by Hena Ahmad
Agha Shahid Ali was a poet, an Indian – American, a Kashmiri – American, an “all – American Shiite” (as he sometimes said), and above all, a true global citizen. He died on December 8, 2001 at the age of 52 just before reaching the pinnacle of his career as a poet, a career cut cruelly short by brain cancer. Critically acclaimed by the world of poetry both in America and internationally, author Amitav Ghosh said of Shahid: “He was perhaps the greatest South Asian poet ever to write in English.”
Here, in the foreword to this volume dedicated to my brother a decade after his death, I want to share some thoughts and memories of Shahid’s upbringing and how it contributed to his sense of idealism, hope, and pluralism. I hope to show how boyhood influences shaped his views and his compassionate response to people’s suffering everywhere, but especially in Kashmir, and how Shahid brought all this to bear in his poetry.
Shahid was born on February 4, 1949 in New Delhi, India and started writing poetry at age 9. It did not seem extraordinary at the time but more that he was somehow different, just as our home was different. Our parents — a Shia father who quoted Aristotle and Plato, and a Sunni mother who encouraged in Shahid a love for the Bharata Natyam and the sitar — enabled the eclecticism in Shahid’s poetry. In our home, the prevalent ideology was defined in part by the beliefs of our father, who was influenced by both Marx and Gandhi, and in part by the particular Indian Islamic culture our mother brought from Lucknow, as when she spoke and sang to us of the Indian monsoon and the romance woven around it in folk songs.
Along with our mother’s own quiet adherence to Islam and Islamic culture, we experienced a secular freedom from ritual and enjoyed the pageantry of religious experience from an aesthetic perspective. Islam was recognized and celebrated in our home but not practiced in any ritualistic way, and iconic representations of
other religions — Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism — were openly displayed and visibly influential on Shahid. Adorning his room were portraits of Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) and Jesus Christ (a framed print of Gabriel Max’s 1874 lithograph Jesus Christus); a mini – chapel with rosaries and medals; and a temple to Shiva and Parvati.
The wide – ranging influences on Shahid’s poetry — from Mirza Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz to T. S. Eliot and James Merrill, from Indian to Western classical music, from Begum Akhtar to Beethoven — reflect an education and a home that immersed him in English and Urdu poetry. For example, “A Secular Comedy” and “The Nature of Temporal Order” in Shahid’s Rooms are Never Finished echo Paradise Lost. Shahid’s early formative experience is defined by a home where our parents and grandparents quoted Shakespeare, Ghalib, and Persian poets, and where contemporary Urdu poets were invited to gatherings at which they recited their verses.
Having published two chapbooks, Bone – Sculpture (1972) and In Memory of Begum Akhtar (1975), Shahid established a reputation in the early 1970s as an expert on modern poetry while a lecturer at Hindu College at the University of Delhi. He left the university at the height of the state of emergency imposed by then – Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for Penn State University to obtain a Ph.D. in English. At Penn State, where he spent, according to Shahid, perhaps some of his best years, he devoted equal time to studying and socializing, inviting friends to his house and becoming renowned immediately for his Kashmiri cuisine. In America, he published h is first full – length collection of poetry, The Half – Inch Himalayas, and a third chapbook, A Walk Through the Yellow Pages, both in 1987. The Half – Inch Himalayas is now taught in universities widely, as indeed are his other works, notably A Nostalgist’s Map of America (1991) and The Country Without a Post Office (1997).
For his first fourteen years in America (1976 – 1990), Shahid’s poems, in addition to highlighting human injustice, explore his “exile.” (Shahid used “exile” not because he was forced to leave Kashmir, but, taking artistic liberty, to suggest the intrinsic longing for Kashmir that being away from it — from its mountains, its lakes — evoked in him.) The signature poem in The Half – Inch Himalayas, “Postcard from Kashmir,” highlights his love for his homeland and laments how distance in both space and time inevitably blurs the memory of home. Like in The Half – Inch Himalayas, the poems in A Nostalgist’s Map of America and in The Country Without a Post Office draw on motifs of exile and loss but go beyond to reflect the worsening political situation in Kashmir after 1989.
Human injustice and the political factors that are their cause drew Shahid’s passion. In “Eurydice,” the lead poem in A Nostalgist’s Map of America, Shahid places the story of Eurydice in the context of the concentration camp of Bergen – Belsen in Nazi Germany. We see his political awareness and its implication for the human condition, again, in “Keeper of the Dead Hotel,” about the execution of striking copper miners in Bisbee, Arizona in 1917. His early poems, too, deal with grief and loss as, for example, we find in In Memory of Begum Akhtar (1975), which eulogizes and laments the death of the most celebrated semi – classical singer in India. However, it was the heartbreak that the political situation in Kashmir brought him that inspired a whole collection, The Country Without A Post Office.
In 1997, the year The Country Without A Post Office was published, our mother lost her battle with brain cancer. Shahid’s grief for our mother overshadowed his sorrow for Kashmir. His next collection, Rooms Are Never Finished (2002), a finalist for the National Book Award, laments both our mother and Kashmir. His work, as it went deeper into his grief, particularly for our mother, simultaneously took on the world. Our mother, for Shahid, became mythic, anchored in history; he wove both Kashmir and her into religious history in the book.
Though Shahid was deeply saddened by the traumatic events in Kashmir throughout the 1990s until his death, and although the theme of longing was predominant in his writing, I don’t want to suggest that it was to the exclusion of a zest for life in Shahid, a zest that drew on multiple cross – cultural resources and speaks to his pluralism. The late poet Anthony Hecht wrote that Shahid had this incredible “range of feelings available to very few,” and clearly attributes it to his ability to navigate his entire cultural heritage.
Shahid once said: “My poetry has all along revealed a triple heritage . . . Hindu, Muslim, and Western.” Nevertheless, the cultural pluralism that encompasses his artistic oeuvre clearly derives not only from an upbringing with visibly imbricated Hindu, Muslim, and Western influences, but from a plurality constitutive of, among a myriad of others, secularism, Christianity, Bollywood, Hollywood, Stravinsky, Begum Akhtar, and Billie Holliday — in short, the music of the spheres.
While his poetry continues to be taught in college classes, Shahid’s lasting impact might very well rest on his contribution to the rejuvenating of the ghazal — a lyrical poem meant to be recited or sung, written in rhyming couplets — as a poetic form in English. Shahid is the first poet to have written an entire book, Call Me Ishmael Tonight (2003), of true ghazals in English — that is, ghazals which obey the strict rules of rhyme and refrain. Moreover, an anthology of ghazals, Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (2000), edited by Shahid, underscores unequivocally the significant contribution he has made to poetry in English by inviting American poets to write ghazals in English, bringing the cadences of the Urdu ghazal into English. For this we cannot praise him enough.