“We embraced you in your death”

 

Agha Shahid Ali

Dear Shahid!

Hope you are in fine fettle, wherever you are. It has been exactly 11 years now since we lost track of you, leaving a void and emptiness. Let me assure you, the void has not been filled yet, and the emptiness is still there. I never met you, but I can see you around me all the time. I don’t know if the night is cottage industry or the day is brisk emporium. But, you said the world is full of paper, write to me. So, I am writing, from far away, a city where you were born.

I was in school far away from my homeland when you took the long walk back to heaven far away from your homeland. You wanted to return to Kashmir to die in autumn, but changed your mind later, only to be buried in Northampton, not too far from the grave of your beloved poet Emily Dickinson. We, the people of Kashmir, still embraced you in your death, as we did in your life. Life and death are immaterial, because you will always live in our hearts and minds.

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Autumn in Kashmir
Autumn in Kashmir
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You left suddenly, shockingly, without posting us a farewell letter. But I know you had already announced your impending departure by dreaming, with soaring imagination and brutally beautiful imagery, at the ghat of the only world. The night of ghazals drew to an end. Quite rightly, love doesn’t let anyone survive, at least it did not let you. But, how did you muster courage to pen down the last verse on your own life? It is something only you the witness and martyr – could do.

We would have loved to hear more from you, but perhaps you were getting late for recitation sessions in heaven. You have not posted a letter from there yet. Your country had no post office then. It still has none. What happened to the solemn promise of meeting again in Srinagar by the gates of the villa of peace? Our beloved witness, you had to be there on that promised autumn afternoon, when soldiers return the keys and disappear. But, you left us, and left behind your lingering presence.

“Your country had no post office then. It still has none”

You struggled with your health and the pain was too excruciating and unbearable for you in your last days, but you fought valiantly, as you did all your life, with words and that characteristic smile. Your smile was unnerving and the sense of humour was classic. I still wonder how you always managed to break into peals of laughter in the middle of a serious conversation or a poetry recitation. I am sure you will agree, there was an inherent pain veiled in that grin, that mirth, that smile and that laughter. Sometimes a smile conveys more pain than tears, and tears express more joy than a smile. I envy the angels, for they must be having a gala time in your amazingly warm company.

“You were fond of rogan josh and haakh, enamored with Begum Akhtar’s music, and inspired by Faiz’s poetry”

You were fond of rogan josh and haakh, enamored with Begum Akhtar’s music, and inspired by Faiz’s poetry. You also loved to cook good and authentic food, as you did once for America’s celebrated poet James Merrill, who had tremendous influence on your poetry. Do you continue to cook for the angels now? I am told your undying passion for ghazal had partly to do with your beautiful relationship with Begum Akhtar. Do you still carry the cassette of ‘phir wohi farmaish’, or have you moved on to other singers? You loved Faiz, and in you, Faiz found a genius translator. You were closest to your mother, and her death literally devastated you. The long, painful journey from Amherst to Kashmir must have haunted you till death. But, as you consoled yourself, compared to your grief for her, what are those of Kashmir, and what are those of the universe. I want to ask, do you still move in your heart between sad countries? Do you continue to wake and feel the fell of dark, not day?

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“Did you hear about 17 year-old Tufail, who was shot dead while returning from tuition?”

Kashmir, your beloved place of memory, has not moved an inch since you left. Nothing has changed on the ground. Death continues to turn every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala. Freedom’s terrible thirst is growing, as more boys are mowed down in cold blood. There are more grieving mothers now, and many more homes are set ablaze by midnight soldiers. I know you did not tell the father of 18 year-old Rizwan that he was no more, but how did you do that? It is so difficult to hide the news of cold-blooded murders of young boys from their fathers. There are many Rizwans now, resting in marked and unmarked graves across Kashmir, the half-inch Himalayas that shrunk in your mailbox.

Did you hear about 17 year-old Tufail, who was shot dead while returning from tuition? Well, his killers have just got a clean chit. Did anyone tell you about 9 year-old Asif who was literally bludgeoned to death? Do you know how 11 year-old Irshad breathed his last after being hit by pallets? Did anyone tell you about the brutal murders of 13 year-old Wamiq, 16 year-old Inayat, and 16 year-old Zahid? Did you hear about 24 year-old Neelofar and 17 year-old Asiya, who was gang-raped and murdered and dumped in a nearby lake? The list is too long. It gives me shudders to go on naming them.

However, as Rizwan had asked you: I am sure you still put Kashmir in your dreams every night.

“It rains as I write this; mad heart, be brave.”

Yours,
Zafar
New Delhi

 

(First published in The Friday Times, Pakistan)

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