Kashmir through the eyes of a poet in exile | Pakistan Today

Kashmir through the eyes of a poet in exile

–Shaista Sirajuddin says Agha Shahid Ali’s poems navigate a language to express pain

–Mirza Waheed says the poet is as relevant now as he was in the past

LAHORE: Agha Shahid Ali’s description of Kashmir encapsulates the various war-torn areas of the world and he appears as someone who is simultaneously inside and outside the frame of Kashmir, esteemed academic Shaista Sirajuddin said on Sunday.

She was speaking at a panel discussion titled “The Country without a Post Office: Kashmir through the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali” held on the concluding day of Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) 2019.

“Shahid’s poetry addresses something which is raw and painful because Kashmir is a wound which is yet to be healed,” she said.

She said that his poetry contains different aspects of Kashmir, ranging from the olive trees and the elegant local culture to images of violence, khaki uniforms and torched villages. “Shahid weaves them together to produce a song in a fashion similar to the weaving of a Kashmiri shawl,” she added.

She also said that another important aspect of his poetry is a haunting presence which is felt when he describes a walk into his ancestral home because all the people who once used to be there, such as the gardener, are no longer there.

“Shahid’s poems navigate a language to express pain and to recognise poetry as poetry and words as words,” she added.

Speaking at the panel discussion, Mirza Waheed, a London-based novelist of Kashmiri origin, talked about his first impression of Shahid. “When I first read Shahid, I was amazed by the voice of someone who spoke directly about things that we had seen in Kashmir,” he said.

He said that Shahid was the closest to what Kashmiris could call a national poet but he had always rejected the label. “He wrote what he wanted to write about and this is why the Kashmiris love him,” he said, adding that Shahid was Kashmir’s finest literary export.

“If one wants to know what really is happening in Kashmir then they should read Shahid’s poems instead of listening to the security establishment,” he said, adding that he was relevant then and is still relevant now.

Responding to a question about Shahid’s influences, he said that while there are Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu influences found in his poetry, the primary influences were Kashmiri.

American poet Christopher Merrill, who had a lasting friendship with Shahid for 20 years, said that ‘The Country without a Post Office’ was a benchmark in his career as a poet because it made him who he was.

“The book is a combination of tragedy in Kashmir and an open challenge to English poets to write ghazal in English,” he said, adding that Shahid’s poetry gave the poets an elastic view of what the English language is capable of.

Pakistani-American poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi said that Shahid’s poetry combined the traditions of Arabic, Urdu and Persian poetry.

“Shahid is a poet of exile and this theme is enlarged in his works,” she said.

She said that Shahid used Kashmir as a metaphor for paradise. “His exile is similar to Adam’s exile from paradise and he creates a lexicon for that,” she said, adding that his description of Kashmir is a microcosm of the larger Islamic tradition and is used to produce something unique and profound.

The panel discussion was moderated by Rachel Cooper who talked about her acquaintance with Shahid and their plan to arrange an English mushaira, which could not be materialised in his life but was held as a memorial ceremony after his early demise.

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