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Agha Shahid Ali (February 4, 1949-December 8, 2001)

Pack Up the Moon and Dismantle the Sun

by VIJAY PRASHAD

They left me clutching
islands of farewells.

— Agha Shahid Ali, The Country Without a Post Office, 1997.

My friend was like an imp – mischief drew his smile, as did Beauty. Poetry was his métier, not only his own art of rearranging words, but also the magic made by others. I met him at a recitation, in full flight, a glass of wine in his hands, bold, dazzling,

“Ahead is a year of brilliant water –
there’s nothing in this world but hope: I have
everyone’s address. Everyone will write:
And there’s everything in this world but hope.”

He teased the audience, dared them to categorize him. Here he was. Standing before them. Unfazed. Calling out his own name, Shahid, alternatively The Beloved (in Persian) and Witness (in Arabic). He was both.

Shahid came to the United States from Kashmir. His land coursed through his veins. India and Pakistan treat the land as disputed territory; there is nothing disputed about it to the people who walk in its valley, along its rivers, near its high peaks. There was nothing unclear about Kashmir for Shahid. He loved his land without controversy. It was always in the poems. In the early work it was either alluded to or written about with personal longing (as in The Half-Inch Himalayas, 1987). Later, in The Country Without a Post Office (1997) and in the posthumous collection Rooms are Never Finished (2002), Shahid was ready to haul up the present. It had not attained the required standard. The indictment against the humiliation of bare life in contemporary Kashmir is engraved in these later poems,

“From Zero Bridge
a shadow chased by searchlights is running
away to find its body. On the edge
of the Cantonment, where Gupkar Road ends,
it shrinks almost into nothing, is

nothing by Interrogation gates
so it can slip, unseen, into the cells:
Drippings from a suspended burning tire
are falling on the back of a prisoner,
the naked boy screaming, ‘I know nothing.’”

I have read so many books on Kashmir, trying to wrap my head around a place that I loved at each visit. In recent years, the most frequent books seem to read like human rights dossiers, cataloguing atrocities one after another (for example, Everyone Lives in Fear: Patterns of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir, Human Rights Watch, September 2006). One more name of an innocent, another set of bones broken: the length of the lists produces a kind of numbness, not precise outrage. I have the new Verso collection on Kashmir (with essays by Angana Chatterji, Arundhati Roy, Hilal Bhatt, Pankaj Mishra and Tariq Ali). Chatterji, as the co-convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice, provides just such a listing to capture Kashmir as a “landscape of internment.” The obligation of such memory is made clear by an old gravedigger, Mohammad Atta, who has buried too many bodies in unmarked graves. “I have tried to remember all this, the sound of the earth as I covered the graves, bodies and faces that were mutilated, mothers who would never find their sons. My memory is an obligation.”

I have read books that produce the inner life of Kashmir, a land now broken into two (two third in India, one third in Pakistan), and then broken into a million pieces by military encampments whose own logic of Order goes against the social ecology of everyday life. “They will not have destroyed everything,” Shahid sings, “till the ruins, too, are destroyed.” Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night (2008) is a harrowing portrait of the writer as a Kashmiri. “Stories! There are no good stories in Kashmir,” writes Peer. “There are only difficult, ambiguous, and unresolved stories.” Four million people live in the Kashmir Valley; the Indian Army has about half a million of its troops in the Valley. The mathematics is astounding. No wonder that it is hard to find “good stories in Kashmir.” Everyday seems to bring something worse, more unmarked graves, more flagrant use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Shahid has a dream. He walks into his grandmother’s house, now garrisoned by the Indian army.

“The colonel, dictating, turns around. 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 nation. Or razes cities.”

Shahid found his own political voice through his engagement with the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and with the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, both of whom he translated into English (the book on Faiz is The Rebel’s Silhouette and the poems by Darwish are in Part 3 of Rooms). When he was working on Faiz, he wrote to me, “I just finished this – a real tough one!” But the finished product was superb, close to the original in spirit but a true translation from the rhythms of Urdu into the rhythms of English. Faiz’s most well-regarded and known poem Mujh se pehli si mohabbat flies off the page as “Don’t Ask Me for that Love Again,”

“But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love.
The rich had cast their spell on history:
dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks.
Bitter threads began to unravel before me
as I went into alleys and in open markets
saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.
I saw them sold and bought, again and again.
This too deserves attention. I can’t help but look back
when I return from those alleys – what should one do?
And you still are so ravishing – what should I do?
There are other sorrows in this world,
comforts other than love.
Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.”

Faiz, Shahid understood, took the figure of the Beloved from the traditions of Urdu poetry and transposed it with Revolution. Love is central, the oxygen of human life, but so too are other commitments, other desires.

“Every headline reads, PARADISE ON EARTH BECOMES HELL,” writes Shahid as he reflects on the summers that followed 1987 (the recent history of Kashmir is well-recounted by Tariq Ali in the Verso book). But what of Kashmir? Must it remain in this stasis – a political football, kicked between Islamabad and New Delhi, with cynical politicians using its terrors and traumas to their own enfeebled ends? A veteran U. S. diplomat, Howard Schaffer throws in a book on Kashmir sanctioned by Brookings (The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir). “Quiet diplomacy is required,” he writes. This is naïve. It suggests that the United States has neutral interests here, derived largely from concern for the Kashmiri people. There are other games being played here, with Washington unfazed by the Indian troops and atrocities on the one hand, and by the Pakistan-backed insurgents on the other hand. India’s market and Pakistan’s army are far more important for Washington’s interests than “freedom’s terrible thirst,” as Shahid put it.

In 1907, the French (socialist then Catholic) poet Charles Péguy, wrote that “the modern world has succeeded in debasing what is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world to debase, because this thing has in it, as if in its very texture, a particular kind of dignity, a singular incapacity to be debased: it debases death.” Kashmir’s existence is a kind of debased death. “Words are nothing, just rumors – like roses – to embellish a slaughter,” wrote Shahid in a villanelle that worked his imagination and skill. But the poet’s words are also a talisman against forgetting, against the anti-septic bureaucrat’s history. Shahid stepped away from his world in Northampton, MA. ten years ago. His poems remain, alert to joy and suffering, nostalgia and anticipation.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu