A tribute to Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali on his 10th death anniversary.

Missing me one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you. Walt Whitman

The 10th death anniversary of the extremely talented Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali (February 4, 1949 – December 8, 2001) again draws us to his poetry. Shahid's name – the Persian “beloved” and the Arabic “witness” – is a signature of what adorned both, his life and craft. It is incredible to know how much Shahid was loved and how much he loved in return.

His poems exude the saffron of feelings, like the shaded yellow leaves of dusk. Friends, lovers, martyrs and a suffering mother overwhelm his poetry. Their voices add to his voice. Shahid is an embroiderer of language. It isn't easy to catch him or let go as he invites you to unravel his deepest and most intricate feelings and concerns.

Need to be heard

Shahid evokes a mythical language of history, where he creates an urgent need to be heard against eras of loss. Like in the beginning of this beautiful poem, ‘A History of Paisley': You who will find the dark fossils of paisleys/one afternoon on the peaks of Zabarvan –/Trader from an ancient market of the future,/. . . won't know that these/are her footprints from the day the world began/when land rushed from the ocean, toward Kashmir.

Shahid's Kashmir is a place looking for its future in the reclamation of its many pasts. In a poem dedicated to his friend Suvir Kaul, Shahid writes: We'll go past our ancestors, up the staircase,/Holding their wills against our hearts. Their wish/Was we return – forever – and inherit...

Inherit what? The glass map of our country, says Shahid. But this country cannot be inherited without hands blossoming into fists/till the soldiers return the keys/and disappear. The soldiers must leave first, before the country can be painfully stitched back to recognition and the birds of childhood will find voice and the nameless graves will stir with names.

Shahid's Kashmir, which he calls an imaginary homeland, echoing Salman Rushdie's India, is nevertheless not a name attached to the idea of a nation. The word nation goes interestingly unmentioned in Nehru's The Discovery of India, where he called India “a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision”. This appears significant today as the nation has not allowed India to dream generously and the idea of India has degenerated. The line of control has controlled India's vision since Independence. We have to go back in time and hear how Kashmir and India spoke to each other. India should abandon the West's language of nationalism. India should refuse to be among the “Rest” of the West's imagination.

As Shahid asks in a poem: Will the middle class give up its white devotion? Just as Shahid learnt of Kashmir through the poetry of Lal Ded and the rishi Sheikh Noor-ud-Din, the idea of India needs to be revisited through Arab and Chinese travellers of the past, through Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim mystics, through Kabir, Bulleh Shah, Khusrau and Dara Shikoh. On lines drawn over a map of glass, looking for his other in the darkness of history, Shahid discovers the emblem of clarity: I must force silence to be a mirrorto see his voice, ask it again for directions.

Shahid, blind from the start, waits to ask his beloved adversary for directions. In his endearing letter of complaint to his other, the Hindus, Shahid mourns the severing event of their exodus. He is pessimistic about the possibilities of rapprochement:  There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me. Shahid seems to suggest, if the other, driven by fondness (philia) and not reason, is willing to forgive, then there lies a long, shared history worth forgiving for.

Fate of Kashmir

As a poet of Kashmir's struggle for dignity, Shahid paid his tributes and condolences to its martyrs and upheld their innocence. He attested fortune's shame on the death of 18-year-old Rizwan. But even as Shahid was tormented by the fate of Kashmiri boys whose bodies were broken till they could sing no more, he asserted a lyrical, Brechtian resilience: Freedom's terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,/is bringing love to its tormented glass./Strangers who will inherit this last night/of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?

Looking for Shahid you find yourself hearing a “witness” who dreams against the paranoia of borders. Looking for Shahid you find yourself marooned in the wailing of Paradise. Looking for Shahid you find a “beloved” hiding and seeking, veiling and unveiling, telling his lover amidst the fog: when you divide what remains of this night/it will be like a prophet once parted the sea.

Shahid, the playfully deceptive non-believer like Ghalib, once wrote in a ghazal: I (who) believe in prayer but could never in God. Elsewhere he countered Nietzsche, asking: When even god is dead, what is left but prayer?

Shahid seems to suggest, even an atheist is bound to a relationship of affect with this world. This relation can make an ethical demand on him in the heart of a despairing, Kafkan moment – to pray in god's absence, to pray without hope, but pray nevertheless, as an unfathomable, mad duty towards the other. Shahid waits for us at the other end of that prayer.

Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet and scholar living in Delhi.