A History of Paisley for Anuradha Dingwaney
by Agha Shahid Ali
Their footsteps formed the paisley when Parvati, angry after a
quarrel, ran away from Shiva. He eventually caught up with her.
To commemorate their reunion, he carved the Jhelum River, as it
moves through the Vale of Kashmir, in the shape 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,
alibi of chronology, that vain
collaborator of time — won’t know that these
are her footprints from the day the world began
when land rushed, from the ocean, toward Kashmir.
And above the rising Himalayas? The air
chainstitched itself till the sky hung its bluest
tapestry. But already — as she ran
away — refugee from her Lord — the ruins
of the sea froze, in glaciers, cast in amber.
And there, in the valley below, the river
beguiled its banks into petrified longing:
(O see, it is still the day the world begins:
and the city rises, holding its remains,
its wooden beams already their own fire’s prophets.)
And you, now touching sky, deaf to her anklets
still echoing in the valley, deaf to men
fleeing from soldiers into dead – end lanes
(Look! Their feet bleed; they leave footprints on the street
which will give up its fabric, at dusk, a carpet) —
you have found — you’ll think — the first teardrop, gem
that was enticed for a Moghul diadem
into design. For you, blind to all defeat
up there in pure sunlight, your gauze of cloud thrown
off your shoulders over the Vale, do not hear
bullets drowning out the bells of her anklets.
This is her relic, but for you the first tear,
drop that you hold as you descend past flowstone,
past dried springs, on the first day of the world.
The street is rolled up, ready for southern ports.
Your ships wait there. What other cargo is yours?
What cables have you sent to tomorrow’s bazaars?
What does that past await: the future unfurled
like flags? news from the last day of the world?
You descend quickly, to a garden – café:
At a table by a bed of tzigane
roses, three men are discussing, between
sips of tea, undiscovered routes on emerald
seas, ships with almonds, with shawls bound for Egypt.
It is dusk. The gauze is torn. A weaver kneels,
gathers falling threads. Soon he will stitch the air.
But what has made you turn? Do you hear her bells?
O, alibi of chronology, in what script
in your ledger will this narrative be lost?
In that café, where they discuss the promise
of the world, her cry returns from its abyss
where it hides, by the river. They don’t hear it.
The city burns; the dusk has darkened to rust
by the roses. They don’t see it. O Trader,
what news will you bring to your ancient market?
I saw her. A city was razed. In its debris
her bells echoed, I turned. They didn’t see me
turn to see her — on the peaks — in rapid flight forever.