by Huma Dar
I met Shahid between noon and one pm, in the Lipman Room of Barrows Hall, almost exactly thirteen years ago, on December 3, 1998. He’d come to recite from The Country Without A Post Office (1997) for the Lunch Poems Reading Series at UC Berkeley. His jokes, tinged with a very particular Kashmiri black humor — irreverent, risqué, ridiculous — mirrored my family’s wacky one. All that heartache about Kashmir, finding not many kindred souls around, found solace in Shahid’s scriptured lament, “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan.”A brigadier says, The boys of Kashmir break so quickly, we make their bodies sing, on the rack, till no song is left to sing.
Like Emily Dickinson, I “softly plucked” Shahid’s butterfly verses with pastel fingers, while a strange summer cloudburst washed my face in a quick wazu. You see, we were labeled “terrorists” even then, pre-9/11! Whenever I’d respond I’m Kashmiri, not Indian, to my Indian-American professors’ and peers’ casual: “So where in India are you from?” in the Computer Science Department at Berkeley, their faces would visibly become pallid, as if they expected me to suddenly lob a grenade at them! That I am born in Pakistan, is of course another story altogether, and sadly doesn’t help decrease the PTQ (Potential Terrorist Quotient)…
Weirdly, uncannily, I felt a deep spontaneous connection to Shahid. I didn’t know then, what I know now: our Dadis [paternal grandmothers] — his, Begum Ali and mine, Shahjahan Begum — were “dupatta-badal” best friends or friends who spontaneously exchanged their scarves as a token of love and intimacy. His father had been my father’s classmate as well as my older uncle’s. His aunt and uncle, Begum Musarrat and Agha Shaukat Ali, were forced into involuntary exile, political prisoners exchanged like toys that children might barter, between Pakistan and India, in 1948, for the release of General Gandhara Singh, the last Dogra governor of Gilgit-Baltistan, along with my aunt and uncle, Begum Birjees and Mr. Abdul Ghani, on the same Indian military plane. These same incredibly brave aunts of ours had also been arrested and imprisoned together for 5-6 weeks at Srinagar and Jammu Jails, and also at the dreaded Bahu Fort, where they’d gone on a hunger-strike — all for the right to self-determination, which continues to be denied to our people. Or that the most dangerous thing we both carry is nothing but our heart. (With our memories and histories a close second.) Or that we both fantasized about doing work on T.E. Lawrence’s adventures in Kashmir!
My father had met Lawrence passing as an exiled “Afghan Prince,” Pir Karam Shah. In early 1930s, Lawrence (accompanied by my grandfather’s first cousin, Chacha Majeed) had come to consult my grandfather, Mirajuddin Ahmad, at his home, then in Gaukadal, for advice on getting a good divorce lawyer. He was married to Akbar Jehan, who post-divorce married Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s first Prime Minister after 1947. The cheque Lawrence gave the lawyer, Maulvi Abdullah, bounced, and the latter never forgave my Abba Jaan, my grandfather, for sending this worthless client his way. Such are the financial habits of empires and their spies!
Three years later, at UC Berkeley, in Jan 2002, the very first reading assignment, for the very first class, I have ever designed and taught, couldn’t have been anything but Shahid’s “Farewell.” In San Francisco, a month earlier, late on December 7, 2001, at a farewell party for some colleagues who worked at Narika, I was asked to say the toast. I recited Shahid. Again, what else but his gorgeous, heartbreaking “Farewell.” The next morning I found out that Shahid had died that night. While I was reciting (reviving?) him. I wondered – irrationally, I concede – if I should have recited his “Someone wants me to live,” or “In the exodus I love you more.”My heart alone is heavy, so let it remain here, around your house, barking, howling for a golden time. It alone is my homeland. In the exodus I love you more, I empty my soul of words: I love you more. We depart. Butterflies lead our shadows. In exodus we remember the lost buttons of our shirts, we forget the crown of our days, we remember the apricot’s sweat, we forget the dance of horses on festival nights. In departure we become only the birds’ equals, merciful to our days, grateful for the least. I am content to have the golden dagger that makes my murdered heart dance — kill me then, slowly, so I may say: I love you more than I had said before the exodus. I love you. Nothing hurts me, neither air nor water . . . neither basil in your morning nor iris in your evening, nothing hurts me after this departure.
Might it have kept him alive for one more day? One more hour?
I had bought the The Country Without A Post Office at Shahid’s Berkeley recital. It was rare indeed for me to carry enough cash in those days of poverty-struck foreign-student/single-motherhood. But Fate was smiling that day. I went to talk to him. To tell him I absolutely loved his poems. To tell him he was so familiar. To get his autograph. Shahid asked with curiosity if I was a Kashmiri. I fumbled. Explained the history of exile. Probably got teary-eyed (yes, growing up — heck, even now — my family made fun of my quickness-to-tears). On his face quivered a moist smile, and beneath the title, Shahid wrote:for HUMA whose country this is — Agha Shahid Ali
Five years later, in 2006, carrying that dangerous heart, inherited memories, fragmented histories into the plane cabin, untraceable to the multiple pat-downs, X-Rays, and fingerings through my bags, I stepped on my homeland for the first time. The third grandchild of my grandparents to ever be able to do so in almost six decades. Through teary-eyes (you saw that coming didn’t you?!), I recognized my second cousin, a cousin even whose photograph I’d never seen. From his back. By the way Pa held his hands behind his back. His mother, Sitto Phupho, also called Apa Jan, looked at me with yearning. She protested that she still hadn’t forgiven her cousins (my father and his siblings) for moving away from Gaukadal to Naseem Bagh in 1941, leave alone their continuous present absence post-exile. Now I had come all over again, to love her, to make her laugh, to remind her of her lost playmates, but I too would inevitably leave her with my lol behind in her heart, reproached Apa Jan. How do you respond to such love, such yearning? Apa Jan, too, is gone now; the reproach of lol is all mine.dil hee to hai, na sang-o-KHisht, dard se bhar na aaye kyooN royeN geN ham hazaar baar, koyee hameN rulaaye kyooN
At every strokeable, knowable, ownable street corner, every caressable curve of land, river, and cloud, I felt the inescapable wrenching at my core, of uncountable umbilici, placentas, bones, sweat, and blood buried and mixed in Kashmir’s earth … the ancestors’ umbilici buried in Ismail Manzil, a building named after Ismail Dar, now long gone and built over, near the Dal Gate, opposite the old Secretariat, Gaukadal (known as part of the Gaza Strip of Kashmir); those in my grandmother’s Mir family qabristan in Batamaloo (a place where the eight-year-old Sameer Rah was martyred by Indian Occupation Forces (IOF) in 2010, with chewing gum still tucked in his sweet mouth); the remains of Abba Jaan, sadly buried sans tombstone, sans frequent Fatiha, lonely in a garden of one of his houses in Naseem Bagh, now used as a ludicrously over-painted, over-accessorized residence of the (Indian Occupation Appointed) Vice Chancellor of Kashmir University and his staff [can’t we turn it into a women’s hostel for those who’ve suffered most during the Indian occupation?]; my grandmother, Apa Jaan’s sweat and blood raising nine children, sending them all to college (perhaps especially all the girls), even after Abba Jaan’s paralysis; and most of all, the million cruelties – quotidian and extraordinary – that my compatriots continue to suffer in our struggle for freedom all called out, viscerally, palpably. Yet it is Ali’s dedication and some never-met friends’ poems that act as tangible, chewable passports to my lovingly-imagined homeland.
Ghalib writes:sab kahaaN, kuchh laalaa-o gul meN numaayaaN ho gayeeN KHaak meN kya surateN hoNgi keh pinhaaN ho gayeeN
Shahid translates this as:Not all, only a few – disguised as tulips, as roses – return from ashes. What possibilities has the earth forever covered, what faces?
The time has come. The genocide in Kashmir is not over yet, but the land fertilized by the blood of innumerable, amaranthine martyrs is blossoming bouquets of tulips and roses in quick succession. New possibilities of spring, of poetry, of Azadi, of freedom, of peace are here, and they are unstanchable. I wish you were here, Shahid: Beloved, Witness, and perhaps with the slip of tongue, even Shahd, or Honey.
Note: My thanks to a young friend, Mudasir Peer, who last night insisted all the way (and yet always so close by) in Srinagar, that I write a few lines about Shahid’s poetry. Thanks for allowing me to miss Shahid all night; mourn the decade since he left, on the night he left; and celebrate his life. Always. My apologies that this exceeds the word-limit. The process of nauhagaree is such that once you start lamenting, pains you didn’t know were connected adamantly claim their bonds.
P.S: This one’s for you, Daddy!