You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. ―Franz Kafka
East Wall of My Living Room
From the top down is a magnificent square Jamawar shawl, circa 1870s, clipped to a dowel. I bought it about 40 years ago, when I still had petty cash, from a shop with a big sign board, “Shawl King, Lambert Lane, Srinagar, Kashmir” where I was born a Scorpio at Midnight. The shawl has the history of Kashmir woven into it, and more about that later.
Centered below the shawl is a large bright painting, oil on canvas. It’s titled “Vegetable Jewelry,” by Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, an Iranian living in Paris, the first Muslim or non-Western artist to achieve notoriety contemporizing the Arabic script, repeating just one alphabet across the width and breadth of the canvas. Imagine the prosperous belly of the English letter S but facing left, wearing a ~ (tilde) as a hat. That’s the Arabic letter ‘Hay or Hey:’ hay hey hay hey . . a sole hay playing its own solitary sonata.
Gracing “Vegetable Jewelry” on either side are small miniature paintings in the Mughal style, hand-painted on ivory, showing Mughal royalty in various romantic scenes inside a royal court, or on the rooftop reclined on serpentine-shaped divans upholstered with velvet, scented and shaded by blooms . . . Sigh!
There are family photos as well on this wall, all black and white. Here’s one of my younger brother Tariq, and myself, 4 and 7 years of age respectively, wearing white wool Pakols, a soft, round-topped Pashtun hat, in Murree, Pakistan in the 1950s. Chubby lads! I am beaming. Tariq has a faint smile. He was the youngest of six who, on his 63rd birthday, went for a swim in the Arabian sea off the coast in Goa. The sea, never known to give up her human bounty, washed his corpse ashore a day later. I miss him.
Aha! the gingerbread soffit of the cottage where we lived in Murree is visible in that photo. I remember, in that cottage my sister read me “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as a bedtime story, sowing a seed that, nearly 70 years later, is still sprouting. Another bedtime story she read out aloud was, Macbeth. Fuhgeddaboudit as they say in Brooklyn. Yet, “The milk of human kindness” has over the years seeped into my DNA.
Here’s another photo: nephew, Irfan, 9 years of age, his chest a sack of bones puffed up, bulls eye roundel strapped as a shield on his right arm, standing attention like a young warrior on the staircase of his home on Elk Avenue in New Rochelle, New York, and 12 years later he was buried in Torkham, a border post between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I eulogized him a few years ago here on 3QD.
My North Wall is a Shrine
A broadside featuring a canzone “Lenox Hill,” composed and signed by Agha Shahid Ali, is the first frame of three on the wall space between two large double hung windows looking out across West 75th street to an early 19th century brownstone with French windows shaded by trees. Agha Shahid Ali was my childhood friend who made a name for himself in the small incestuous circle of American contemporary poetry.
The prologue to “Lenox Hill,” by Ali, is a history lesson in itself:
(In Lenox Hill Hospital, after surgery, my
mother said the sirens sounded like the
elephants of Mihiragula when his men drove
them off cliffs in the Pir Panjal Range.)
Above “Lenox Hill” is a small collage of Ali looking at elephants falling off a cliff, painted by my friend Martha, an extraordinary artist who seeds glass with blooms.
And soaring above the collage is another broadside, “Pastoral” that has inspired a generation of young men and women in Kashmir where nearly a million Indian jackboots lord over 6 million people who are facing an existential threat to their language and culture; Kashmir is the world’s most militarized place. In the opening lines of “Pastoral,” Ali evokes Osip Mandelstam’s poem, “We Shall Meet Again, in Petersburg:”
We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
Ali taught poetry in schools from Massachusetts to Salt Lake City. He showed us how to write with ease in English the difficult ghazal, a medieval Arabic form, following strict metrical rules, a form now a recommended exercise in creative writing workshops. “Lenox Hill” describes Ali’s mothers’ struggle with a brain tumor. Ali himself died of a brain tumor at 49. Look for his grave marker, “Kashmiri-American Poet,” at the Bridge Street Cemetery, Northampton, MA.
South Wall: Conference of the Birds
Above the fireplace, faux painted as marble years ago by the afore mentioned Martha, “Birds of Kirman” drapes the brick wall. I have rechristened it “Conference of the Birds,” after a Persian poem, written c.1177AD, by the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar of Nishapur.
I bought this unique rug in Srinagar, or wall art if you will, from my uncle Amin, an octogenarian, who took several weeks to decide if he wanted to sell it to his own flesh and blood.
Later, Uncle Amin flew to JFK, came to my apartment, slumped into a serpentine sofa facing the fireplace, took his shoes off, rested his tired legs on the cocktail table as I put the kettle on.
“Aha,” he said, “Kirman Birds looks absolutely beautiful the way you have displayed it.”
“Amin chacha,” I said, using the affectionate Urdu term for uncle, “you overcharged me for it.”
“Oh, no,” he said, “6×4 feet silk warp silk weft, so tightly woven with single knots there are 576 knots per square inch. The pattern is as finely visible on the warp as it is on the weft. It’ll take anywhere from 5-7 years to weave a new Kirman Birds, provided the weaver is in the mood to accept the challenge.”
Chacha gazed fondly at pairs of exotic birds facing each other amid the flora. “I’ll buy it back and sell it for twice as much to the first customer waiting in line,” Chacha said. “It’s not for sale,” I said, pouring Darjeeling tea.
South Wall: Cartography
Honestly, I don’t want to wax about the floor to ceiling books arranged horizontally to maximize limited shelving space even though my ceiling is 14 feet high.
Yet, imagine Shakespeare as the plinth of a Corinthian pillar and all the poetry of the western world soaring up a fluted shaft to the cornice where African American-Jamaican literature is sculpted on acanthus leaves growing on a frieze. Now, imagine three more such pillars, one for Urdu poetry with Ghalib as the plinth; the other two support literary fiction; and non-fiction: Kashmir and Palestine — comparative historical struggles against settler colonialism. You get the idea.
In between those Corinthians, I have displayed my antique maps of India. Here’s one, c.1874, in which Kashmir, the Crown of India, is represented as the “Domain of Gholab Singh,” a ruler of Jammu, then an area of the Punjab, north of the river Sutlej, which was part of the Sikh empire.
There was a war in the early 1840s between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company over a coveted piece of land south of the Sutlej and Beas rivers that originate in the Pir Panjal range. The Sikh empire lost the war. The Company demanded compensation of c.$100,000 (1840s dollars), but the war had emptied the treasury of the Sikh empire.
Gholab Singh, who had the money, made a deal with the Company: He would “purchase” Kashmir, an area almost as big as Britain. The Company agreed to sell Kashmir, but further demanded and got “one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female) and three pairs of Cashmere shawls.” It’s all there in the Treaty of Amritsar (1845).
Consequently, Kashmir became part of “Gholab Singh’s Domain” and was renamed Jammu and Kashmir. Gholab Singh’s male heir and his and his and his and his ruled Kashmir as their serfdom for 100 years until 1947 when the British partitioned India on religious lines.
The fleece of goats is still spun into pashmina, literally wool of the pashas, with which the blessed weavers of Kashmir wove her history into the magnificent Jamawar that hones my East wall.