To Live in Half-inch Homes: Loss and Nostalgia in Agha Shahid Ali’s Poems

Shailen Mishra, SRPR Blog Editor

Shailen’s series “Space in Culture” explores the motif of space in the works of Indian poets and poetry.

The late Indian (or Indian-American) poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry collection The Half-inch Himalayas is divided into four sections. Each section roughly corresponds to a particular aspect of the poet’s life, which in turn maps to a particular geographic location or dislocation. Section one discusses stories of parents, the ancestor who “comes from Kandahar…and claim[s] descent from the holy prophet [Muhammad],” the grandmother, and the hedonist grandfather. At the same time, it is quite likely that most of the poems in this section are imagined in Kashmir, Ali’s home state in India. Section two often has Delhi as its location and perhaps refers to when Ali lived in that city. In section three, the location of the poems shifts to US. These poems speak of an immigrant’s experience. The three sections so far follow the poet’s migratory arc: from Kashmir to Delhi to Pennsylvania. The fourth and the last section of the collection captures most feverishly the torment of homesickness and dislocation that accompanies an immigrant. As far as the geographical setting of this section is concerned it can be best described as a place away from home. In all the four sections, the evocation of a specific location coincides with an intense longing to revisit the lost past.  

The very first poem of the collection, which even precedes the four sections, talks of a postcard that arrives from Kashmir and that depicts the Himalayas. Stirred by homesickness, Ali writes: “This is home. And this is the closest / I’ll ever be to home…” Ali was not barred from Kashmir or India. He could have visited there any time if the necessity arose. Yet, his lamentation seems to suggest that the chance of returning home and to its scenery are lost forever. Even if he returns, he writes:

the colors won’t be so brilliant,
the Jhelum’s waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed.

And my memory, will be a little
out of focus, in it
a giant negative, black
and white, and still undeveloped.

These metaphors of photography err to the side of failing to capture accurately and memorialize the original (read “home”), which is lost forever to an immigrant. To pine for the original and to fail in the attempt to reconstruct it are the theme of Ali’s collection. To talk of the original is also to talk of origin, the source, framed in a particular time and space. When the source disappears or becomes inaccessible, much effort and pain go into recovering it by relying on some sort of mediation. The nature of mediation could be a photograph, dream, memory, or words, but they are ill-fated to fall short. Since approximation and surrogacy can never replace the original, the loss becomes permanent.

In the poem “Dacca Gauzes” from section one, the grandmother rues about the vanished craft of Dacca gauzes and the rarity of such fine fabric:

my grandmother just says
how the muslins of today
seem so coarse and that only

in autumn, should one wake up
at dawn to pray, can one
feel that same texture again.

One morning, she says, the air
was dew-starched: she pulled
it absently through her ring.

Substituting moist air for fabric may seem futile. But it is the close approximation to the original now extinct. Imagination is the mediation the grandmother has to rely on even if it means being pathetically tricked by it.

Change the mode of mediation from imagination to poetry, the result is still the same. The object of longing cannot be reclaimed. In the poem “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi,” the narrator mourns over the lost splendor of Delhi’s ancient regal bazaar whose ruins are now appropriated for begging and hawking. The fall reminds the narrator of the last Mughal emperor of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who, an accomplished Urdu poet, wrote from the exile about his yearning to return to his capital city:

“Unfortunate Zafar
spent half his life in hope,
the other half waiting.
He begs for two yards of Delhi for burial.”

He was exiled to Burma, buried in Rangoon.

In section three, somewhere in US, vacating an apartment means saying farewell to the time spent there. The separation is renditioned as erasing the material possession and the footprints of memory. When the cleaning crew arrives to clean the apartment and get it ready for the next tenant:

They burn my posters
(Indian and Heaven in flames),

whitewash my voice stains,

make everything new,
clean as Death.

There is no scope of rebirth here. Loss is reduced to just remains or “tombstones.” The last section of the book, the most haunting and dreamy, is devoted to the exile’s homesickness. Often times the narrator is split into two entities. The other half of the narrator that exists outside of him is an ideal entity, who is more religious, a caring neighbor, and a better friend. The ideal entity, an illusion, a phantom of dreams, fixes the slights in the narrator’s duties. It’s as if the narrator assigns his original role (of a close-by son, friend, and neighbor who never leaves home) to this alter ego through the mediation of dream. But then dreams have their own cruel logic, their own punishing endings. The poem “I Dream It Is Afternoon When I Return to Delhi” is a dream within a dream. The narrator dreams of returning to Delhi and following an old routine of taking the city bus to watch a movie with a friend. The tantalizing and slippery nature of dreams threaten to betray the narrator’s “return” until the fantasy finally implodes with the narrator being ejected from the movie hall for holding a “ten years old” ticket. The original dream still does not end though:

Once again my hands are empty.
I am waiting, along, at Purana Qila.
Bus after empty bus is not stopping.
Suddenly, beggar women with children
are everywhere, offering
me money, weeping for me.

To be pitied by beggars and to be offered money by them: how poor you have to be? The poverty here is of rootedness. To have not met an old friend for ten years is sad in itself but what makes it tragic is to be caught in a circuitous trap of trying to relive those memories and failing in the attempt. This wistful undertaking to reproduce the richness of the original is a nagging habit, even more so for an immigrant. The habit cannot be given up despite its painful futility. Ali describes the cruelty of such repetitious behavior this way in the poem “Houses”:

The man who buries his house in the sand
and digs it up again, each evening,
learns to put it together quickly

and just as quickly to take it apart.

How can a house like this be sturdy, lasting, and secure? Or why the necessity even exists to rebuild it each time? And then to take it apart? Ali’s poems are a requiem for things no longer available, separated by time and space. Yet, that does not stop the seekers from trying to reproduce the lost originals through an imperfect medium riddled with inadequacies, artificiality, pastiche, limitations, and absurdity.

Shailen Mishra

Shailen Mishra is a book hopper, story whore, poetry pariah, novelist, three times failed guitar learner, and an aspiring didgeridoo player. He holds a Ph.D. from Illinois State University and an MFA from North Carolina State University. In his spare time, he edits SRPR’s blog and manages its website.

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