Sunday, 5 January 2014

Shahid's Veiled Suite

Agha Shahid Ali is one of the greatest and most famous names internationally in recent history of Kashmir.. Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems presents his poetry in one volume. Most Kashmiris, even those who have been students of English literature, find it very difficult to understand. Except a few poems and occasionally a few verses here and there Agha Shahid sounds Greek to people here. The difficulty of comprehending him extends to his sensibility. He belongs to a different epistemic and cognitive universe but he does share our pain and has been our ambassador in a way. It is through him that the pain of Kashmiris became better known to the world.  However it is sad to note that he is not so well known here. Very few Kashmiris have read him and fewer have understood him. Even his illustrious father acknowledges that he doesn’t understand his poetry. He was indeed a difficult poet, not unlike most modernist poets. There are reasons for this. I wish to talk today regarding these reasons and attempt to situate him in a proper historical and literary context. 
One is the extremely complex modern landcape where nothing is certain except the consciousness of pain and nothing clear except the lack of grand convictions and faith in Absolutes. He inherited grim and alienated modern sensibility and this became reflected in his art. He was a passionate lover of music and celebrated relationships but nothing could reconcile him to the tragic or farcical reality, both metaphysical and socio-political. He responded to mostly modern problems that modern secular worldview engendered. It may be difficult to communicate much of this problematique to Kashmiris although his poems on conflict are not difficult to decode for them. I wish to put record straight regarding the difference between American and Kashmiri sensibilities and literary traditions so that we don’t confound the two.
Kashmir didn’t become modern, not to speak of becoming postmodern although it has not escaped their influence. It continues to live in a different time and space. Its soul continues to be traditional. Its most valued writers have been/are mystically oriented.  
Our tradition is Sufi-mystical and our literary tradition and criterion can’t be anything opposed to it. It is from the Sufi metaphysical or more precisely perennialist metaphysical perspective that we need to approach literature produced by Kashmiris. We have criticism written in Marxian, modernist and even postmodernist vein but not in the perennialist vein. Although we have yet to engage with certain key issues in criticism, especially, the philosophical issues connected with it, we have been callously disregarding especially our own literary tradition which is metaphysico-mystical in orientation and inspiration. Our criticism is yet to appraise our own literary heritage in a comprehensive manner.  
Kashmir like other traditional cultures has been wedded to a metaphysico-mystical outlook that has informed its literature and criticism from ages. It is transcendence centric poetic vision. The aesthetic and the religious/mystical are united at root and converge to a large extent. Kashmir aesthetic tradition has particularly emphasized salvific function of art. Here Shiva is sundarum and contemplating beauty is a quintessential mode of prayer. The poet is a sort of sage. Poetry is a species of sacred activity akin to prayer. Poetry achieves something similar to what religion achieves. Our greatest poets have been mystics and even in the twentieth century the most beautiful poetry that has mass appeal is also mystical poetry sung by people at Urs and regular functions associated with Pirs. 
Agha Shahid was not a Sufi but couldn’t escape its influence. There is also the fact that all men are willy nilly travellers on the path and consciously or unconsciously seek only God. Shahid too loved certain images that reflect God. His celebration of love and devotion to music are expressions of this faith.
I now quote or comment on only his one important poem to illustrate some of the points I made above:
“Thus I swear, here and now, not to forgive the universe
without you.
that would let me get used to a universe
without you.She, she alone, was the universe
as she earned, like a galaxy, her right not to die,
defying the Merciful of the Universe". (Linnoux Hill).
“If only I could gather you in my arms, Mother,
I would save you now my daughter---from God”
(Linnoux Hill). 

While this poem remains one of the best ever written by any modern poet and a tribute to Shahid’s greatness I think it allows us to better understand him and his problem of finding substitutes to faith. Compare it with Iqbal’s poem about her mother and we can note the difference in sensibility and orientation. Without God/transcendence life can’t be really meaningful and that partly account for Shahid’s tragic tone.
Why is mother so important for Shahid? Let me straightway claim that it is one of the channels into which one’s love for God, the Ground of being – our ultimate concern – is directed. The mother becomes more important than God or universe. She, in a way, becomes an image of God that all men are condemned – or rather privileged – to worship in the heart of hearts.  She becomes the universe of meanings that the poet may have earlier sought in the God of religion. He imagines her to be immortal. The poet’s rejection of the God of religion as hinted here is a product of certain imagined constructions that are really an invention of certain extotric theology or dualistic philosophy. He imagines God to be the God of death and suffering and further imagines him to be a being among other beings, a person who can be defied. This is typical modern prejudice and misreading of religion. God, in the Unitarian Sufi metaphysical framework, is the Mercy of the Universe, not a person who can be simplistically characterized as Merciful in the sense we ordinarily construe the term in human discourse. He is not an agent who capriciously wills this thing or that thing such as death. We can’t escape the Infinite as we are already in It. So how can one save anyone from God? God, as the Quran puts it, constitutes our Environment (al-Muheet) and is Irresistible. There is no way to escape him as Blake said. He is our deepest subjectivity and the red in the roses and smile of the flowers. Because the poet takes a dualistic theological instead of a Unitarian metaphysical view of God he finds the universe unforgivable and seeks to save someone from God or sees God helplessly watching someone’s suffering or death. His entries of griefs in the ledger of the universe shows his desolate heart that has not experienced the Universe as Ananda. This is a bitter fruit of modern education and modern world from which God has been exiled. Our talented poets are alienated from their tradition. Our academies have little understanding of the loss this entails. What can be done for better understanding of tradition is what we need to seriously explore. )

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