Our beloved witness: Agha Shahid Ali and the homeland he knew

Meeran Karim in Himal Southasian:

One New England fall, I encountered the man who would soon become my guide to the world’s most militarised zone. Safely tucked away on the seventh floor of the Mount Holyoke College library, I found Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s Rooms Are Never Finished. The first poem in the collection took me by surprise. In his poem ‘Lenox Hill’, written while mourning his mother’s death from cancer, Shahid, a Kashmiri Muslim, recalled his mother helping him build a miniature Hindu temple in his room in Srinagar: “and I, one festival, crowned Krishna by you, Kashmir, listening to my flute”. This peaceful image of Kashmir was something which shocked his readers in the West, accustomed to graphic images of communal violence in the region. Ignoring the ‘reserved’ tag on the book’s cover, I secretly put it in my satchel and headed for the dormitory. Seated by my window, which displayed a landscape reminiscent of Kashmir, I sunk into Agha Shahid Ali’s world.

Shahid’s Kashmir was home to both Hindus and Muslims. Even as religious nationalisms plagued British India, Kashmiris remained committed to the ideal of a secular democratic state. In 1944, a memorandum detailing the transition of Kashmir from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democracy was submitted to Prince Maharaja Hari Singh by Sheikh Abdullah, president of Kashmir’s leading political party, the National Conference. Contrary to the All India Muslim League and its exclusivist vision, Naya Kashmir promised to not only protect, but also to empower the valley's religious minorities. It was this very spirit of Kashmiriyat – an expression of camaraderie, resilience and nationalism in spite of religious differences – that I found in the poetry of my loyal guide.

Writing in 1997, the poet reflected upon his and his homeland’s religious identity in ‘A History of Paisley’, featuring the saffron-coloured flower popularly associated with the Hindu deity Ganesh:

You who will find the dark fossils of paisleys
one afternoon on the peaks of Zabarvan —
Trader from an ancient market of the future,
alibi of chronology, that vain
collaborator of time — won't know that these
are her footprints from the day the world began.

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