Agha Shahid Ali and the Poetry of Exile
By Sheikh Shayan Fayaz
In this essay, I analyze three of Agha Shahid Ali’s poems from the collection, The Country Without a Post Office (1997). Through his poems, Ali attempts to fathom a sense of loss regarding his conflict-ridden homeland of Kashmir and fervently explores the literary theme of exile. This endeavour gets intensified by the literal pain of distance, as Ali produced most of these reflections in America, away from his native homeland. Compiled at a time when the Kashmiri military insurgency against the Indian state was ongoing, I will first outline The Country’s context of a tumultuous time in Kashmir during the 90s and how Anglophone Kashmiri writers like Ali himself have reflected upon this period. Then, I will summarize the poems under consideration and show how they are used by Ali to expound on his state of detachment. Lastly, I will explore some contradictions of exile literature, as can be gleaned in the works of Ali: What are the problems of treating exile as a fantasy and a literary motif, which is partly how it was for Ali, a voluntary expatriate in America and certainly how it is for his non-exile readers? Accordingly, why would someone choose exile and a fantasy of home over residence and being rooted in it?
Ali’s poetry can be placed in a tradition of Anglophone Kashmiri fiction writers that have delved into the period of Kashmiri insurgency, through its complicated yet unequivocally traumatic landscape. Considering its significance to this tradition, a brief insight into the insurgency seems imperative. By 1990, what was a dormant movement for self-determination transpired into a full-scale local military uprising against the Indian state. By the end of the decade, the movement gathered force with Pakistani support for armed insurgents. In response, at witness was an ever-imposing Indian union, carrying out a brutal counterinsurgency rife with excesses of power, exemplified by month long curfews in Srinagar during the 90s and the extrajudicial killings that unraveled amidst them, a feature of counterinsurgency that has extended beyond the decade (Hogan 1). At large, the conflict has been most inflicting for the local populace, with the death toll estimated to be at most a lakh by now and the region having become the most militarized zone in the world by 2004. These developments, with a suffocating effect on the locals, have only gone on to cement a ferment of self-determination. Yet, the impassivity of the two stakeholders, India and Pakistan, towards Kashmiri independence, renders it impractical (4).
Despite this, Kashmiri Anglophone writing, among other avenues, has engendered the Kashmiri subjectivity to this conflict. In this paradigm, Mirza Waheed, writer of the Collaborator and Basharat Peer with his memoir, Curfewed Night, have focused on the Insurgency of the 90s and what it has meant for Kashmiris. The Collaborator seems noteworthy to discuss, in which the narrator, a young unnamed man, belongs to a Kashmiri village near the Line of Control (LOC), from where his friends en masse cross over the LOC to Pakistan, to become insurgents. Contrastingly, the narrator stays behind and becomes a collaborator to the Indian Army. Specifically, when the army shells the LOC to kill militants entering into Indian Kashmir, the narrator collects the identity cards and weapons from the field of corpses, to pardon the armed forces of any traces in the killing (Hogan 168). Here, by placing the narrator as an insider to the Indian forces’ workings, the author brings forth a Kashmiri perspective, which is deeply mistrustful of the prior.
The texts of Waheed and Peer, both of whom grew up during the insurgency, have presented to a larger audience what the curfewed nights have been for Kashmiris. At its heart has been an exploration of a local sense of place and its destruction, a memory much too often endangered by grand Indo-Pak narratives, whereby Kashmir merely becomes a strategic standpoint. While the writers discussed above have given a retrospective lens to Kashmiri atrocities, especially predominant during the 90s, what signifies Ali’s poetry is that it was contemporaneous to the insurgency. In this, his longing for home was also a spontaneous poetry of loss, significantly focused on the destruction caused by the Indian counterinsurgency. Moreover, through his poetry, he ignited hope for home by alluding to the sentiment of self-determination permeating large sections of the Kashmiri population.
Let me now move to the three poems by Ali, which are invariably accounts conveying the sorrow of a homeland being destroyed. The first is the “Blessed Word”, in which Ali likens his own fate with Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet, who was sent into internal exile by Stalin’s regime and subsequently died in a prison camp, away from his native city, Petersburg. Ali refers to Mandelstam’s poem from exile, where he finds solace with the hope of meeting an old friend in Petersburg again. Similarly, Ali dreams of being in Srinagar again, with the hope of meeting his old acquaintance, Irfan (1). Moreover, he uses the metaphor of Mandelstam in relation to the tragic fate of his fellow Kashmiris back home. Yet, throughout the poem, he pursues a blessed word, which is the memory of home, which gives warmth to Mandelstam in his exile, which Ali seeks for himself and his fellow Kashmiris in their time of despair. Alas, due to his detachment from home, Ali only sees its glimmers. Thus, he sighs, “The rubble of downtown Srinagar stares at me from the Times.” (2)
This distance vanishes in the second poem, “I see Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight.” Here, from the plains of Delhi, Ali imagines himself being in an emptied Srinagar during the night, wandering through the bridges and roads of his childhood, having the place to himself to get a closer look at the ongoing atrocities. In this imaginary walk through his homeland, Ali encounters the soul of Rizwan, a young boy killed in an army prison and the rest of the poem is a dialogue between the two (11). In the third poem, “A Pastoral”, the poet continues in this spirit of imagining himself in the physical space of homeland. Albeit, this work is about jovial homecoming, whereby Ali returns to a free Kashmir, when “the soldiers return their keys and disappear” (30). In place of Rizwan, this time a bird that was witness to the preceding atrocities guides Ali in a walk through the city, to show how things panned out in the conflict.
Through these poems, we see a recurrent attempt from the poet to preserve a memory of Kashmir in its peaceful serenity. Yet, this is no eulogy of home for his memory keeps getting tarnished by the havoc wreaked upon it. Particularly, Indian soldiers keep featuring as an anticlimax, the destroyer of his fragile homeland. This is typified in the first poem, where the blessed word remains elusive to Kashmiris, who succumb to the fright of Mandelstam’s lonely night. Rather, the armed forces prevail, whose power is compared to hideous “barbers’ hands”, burning entire villages to catch the odd militant (2). They are perceived as the reckless soldiers from the plains in India, stationed at the bunkers in Kashmir with a “license to kill.” In this evocation of dystopia, Ali’s hope of meeting Irfan in Srinagar dwindles, as the place itself is left in ravages. Similarly, while talking to Rizwan in the second poem, they both fantasize of the cold yet beautiful Autumn of Kashmir, when the chinar leaves fall in clusters. Then, Rizwan tells him to cope with his detachment by dreaming of Kashmir every night. In cohesion, they both resonate each other’s love for their homeland. But then, the young boy touches Ali with his cold hands, letting him know how his wandering soul suffers in the cold. No sooner does he romanticize home than its perils re-emerge (11).
Moreover, coming in the way of his fantasy for home is a sense of regret, a betrayal that he charges himself with for not being with his people in their hour of despair. In the speculations of his conflict-ridden homeland, he himself seems to be a latecomer, only there to see the aftereffect of suffering, the vestiges of war. Upon telling Ali of his tribulations, Rizwan ushers him through the city, to inform him of the horrors that have impaired it. He takes him to the sight of a massacre, only left with traces of the victims’ blood. Then, he shows Ali the rest of the desolate city, with only the sound of mothers grieving in their houses. Finally, snow starts falling, which sadly cannot extinguish the neighborhoods, set ablaze by soldiers. Surprisingly, this regret is more visible in the hopeful symphony of The Pastoral. Even in imagining a homecoming to a free Kashmir, the vestiges of the struggle haunt Ali. Here, a bird takes the place of Rizwan, as a witness and informer in the branches, of the surreptitious crimes that unfolded in the poet’s absence. First, the bird guides him to a hidden cemetery of unmarked graves near a search post, with unsettled dust, showing there were killings to the very last. Subsequently, the bird unravels to Ali the most tragic of secrets, a verandah with a drawer containing all letters to Kashmiris in faraway lands, abandoned by the mailman when the post offices of the region were closed. The letters in unison complaint to the detached loved ones, of their abandonment of home when the suffering transpired. They call out to them, asking: “Why aren’t you here… Is history deaf there across the oceans?” (32) Hence, through these hindrances, the poet uncovers a feeling of unrequited love, on the asking end of which is home itself. His absence from home creates an irreconcilable yearning, which cannot even be overcome by a return.
The Contradictions of an intellectual exile
The question raised by Ali’s poetry is at the heart of exile literature in the modern period: does writing about it do justice to the pain of the experience? Both, Edward Said in his Reflections on Exile and John Berger, in And our Faces, refer to the unprecedented scale of human displacement in the modern period. Especially in the 20th Century, the cycles of advanced wars, genocides, national liberations, which have inevitably left in their wake waves of exiles and refugees, point to “a heartless world.” In it, there are many for whom the unspeakable pain of exile is too pronounced and immediate and the supposed glories of exile, insignificant in relation to the prior. Then, there is the majority, the rest of the settled and sedentary world, who only contemplate exile through others’ eyes. I think the place of exile literature, such as Ali’s, in this world, is that it presents a fantasy of exile to the non-exiles. Akin to other fantasies, its danger lies in creating distortions of the real, which is the ineffable pain of exile. Reading Ali, one gets the impression that exile is to be pursued as a literary and aesthetic matter, to channel one’s verse on the geographical locale called homeland. But this merely trivializes the real experience of loss that in the words of Said ‘permanently’ undermines the achievements of exile: literary in the case of Ali (Said 137).
Next, we must deal with the contradiction that inheres the poetry of Ali. The Kashmiri poet is among modern writers, such as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad, who chose to stay away from their native lands, and then pursued their literary endeavor revolving around the motif of exile. If we step outside Ali’s poetry into his professional life in the American academy, we encounter this contradiction; there is the writer who loves home but chooses separation from it. The element of choice is what distinguishes the displacement of the aforementioned authors from the countless poorer immigrants and refugees of the modern world, for whom the agony of exile lay in the lack of a choice about a leave, as well as return.
This is not to underestimate the author’s trials. For John Berger notes, even the most affluent and hopeful émigré feels estrangement upon leaving familiar place (69). Further, in Ali’s case, of a war-torn homeland, the tragedy of exile is epitomized as the perfect return is suddenly rendered impossible. But his absence by choice raises a question crucial to our age of mobility and displacement. Why does the voluntary expatriate persist in longing for native place, when a return, however imperfect, is plausible? Why does he write about home, when the thirst of nostalgia could be quenched through residence in it?
Berger says that home is the center of the world, the point of intersection between the vertical line connecting the sky and the underworld and a horizontal one connecting all the roads of the world (68). In fact, we could call it the center of the universe, the axis mundi, which allows us to contemplate the celestial and journey through the terrestrial, while giving us a place to return to. The point is that home, by nourishing us with tradition and an identity, shields us from the nonbeing and void, which is the universe. To be uprooted in exile inheres precisely this indignity, of falling into the nonbeing. Why would someone choose this, to be separated from one’s axis mundi?
Bounties of Exile
Notwithstanding the pain, some of the positive symptoms of exile, which are noticeable in Ali’s poetry, help us answer this question. The first symptom is a moral one. In “If This is a Man”, Primo Levi warns those “who live safe in your warm houses”, to remember the uprooted, decrepit victims of Nazi concentration camps: “Or may your houses fall apart, May illness impede you” (11). According to me, Levi with this warning resonates Agamben’s verdict of the modern world in Homo Sacer. Agamben says that in modern politics, the sovereign’s function to draw the exception becomes the norm, as the killable bare life/zoe coincides with the political realm (9). In this heartless world, where all life is potentially zoe and anyone can suddenly be rendered a refugee, to be complacently rooted in your homes is delusional. It is to be on the wrong side of history. More importantly, it is to be existentially aloof from all those uprooted around you. In this age, no humanism can complacently persist in a rootedness or belongingness and overlook the exiles’ suffering or claim to know it. Ali knows it and, in his exile, he manages to empathize with the loss of a distant strangers’ exile. Through his tribute to Mandelstam, Ali recovers him from the oblivion where he was placed by Soviet Russia, and I think that is honorable.
The other condition that makes detachment worth pursuing is what Said called the pleasure of exile. For the exile, experiences in the new/ alternative environment occur with a memory of “these things” in the old one (Said 148). Being in exile means activating this two-dimensional, ‘contrapuntal’ vision. In Ali’s poetry, the contrapuntal is exemplified by his imagined walks through the city of Srinagar and his rendezvous with its residents. With a tremor, he imagines Srinagar under curfew, “while the Jhelum flows …sometimes with a dismembered body. On Zero Bridge the jeeps rush by” (3). For solace, he ties “a green thread at Shah Hamdan” (a major shrine of Srinagar) (12). Further, he recollects hearing his gardener’s voice, “the way we did as children” (30).
This is a contemplation especially induced by home’s torments. And Ali’s poetry at large is an attempt to reconstitute home in its peculiarities and erstwhile serenity, to relive Kashmir. As he conveys in the Blessed Word, about his poetic effort to reinvent Srinagar, “filling it, closing it, shutting…myself in it” (1). He didn’t move on from the place; it is vivid, its sights and sounds simultaneously occurring in his state of exile in America. This vision coalesces the exile’s fate with home, heightening its apprehension, just as any lover’s contemplation of the beloved ironically accentuates in separation. And it seems this visceral bond with home, which allows one to take or be at home wherever one goes, can only be induced by detachment, unlike a complacent long residence in it.
With this insight, we could also return to a question left unanswered. Through the second positive symptom of exile, Ali shows that literature of exile is not merely a literary and aesthetic affair. Rather, such literature tries to give words to the lived human experience of home, which in itself transcends language. Hence, for the reader of this literature, it is important to move beyond academic jargon and explore the latter realm of experience.
I have explored exile as a literary motif and as a fantasy by looking at the works of Agha Shahid Ali. While the poems elucidate the prudence of exile, the recurrent devastating interruptions of Ali’s remembrance of home and the overall tragic tone in the poetry confront us with the risk of treating exile as a fantasy, namely a perversion of the exile’s pain and hopelessness. But to the bourgeoisie, seemingly fortified in their warm abodes, I say hold onto the fantasy of exile. In fact, act upon it. Venture away from home, into the alienation all around you and cleanse the trapped soul.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press, 1998.
Ali, Agha Shahid. The Country Without a Post Office. Penguin Random House India, 2013.
Berger, John. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. Vintage Books, 1991.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. Imagining Kashmir: Emplotment and Colonialism. University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: the Nazi assault on Humanity. Touchstone, 1996.
Said, Edward W. Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays. Granta Books, 2001.
Sheikh Shayan Fayaz is a student of art and history at the O P Jindal Global University.
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