Agha Shahid Ali: The Mastermind Behind The Country Without a Post Office

Agha Shahid Ali
Agha Shahid Ali | Copyright © 1990 by Stacey Chase

In this essay Souradeep Roy problematizes the functions to which Agha Shahid Ali is reduced to by different competing cultural and political precepts. The author states that 'the trouble with turning a poet into a spokesperson for any cause is that it is bound to be restrictive in its very attempt. The assertion of his Kashmiri identity is a negation, or at least a muted silencing of other identities. It is true that Agha Shahid Ali is a Kashmiri poet, but there are several other Agha Shahid Alis. Who, then, are the other Agha Shahid Alis?' 

Anirban Bhattacharya, one of the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, charged with sedition and jailed for a fortnight, came back to his campus surprised: “Till now, we heard the word ‘mastermind’ for bomb blasts, cases of terrorism. How can someone arranging a cultural evening be called a mastermind?” he bemused, in a rousing speech he gave at the Administrative Block (now christened Freedom Square) inside the JNU campus.

His curiosity is an important one, and the entire episode in JNU marks a departure from the usual conception of “culture” in popular understanding. The event on the 9th of February – held on the same day Afzal Guru was hanged to death – was called a cultural evening. Indeed, the administration, we learn, called for it to be stopped only when they came to learn that an innocuous cultural evening had something to do with Kashmiri self-determination. The JNU wing of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), brought this to the notice of the administration who cancelled their permission for the cultural event. They claimed that they were “misled” by the organisers. They were not aware that anything political was planned that evening. Why should it be that way anyway, since the poster clearly says “cultural evening”? There is an important assumption in this naivete – the administration believes that the cultural and the political are two separate entities. For such a separation between culture and politics, it is one thing to read a poem on Kashmiri occupation, and quite another thing to raise slogans in favour of Kashmiri self-determination. Interestingly, the ABVP does not owe its allegiance to the BJP but to the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS) – an organization that calls itself a cultural, and not a political, organization. They never run for office in the parliament and are only interested in maintaining Hindu culture. Of course, many have suggested that “Hindu culture” here refers to a very particular Hindu culture – one that is Brahmanical, North Indian, chauvinist and regimented. I will not partake of this debate in detail, but simply point out that the RSS identifies itself as a cultural organization, when they have achieved quite overt political campaigns such as the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus. What the Hindu Right, therefore understood, well before everyone else, is that culture and politics are not two separate, let alone opposing domains, but can influence one another in very powerful ways.

The majority of the Left student groups such as the All India Students’ Federation (AISF) – the student wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI); the All India Students’ Association (AISA) – the student wing of the Communist Party of India Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML); and the Student Federation of India (SFI) – the student wing of the Communist Party of India (CPIM), came out in favour of holding the event only because they were in favour of freedom of speech and expression. Thus, there was a need to distance from the theme of the event. Kashmir, Afzal Guru or Maqbool Bhat – the specifics were ignored and replaced with the broader umbrella of freedom of speech. The implication was this: we will arrive at a decision about Kashmir later, but you can definitely read poems on Kashmir. The cultural, again, is seen as something less dangerous, less political, less provocative. Even though it has a somewhat ambiguous relation with politics (such as taking a “stand” on Kashmir), culture falls more suitably under the umbrella of freedom of speech and expression.

In come the alleged anti-national slogans. Slogans are dangerous. They are of the nature of a demand, worse, an overtly political demand. In this case, the demand is for self-determination from the Indian state. They have a ring, they hold sway over a crowd, they have a rhythm, they are musical. The element of performance in this cultural practice makes them even more dangerous. They have a certain affect that the written word lacks. This is culture that is fiercely political. The majority of the Left felt that this too must fall within freedom of speech and expression, while the ultra-nationalist Hindu Right (ABVP) argued it cannot and protested with slogans of their own – “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. The debate thus veers towards what comes under this supposed freedom of speech and expression. If we are debating what comes under it, it implies that certain kinds of speeches must be left out. What does this mean – there is no absolute freedom. Like everything else, there is a cap to your freedom of speech and expression. Certain kinds of speeches and expressions are permissible, others are not. The Left has a particular calculation for this, the Right has a calculation of another kind, but both are always calculating the scale of this freedom. Kanhaiya Kumar, upon his release, will provide a new scale in Administrative Block aka Freedom Square – “Desh se nahin, desh mein azaadi” (Freedom, not from the nation, but within the nation). Can we, then, please stop fooling ourselves over this great hullabaloo over freedom of speech and expression and accept that there have always been caps to this freedom?

No we cannot. In comes the sedition law – the scales of which were debated to no end. The debate followed two, often overlapping set of arguments – one: the slogans raised do not fall under the provision of this law; and two: that the law itself should be scrapped. The entire debate, then, is a debate around speech. What constitutes speech? Language. What constitutes language? Words. What constitutes the regulation of language? Law. What is the law? Statues, rules. What are statuettes and rules? Words, again. We return to language, we return to words. Words, used in a certain manner, constitute culture as well as politics. One of the foremost social theorists of the twentieth century, Max Weber, understood this. In his lecture “Politics as a Vocation” delivered in 1919, he says:

To an outstanding degree, politics today is in fact conducted in public by means of the      spoken or written word.

He makes this comment with respect to the “significance of the lawyer in Occidental politics”. The lawyer enters the next sentence from the quotation above: “To weigh the effect of the word properly falls within the range of the lawyer’s tasks . . .” The word, then, has to be weighed, the scales of freedom of speech and expression fixed immaculately by an expert called the lawyer. After almost a hundred years since Weber’s assessment, it is no surprise then, that we were flooded with articles regarding the legality of sedition by several lawyers once Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested.

Now that we have recognized that politics and culture form a two-way street, what have we missed out? What have we forgotten in this debate over freedom, speech, expression, sedition, and law? We have forgotten Kashmir, we have forgotten a certain country without a post office. We have forgotten a slightly different use of words – the use of words in poetry, particularly the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali.


Weber would be quite happy that the lawyer has gained mastery of the legal language in this part of the Orient as well. The event in JNU, however, also had an innocuous place for a poet. Indeed, the evening of 9th February in JNU provided an important moment for the meeting of the legal words of calculations, balances and scales, and the poetic word. I’d argue that the latter takes its political force in unpredictable ways, precisely because it escapes all attempts to be brought down to the legal scale of calculations. Poetry too is a kind of “spoken or written word” but it becomes dangerous because it is very different from Weber’s formulation. Unlike the lawyer, the poet does not take centre-stage in politics. The lawyer standing at the centre is an expert at fitting word to other crimes, punishment, guilt, the way chemical substances find a place in the Periodic Table. He cannot understand the poet’s use of language because such language defies the taxonomy of relations. It stupefies the lawyer because of its stubborn reluctance to be pinned to a system of scales.

Let me explain this with a few specific examples with respect to Agha Shahid Ali in the current context. Shahid has, almost always, been evoked as a hero: a Kashmiri American who dared to write of the violence the valley had experienced. One of the responses to constructing such an image of the heroic poet, is a response in building portraits of the poet. The writing, then, is biographical, and because it is celebratory, hagiographical. This writing is necessary, and my position would only reek of condescension if I expected a certain section of readers, especially Kashmiris, to be anything but deliriously in love with Shahid. The novelist, Mirza Waheed, for instance, falls back on his own memories of reading his beloved poet:

For many of us, growing up amid this horror, it was Shahid who shone a light on the         darkness. I remember I had a near visceral reaction when I first read Country... It was akin to listening to someone making sense of my world to me for the first time. I digress into unimportant matters...

In a tone of sarcasm, however, he suggests a way in which the law may perhaps understand why Shahid’s poem may be considered seditious.

Please furnish statistics in neatly laid columns. That will show the poem’s unusual rhyme scheme and narrative structure. The architecture of poetic beauty must be laid bare at a time of nation[alist] crises.

What this architecture of poetic beauty is, however, is not something he discusses. We have some clues: a “rhyme scheme” and a “narrative structure” which is usual. What, then, is a usual rhyme scheme in poetry? Is it any less beautiful?

Waheed is reacting to an RTI application by Kanumuri Manikanta Karthik who wanted to know how many post offices are indeed present in Kashmir. In such a situation, my questions about poetic language may seem irrelevant. But to understand the specific language of poetry, and Shahid’s use of language in particular, they are indispensible. This is because the moment a poet is turned into a hero, we have to pay a price: we have to move away from his use of language, we have to delve into apocrypha, dig out more interesting stories from the life of the poet.

Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu read the title of the poem in the Parliament in the most literal sense.

The heading of the poster says: ‘A country without a post office’. Is India without post office? The entire world is looking towards India under the great leadership of Shri Narendra Modiji today.

It would be unfair to expect Naidu to read the poem, because he does not know the title refers to a poem in the first place. It is what it is: a heading in a poster. The words “A country without a post office” constitute an embarrassing lie, meant to divest India of the investment promised by representatives of 36 countries who have approached Naidu. This seems miraculous. At a time when poets are unread and largely neglected, how can the title of a poem be a threat to investment? Even if it is, did Shahid make any allusions to Shri Narendra Modiji even remotely? This seems unlikely, but what is important here is that a rather literal reading of a few words is conceived as a possible threat to economics. The twitteratti, we were told, had a good time joking about the ignorance of Naidu and Karthik. Whether any poem can be discussed in a serious way within 120 characters is another matter. What do we learn from all of this? Poetry becomes dangerous because its form lends itself to misreading. It becomes dangerous because there is no one correct way to read poetry.

This apprehension over the inability to understand poetry occurs across states, across cultures, across regimes. In the last Almost Island conference held in Delhi in 2014, Kutti Revathi – the Tamil poet and screenplay writer, asked the Spanish poet Raul Zurita how he faced the military on the September 11, 1973 – the day of the military coup which gave Pinochet complete control over Chile. This is Zurita recounting the experience in another interview:

I had a notebook with my poems in it and they thought that they were written in code, which meant some ferocious blows for me. When they were convinced that they were poems, they threw them into the sea. I reconstructed them in my mind. I managed to remember every letter amidst that hell. Later, they made up part of Purgatory, but then I didn’t know that I was going to write a book called Purgatory.

Here again, poetry finds its force in its very guise as something that is not poetry. Poems are misread as secret codes; they become dangerous in the very act of misreading.

But aren’t poems also dangerous even for what they are: as a collective source of memory? Zurita’s collection is an accident – it occurred after he was physically assaulted, upon being misread. Purgatorio then is memory recollected in language. When violence no longer remains physical, it is memorialised in language. The result is a collection of poems: Purgatorio or The Country Without a Post Office. Poetry becomes a testament. However, it is a very specific kind of testament, different from other forms of testaments such as the memoir, or oral testimonies. In his essay, “The Witness of Poetry”, Suvir Kaul makes an important distinction:

A poem is thus not a re-enactment of trauma; rather it can be thought of as a ‘managing’ or ‘working through’ of trauma by articulating elements of it into speech, and thus into public conversation and the record of history. In that, poems do similar psychological work, and serve similar cultural and memorial functions, as do testimonies of those who suffer trauma. The narrative forms of testimonials are important to their meaning and affect too, but since poetry foregrounds form, it seems to work at a greater remove from experience than does any form of testimonial. (emphasis mine)

The poetic archive of memory, then, has to be read differently. It has to be read formally. This is especially true of Shahid, a poet who valued form and language over everything else.


So who is this poet and what is The Country Without a Post Office?

The former is a more difficult question and I will try to arrive at an answer shortly. The latter is his third collection of poems. Apart from the complex themes and subject-matter, it was also praised for its formal rigour and earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The popular discourse around Shahid introduced him in singular ways. The Indian Express and Hindustan Times calls him a Kashmiri poet. Let us read what Shahid thinks of himself as in his interview with Christine Bevenuto:

Writing on the edge may be an unavoidable condition for a poet exploring the borders between cultural and ethnic territories, but Ali seemed unfazed by the complications. “First and foremost I consider myself a poet in the English language,” he maintained. “Then there are the various designations possible.” He offered a long list of hyphenated identities by which he could be known, including Kashmiri-American poet, Indian-American poet, South Asian-American poet, Muslim-American poet. “All of those designations would be true, in one way or the other, and       if they are used in larger ways I don't have an objection to them. But if they're used simply to restrict me, I'm not interested in them.”

The trouble with turning a poet into a spokesperson for any cause is that it is bound to be restrictive in its very attempt. The assertion of his Kashmiri identity is a negation, or at least a muted silencing of other identities. It is true that Agha Shahid Ali is a Kashmiri poet, but there are several other Agha Shahid Alis. Who, then, are the other Agha Shahid Alis?

Agha Shahid Ali
The Half Inch Himalayas (1987)

One such Agha Shahid Ali comes from Delhi – the city of his birth. Several poems from his third collection The Half Inch Himalayas – “A Lost Memory of Delhi”, “A Butcher”, “The Fate of the Astrologer Sitting on the Pavement Outside the Delhi Railway Station”, “I Dreamt It is Afternoon When I Return to Delhi”, “Chandni Chowk, Delhi”, “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi” – the city is an entity that is felt in the immediacy of its street. Unlike Kashmir which is distant, he inhabits Delhi vigorously in his poems. The collection was his MFA thesis that he submitted to the University of Arizona. In the “Abstract” Shahid writes of the persona of the poet in these poems:

“In the streets of Delhi, washed by the monsoons, he explores myth, history, and language.”

Kashmir too is explored through myths, history and language, but the crucial distinction is the street. Delhi is marked by the narrative of the street; Kashmir is marked by its very loss. This is important in order to understand a shift in the overall collection of Shahid’s poems. The Delhi poems are often marked by a narrative. Shahid experiences Delhi as he is walking its streets. His eyes do not miss a single detail. Let us read the meticulous detailing in his portrait of the butcher:

In this lane 

near Jama Masjid, 

where he wraps kilos of meat

in sheets of paper. 

the ink of the news

stains his knuckles. 

The script is wet

in his palms: Urdu,

bloody at his fingertips,

is still fine on his lips, 

the language polished smooth

by knives

on knives. He hacks

the festival goats, throws

their skin to dogs.

I smile and quote

a Ghalib line; he completes

the couplet, smiles, 

quotes a Mir line. I complete

the couplet.

He wraps my kilo of ribs

I give him the money. The change

clutters our moment of courtesy

our phrases snapping  in mid-syllable

Ghalib's ghazal's left unrhymed.

The two line stanza breaks into the single line final stanza, breaking the pattern of the previous stanzas. The single line is also suggesting “This stanza is incomplete”, just as “Ghalib’s ghazal’s (are) left unrhymed”. The incompleteness of the event in real life is represented in the incompleteness of the event in language. For the absent rhyme there is an absent line. Shahid's craft shines through in his use of the line breaks as he is narrating the event. The line breaks bear a resemblance to the precision of William Carlos Williams’ line breaks. Away from the domineering presence of T. S. Eliot, Williams was engaged in localizing poetry, creating a modernist aesthetic that emerged from the American locale.

Similarly, Shahid tells us that the scene is “In this lane/ near Jama Masjid”. The use of “this” instead of say the more generic article “a” makes the poem even more localised: it is about this lane, this very lane in Jama Masjid, not any other lane. The implication: every lane in Jama Masjid is different and a poem from each of these lanes will result in many different poems. There is an insistence on particularity. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, in his essay “The Emperor Has No Clothes” will argue and ask whether “the very nature of poetry” is present in the “poet seek(ing) the particular in the universal” or in the poet who “contemplates the universal in the particular”. He will eventually conclude that a poetry of universals, like the poetry of R Parthasarathy, is sloppy. The Indian modernists such as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Arun Kolatkar will draw heavily from the American tradition of Williams.

But Shahid claimed he was drawn towards Eliot and his thesis will be published T. S. Eliot as Editor. However, as my analysis has shown, one can also trace Williams’ influence in the younger Shahid. But it is this aesthetic that he will later reject in The Country Without a Post Office. This is an aesthetic that he will reject later. I quote the interview with Bevenuto again:

Fidelity to any single aesthetic, and in particular to the William Carlos Williams-inspired minimalism he felt dominated recent American verse, was utterly foreign to Ali's concerns as a poet. Pointing out the celebration of the ecstatic mode in the traditions he grew up with, he said he found Americans overly skittish about excess. "I say, well, you've had Walt Whitman and you've had Emily Dickinson, what's your problem? I find Walt Whitman absolutely excessive, and why not? I think that's great. Why should one write in that minimalist fashion all the time, given the fact that Americans have those examples?"

Shahid turns away from the prosaic to a more sentimental aesthetic. It is an aesthetic that replaces the minimalism of language and dwells in an excess of language. One of the reasons is the influence of the American poet James Merill. There is a shift from the crisp, free verse of this kind to the poems in The Country Without a Post Office. Amitav Ghosh, in his celebrated article on the poet “The Ghat of the Only World” calls his style “bardic”:

His voice was like none I had ever heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward. Not for him, the mock-casual almost-prose of so much contemporary poetry: his was a voice that was not ashamed to speak in a bardic register. I could think of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like: ‘Mad heart, be brave.’

Ghosh probably means a school of courtly poetry that existed in Ireland and some parts of Scotland from the 13th to the middle of 17th century. The bardic poets were trained in versification and wrote in strict rules for the composition of poetry. Ghosh does not just refer to Shahid’s style but also to his absolute commitment to the strict discipline of writing poetry. However, it must also be remembered that this poetic register is a later evolution of his style. In his earlier poems he did write was “almost prose”. He will seldom return to this but there are some poems, those brilliant one line poems in another collection Rooms are Never Finished. Here is a one line poem titled

                        “On Hearing a Lover Not Seen

                        for Twenty Years Has

                        Attempted Suicide”:


                        I suspect it was over me.                   

The is indeed characteristic of the “mock-casual almost-prose of so much contemporary poetry”. The craft, again, is in the skillful use of the line break in the title.

The Country Without a Post Office, then, is a collection different from his earlier ones. The apocryphal image of Shahid obsessed with language, seem to be more lasting than others, but it fits well with the poet who writes this collection. “His awareness of language—its aesthetic, its music—was so powerful that it was impossible not to be affected by it”, says Kamila Shamshie in “Agha Shahid Ali, Teacher”. But this is not some kind of pure aesthetic, an indulgence in art for art’s sake. It is because of a very specific political and historical situation. . In these poems, the Kashmir that he does react to is not the valley that inhabits a physical space in geography. It is a Kashmir that inhabits a linguistic space. Thus, he is often seen alluding to Kashmir as seen by other poets. Most prominent among them is Emily Dickinson. He picks up the references to Kashmir in her poetry and reacts to them with his own. Poems such as “Some Vision of the World Cashmere” and “Lo, A Tint of Cashmere! / Lo, a Rose” fall in this category. The reconstruction of Kashmir as a linguistic artefact occurs in the first poem which is a prologue to the ones which follow. It is “The Blessed Word: A Prologue” – the final words of which are quoted by Ghosh as an example of Shahid’s “bardic register”. In the second part of the poem Shahid lets out a cry:

Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void:

Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire,

Kashmere, Cashemiere, Cushmeer, Cashmiere, Casmir. Or Cauchemar

in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire,

Kasmir, Kerseymere?

The cry is linguistic. It is grief bursting into a linguistic excess. This excess has to be controlled and so comes the strict discipline of form. The poem, Shahid says in the “Notes” provided at the end, “alludes to W. S. Merwin’s translation of Osip Mandelstam’s poem”. We listen to a voice from Kashmir:

When you leave home in the morning, you never know if you’ll return.” “We shall

meet again, in Srinagar,” I want to answer Irfan. But such a promise? I

make it in Mandelstam’s velvet dark, in the black velvet Void.

The lack of a political refuge lets Shahid find a refuge in language. He cannot keep his promise to Irfan. Having being forced to leave Irfan and so he meets Mandelstam. The absence of the actual event of meeting Irfan leads to another kind of meeting in language – a meeting with Mandelstam. Poetry, if we may remember Kaul’s argument, is a working through of trauma. The trauma of this non-event in real life has to be negotiated, and this negotiation is a negotiation in language. Language becomes a refuge. Politics, in short, directly affects language.

The poem by Mandelstam is translated by Merwin as “Listen”. “We shall meet again, in Petersberg” is the epigraph to this poem. Shahid’s own poems are reading these poems. He is reacting to an act of linguistic creation with a linguistic creation of his own. The poem refers to other poems; Kashmir refers to Petersberg; allusions refer to other allusions. “A Butcher” led us to a particular “lane/ near Jama Masjid”; these poems lead us to Dickinson, Merwin, Mandelstam, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Zbigniew Herbert and many other writers. Thus, the difference in style in the description of Delhi and the description of Kashmir is not just a matter of mere style, as I have argued earlier. I’d say that it emerges from a loss – the loss of the street. Shahid cannot inhabit the streets of Kashmir as he can inhabit the streets of Delhi. This results in an intense obsession with language. He seems to compensate for that loss desperately by a complete devotion to language. In his Delhi poems, Shahid is reacting to space; in his Kashmir poems, he is reacting to the loss of space. If Delhi is felt in the streets, Kashmir is imagined as linguistic artefacts. Often, imagination is the only recourse because such a return to normalcy, a return to the shared ideal of shared Kashmiri belonging, is only possible in his poems. In “A Pastoral”, he will write to his friend Suvir Kaul:

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

and disappear.


Shahid’s meeting with Kaul did not take place at the “Villa of Peace”. There cannot be another poem coming out of the duo walking the streets of Kashmir. But on February 9, 015, Shahid, the poet who has inhabited the streets of Delhi, came back to the city with a force that it surprised us all. His tale of the loss of the streets of Kashmir reverberates in the streets of Delhi. But how could it gain such force?

The poems, and the event, forced the streets of the country’s capital to think of the streets of Kashmir. It forced us to imagine soldiers treading the popular pastoral imagination of Kashmir. Thus, it imagined a territory for Kashmir that does not exist. It drew this territory through poetry, not cartography. The RTI query and Naidu’s comments are attempts to see poetry as cartography. The cartography in poetry, if there are any, can only exist as drafts towards the perfect map. This map can never be complete. Naidu is confused because there is no authoritative map to think of. In fact, the distancing away #StandWithJNU movement from Kashmir is an indication that it can talk of freedom in ways that the streets of Delhi will allow. It is the kind of freedom that the Freedom Square allows. Shahid’s poems cannot be located these steps of the Freedom Square. If one has to locate them, one could start with another utterance in language – slogans. Once can find a trace of the poems in the despair, the anguish, the anger, the hope for azaadi. Shahid and the sloganeers share the same trauma, but they work respond to them in different ways. Both contain within themselves the trauma of the loss of the street. But the slogans, unlike poetry, are an enactment of trauma. They do not have the distance that poetry accords owing to its form. It has a more immediate affect through its performance. The poems and the slogans talk to each other, but there is a risk if we conflate the two completely. Then, Shahid’s poems take the unitary meaning of the slogans. The heroic Agha Shahid Ali does not lament the demise of other Agha Shahid Alis. The same article in Hindustan Times which told us how well Twitter laughed at the ignorance of fellow countrymen of Shahid’s poems, describes him in the following lines:

The title of the event actually referred to a poem penned by Agha Shahid Ali. The work pertained to a certain period of time in 1990, when militancy and counter-insurgency operations had peaked in the Valley, resulting in the disruption of postal operations across the region.

Here is our heroic Shahid, writing only at the time of militancy and increased repression. Quite surprisingly, it restricts the work to the 1990s. The work, as I have shown, pertains to many more moments than just the 1990s in Kashmir. Quite surprisingly, the title of the collection The Country Without a Post Office is read in a manner that is not unlike Naidu’s literal reading of it. If it was indeed pertaining to a certain time which resulted in the “disruption of postal operations across the region”, surely our honourable minister has reasons to get angry because the postal services have become functional again?

The form of poetry in general, and Agha Shahid Ali’s wide range of work in particular, resists such pigeonholing. He had perhaps pre-empted this and warned of this in his poems. In the final couplet (makhta) to his “Ghazal”, he writes:

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means –

Listen: It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

Shahid, to cut the long story short, is much more than the heroic poet he has been made out to be. Akhil Katyal tells us why, and I give the last words of this essay to him:

For Shahid becomes specific for a time, is cast in one image, and then expands again, breaks through that image and it is only this expansiveness that allowed him to write of the loss of Kashmir as if he had lost his lover (what other way could there be), and then to write of the loss of his mother as if he had lost all of Kashmir, as if the whole universe had ended. It is this expansiveness of his verse that allows the non-Kashmiri to reach Shahid, to reach Kashmir itself.

Let us remember all the Agha Shahid Alis. This essay is only a reminder.

N.B. I am indebted to Sneha Chowdhury for her comments on an earlier draft of the essay. Much of the conceptual framework of the essay is hers.

About the Author(s):