गुलों में रंग भरे बाद-ए-नौ-बहार चले,
चले भी आओ कि गुलशन का कारोबार चले
– फ़ैज़ अहमद फ़ैज़
Winds of spring make the colours bloom, as it flows
Come O’ beloved, this garden is in need to grow.
India. Bharat. Hindustan. Whatever name you call her, whichever way you look at her, the land has always been a synonym for plurality, a mixture of diverse topographies, soils and people! Having seen the ebb and flow of huge events since the advent of human history, world’s largest democracy, it is diving headlong into the future. Though that has not always been the case. For with people, come complexities. Sometimes for the better and most of the times for the worse. The same has been with India. Here the past of the land is still alive and intertwined with the present, a legacy its natives feel proud upon. This land welcomed anyone who came here with an open heart. But sometimes the people who came not always had the best intentions in their own hearts. Though for some parts better and some parts worse, the land shaped herself into an unique melting pot containing multitudes of cultures, languages and life. Like when the greek mythological temple of Corinth, a shrine for Apollo, was burnt; by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals, a new compound was formed. Corinthian Brass. More precious than any other metals. However, this new compound was not earned without facing the fire. And India, also had her fair share of fires caused by her own and others alike scarring her and leaving cracks all over. But the more it gets dark, the more an urge for light increases and people become this source of light in numerable ways turning themselves and their works into a way of filling up these cracks formed on their home. Even when everyone resisted, especially then.
Taking up the burden of being a bridge that encompasses all gaps, most of the times these people ended up getting persecuted, but their belief never wavered away. But not everyone can become Atlas bearing the weight of heavens. This is also true. Agha Shahid Ali, a descendent of Kashmir, and a poet for all humanity, dedicated his craft towards becoming that gold which fills up the cracks of a fractured past of a shattered pot, turning these cracks into new landscapes into themselves, beautifying the breakage. Shahid understood that cracks can never be hidden, and that our imperfections can lead us to something new. Something better, though that only if we learn from our past and our memories! Shahid joined his memory with the sense of loss he felt and inherited, highlighting the cracks of his own personal and poetic life, becoming a symbol of fragility, strength and beauty. Our flawed understanding of life leads to a cycle of chaos, which can be prevented by recognizing the fact that history exists in a pattern, and time is one perpetual present.
Shahid dares himself to remember what history would love to forget, making his art a resistance against forgetting and turning his poetry into an “archive of remains”. He attempts from his memory to save things that are slowly getting lost, sometimes even deliberately. He had inherited a kaleidoscopic value system and world view. Hindu, Muslim, and Western; three cultures had a hold over his heart and his artistic soul. And he as a poet trying his best to do right by each of these heritages, immortalizing them through his works. He was always ready to surrender himself wholly to his work, mapping all the various languages, cultures, and worlds that he knew of. A true South Asian and a true Cosmopolitan at once! We all are byproducts of everything that has happened before us, in both our internal lives and the external world around us. After spending a brief time in the United States, when Shahid returned to Kashmir for the first time, he found himself being more aware of being the product of a benchmark set up by his ancestors, and the historical forces before him allowing him to assess his own life and homeland in completely different contexts. He was aware of the historical movements, the revolutions, the legends, and the leaders who shaped the world he lived in.
A cherry on top being his learning of T.S.Eliot, making him aware that his poetry cannot be just an overflow of emotion. Thus alluding more to the trickery of language than on raw, organic passion.
“Content is achieved sincerity.
Sincerity achieved through artifice.
Emotions tested by artifice.”
– Agha Shahid Ali;
A Darkly Defense of Dead White Males.
This sincerity and emotion in Shahid’s case, stems from memory. His acknowledgement of his own personal heritage gave him the words for penning down “Cracked Portraits”, examining the painting of his ancestors hung up on the wall of their ancestral home in Kashmir. He remembers his grandfather’s grandfather, Hakim Naki Ali, as a “strange physician” ; “in embroided robes”. A man who must have felt proud on strapping himself up from his boots to a life of an elite taste, a bite out of the feudal society of his times, with “the Koran lying open on a table beside him”, a further allusion to the orthodoxical hold he must have had in religious matters of his times. By deciding to put down his roots in Kashmir, after their own ancestors were exiled from their Aghani lands; Hakim Naki Ali built up a new home for the one’s who came after him. Leaving them plots, “in the family graveyard”.
Shahid’s great-grandfather, Khan Bahadur Aga Syed Hussain, was a renowned officer in the Kashmiri government, proxy controlled by the Britishers. Syed was the first English speaking Muslim of Kashmir, though language not being the only trait that he acquired by being a part of the colonizer’s system. And this disappoints Shahid. For he understood that to speak and fight for those less fortunate than us could be the only healing potion for the wounds that time had left, and continues to do so. Syed being an influential officer never suited Shahid, instead he saw him as “A sahib in breeches”, his hand “firm” when “whipping the horses” “or the servants”. Shahid even takes a jibe at his great-grandfather’s delusional cry of “I am still young”, mirroring the decadence of feudalism in India that was slowly forming a whole alienating ecosystem for the Sahibs of the times. Syed tried to cover up the cracks in his psyche that were slowly forming and gave way to delusion to soothe him, even if a little. A delusion of him still being in hold of the perfect past world of his. The more he fell into his delusions the more poison started spewing out of the cracks of his psyche. Especially in the lives of the people around him, like his own child, Shahid’s grandfather, “A handsome boy”, who was “sauntered toward madness” by the domestical abuses done by a delusional father.
Shahid’s grandfather’s reading and sufi habits had a great impact on Shahid. He vividly remembers Socrates Swirling in his grandfather’s cup, as he mumbled to him about Plato, Napolean, and “Siberian snows” freezing “the French bones” to Shahid. This remembrance of his grandfather also at once strikes at the paradigm shift of thought processes that his grandfather’s era must have gone through. Where the first Ali to arrive in Kashmir was a wanderer, his son a feudal lord; Shahid’s grandfather chose the path of understanding and accepting the aspects of a more liberal world view. Socrates died protecting the freedom of speech, a passion that Shahid’s grandfather shared with the great philosopher. A dedicated mindset towards the absolutism of truth. A trait that Shahid’s grandfather made sure to pass down to his son, Agha Ashraf Ali, Shahid’s father, and a symbol of ambition and perseverance in his life. Shahid’s father knew the Indian and European philosophies alike, especially instilled by a socialist ethos that called fpr equality, justice and individual freedom. These values becoming an integral part of Shahid’s demeanor as well, and of the outlook that he had of the world around him. And rightly so, Shahid recalls his father “holding a tennis racquet”; “ready to score with women”; “brilliance clinging to his shirt”.
Ashraf was a true Gandhian in every sense of the word. Shifting his own political views from Lenin’s revolutionary ideas towards Gandhi’s reformative policies. However, for Shahid, defense was not his style. Always opting to be more radical than passive. Attempting his best to understand the dialectics between history and memory. And as the gaps between different generations of his own family started to present themselves more clearly to him, the portraits of his ancestors started appearing more and more cracked to him. The living and the dead communing for a while. Their “soundless words” now caught in clinging “cobwebs” of time and isolation.
Shahid’s sense of yearning for his beloved Kashmir forms the final grounding in the poem. Him being aware of the rising tensions in Kashmir with every passing year, aches his heart. For he knows that the hope of resurrection of a home is fading as well. Now no one will be lively enough to come from “Kandahar”, “to pitch tents by the Jhelum”. Echo of an eternal longing coming from these portraits which remain “desolate”, haunted by time and the world, “in a creaking corridor”. And Shahid’s work being a necessary gesture, if not of correction, then of belated acknowledgement and recognition.
(to be continued…)
Shashwat is a student in the Postgraduation Department of Patna University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.