Agha Shahid Ali


THE WALLED CITY: 7 POEMS ON DELHI
AT JAMA MASJID, DELHI
QAWWALI AT NIZAMUDDIN AULIAíS DARGAH
THE JAMA MASJID BUTCHER
THE EDITOR REVISITED
KASHMIR WITHOUT A POST OFFICE


THE WALLED CITY: 7 POEMS ON DELHI

1
From tomb to tomb,
I chew the ash of prayers.
Wonít poetry happen to me?

Caught in the lanes of history,
donít I qualify now?

I have even seen Allah in rags
extend the earth like a begging bowl.

2
The Two-Nation Theory is dead
But the old donít forget.

In this city of refugees,
trains move like ghosts.
The old donít forget.

My friendís grandfather,
hoarder of regrets,
cautions: Those Muslim butchers:
Be careful, they stab you in the back.
I lost my beloved Lahore.

My friend and I are rather simple:
We never saw the continent divide.

3
The streets light up
with the smiles of beggars.
Words fail me,

for I need a harsh language.
But Iím comfortable
like an angry editor.

4
I carry the beggar-womanís hunger
in my hand

as her eyes follow me to my poems,
follow me into the coffee house
where Iím biting into her,

eating morsels of her night.

5
The bootblack brushes my shoes:
Does my heart beat in my feet?

His knuckes carry the memory
of this city.
My shoes shine like death

as I wait at the bus stop
for Delhiís dome of sweat
to break into a monsoon of steel
and rip my Achilles heel.

6
Believe me,
he sat here in this dirt corner
winter and summer, winter, summer.

This morning he wasnít there
with his ancient beard
and his stretched-out hand.

The sweeper said he took him away
with the morning garbage.

7
A safe distance of smells.
The restaurant airconditioned,
I drink my beer.

Outside the beggars
laze in empty tins,
peeling the sun,
their used beer-can.

Waiter, get me another beer!


AT JAMA MASJID, DELHI

Imagine: Once there was nothing here.
Now look how minarets camouflage the sunset.
Do you hear the call to prayer?
It leaves me unwinding scrolls of legend
till I reach the first brick they brought here.
How the prayers rose, brick by brick?

Shahjahan knew the depth of stones,
how they turn smooth rubbed on a heart.
And then? Imprisoned
with no consoling ghosts,
bent with old age,
while his cirgin daughter Jahanara
dressed the cracked marble reign
his skin kept up for so long.


QAWWALI AT NIZAMUDDIN AULIAíS DARGAH<

1
Between two saints he shares the earth,
Mohammad Shah Rangeele
(evoked in monsoon khayals).
The beggar woman kisses the marble lattice,
sobs and sobs on Khusroí pillars.
In a corner Jahanara, garbed in the fakirís grass,
mumbles a Sufi quatrain.

We recline on the gravestone,
or on the saintís poem, unaware
of the sorrow of the pulverized prayer.

Time has only its vagrant finger.
Knowing no equal, it pauses for massacres.

2
Suffering has its familiar patterns:


We buy flowers for Nizammudinís feet,
dream in the corner to the qawwalís beat.
The saintís song chokes in his throat.

The poor tie prayers with threads,
accutomed to their ancient wish
for the milk and honey of Paradise.

3
Iíve learnt some lessons the easy way:
Iíve seen so many, even a child somewhere,
his infant bones hidden forever.

Stone, grass, children turned old:
The dead have no ghosts.

4
These are timeís relics, its suffered epitaphs:

I come here to sing Khusroís songs.
I burn to the end of the lit essence
as kings and beggars arise in the smoke:

That drunk debauched colourful king
dances again with hoofs of sorrow

as Nadir skins the air with swords,
horses galloping
to the rhythm
of a dying
dynasty.

The muezzin interrupts the dawn, calls
the faithful to prayer with a monster-cry:

We walk through streets calligraphed with blood.


THE JAMA MASJID BUTCHER

Urdu, bloody at his lips
and fingertips, in this
soiled lane of Jama Masjid,

is still fine, polished
smooth by the generations.

He doesnít smile but
accepts my money
with a rare delicacy

as he hacks the rib of History.
His courtesy grazes

my well-fed skin

(he hangs this warm January morning
on the iron hook of prayer).

We establish the bond of phrases,
dressed in the couplets of Ghalib.

His life is this moment,
a centuryís careful image.


THE EDITOR REVISITED

You still havenít called me a poet, Dear Sir,
and Iíve been at it,
this business of meanings, sometimes delayed,

selling words in bottles, at times in boxes.

I began with a laugh, stirred my tea with English,
drank India down with a faint British accent,
temples, beggars, and dust
spread like marmalade on my toast:

A bitter taste: On Parliament Street
a policeman beat a child on the head.
Hermaphrodites walked by in Saffron saris,

their drums eching a drought-rhythm.

The Marxists said,
In Delhi English sounds obscene.
Return to Hindi or Bengali, eachword will burn
like hunger.

A language must measure up to oneís native dust.

Divided between two cultures, I spoke a language foreign even to my ears;
I diluted it in a glass of Scotch.


A terrible trade, my lip service to Revolution
punctuated by a whisly-god.


Now collecting a degree in English,
will I embrace my hungry country
with an armful of soliloquies?


This trade in words continues however as
Shakespeare feeds my alienation.


Please note, Dear Sir, my terrible plight
as I collect rejection slips
from your esteemed journal.



KASHMIR WITHOUT A POST OFFICE


. . . letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins


1


Again Iíve returned to this country
where a minaret has been entombed.
Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps
in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
His fingerprints cancel blank stamps
in that archive for letters with doomed
addresses, each house buried or empty

Empty? Because so many fled, ran away,
and became refugees there, in the plains,
where they must now will a final dewfall
to turn the mountains to glass. Theyíll see
us through them see us frantically bury
houses to save them from fire that, like a wall,
caves in. The soldiers light it, hone the flames,
burn our world to sudden papier-m‚chť


inlaid with gold, then ash. When the muezzin
died, the city was robbed of every Call.
The houses were swept about like leaves
for burning. Now every night we bury
our houses and theirs, the ones left empty.
We are faithful. On their doors we hang wreaths.
More faithful each night fire again is a wall
and we look for the dark as it caves in.


2


Weíre inside the fire, looking for the dark,
one unsigned card, left on the street, says. I want
to be he who pours blood. To soak your hands.
Or Iíll leave mine in the cold till the rain
is ink, and my fingers, at the edge of pain,
are seals all night to cancel the stamps.
The mad guide! The lost speak like this. They haunt
a country when it is ash. Phantom heart,


pray heís alive. I have returned in rain
to find him, to learn why he never wrote.
Iíve brought cash, a currency of paisleys
to buy the new stamps, rare already, blank,
to buy the new stamps, rare already, blank,
no nation named on them. Without a lamp
I look for him in houses buried, empty
He may be alive, opening doors of smoke,
breathing in the dark his ash-refrain:


Everything is finished, nothing remains.
I must force silence to be a mirror
to see his voice, ask it again for directions.
Fire runs in waves. Should I cross that river?
Each post office is boarded up. Who will deliver
parchment cut in paisleys, my news to prisons?
Only silence can now trace my letters
to him. Or in a dead office the dark panes.


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Sonny (Sundeep Dougal) Holden Caulfield, New Delhi, INDIA