between the day’s
five calls to prayer
the women of the house
pulling thick threads
rosaries of ginger
of rustling peppers
in autumn drying for winter
in those intervals this rug
part of Grandma’s dowry
so the Devil’s shadow
would not desecrate
with minarets of gold
but then the sunset
call to prayer
their straw mats unrolled
praying or in the garden
in summer on grass
the children wanting
the prayers to end
the women’s foreheads
silk stone of sacrifice
black stone descended
the pilgrims in white circling it
this year my grandmother
also a pilgrim
in Mecca she weeps
as the stone is unveiled
she weeps holding on
to the pillars
(for Begum Zafar Ali)
»the translators’ silence« by raqs media collective
(digital photograph: ifthikar dadi)
The Translator’s Silence incises three poetic fragments – from Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Rabindranath Tagore and Agha Shahid Ali – on to a take-away embellished, folded paper card. Following Agha Shahid Ali, the work’s reading of the three fragments suggests that “stranger” may become the “beloved” when even adversarial destinies, such as are common across partitions and “lines of control,” are reconciled through the force of a willing encounter with all that is unknown in the other. This encounter, across languages, memories, desires and nightmares, may lead to a loss of words at first. Perhaps the strangers who undertake to meet each other this way will need to translate each other’s silences before they can listen to each other’s words. This take-away that takes the form of a fold between utterances, embodies a gift of that silence.
and when we – as if from ashes – ascend
into the cold where the heart must defend
its wings of terror and even pity
and below us the haze of New Delhi
greys, In your eyes I look for my wound’s deep sea.
But five hundred years waved with history?
It is to song that one must turn for flight.
But with what measure will I shed sunlight
on pain? In your eyes – Was her sari turquoise? -
I look for the deep sea… That is her voice -
Beghum Akhtar’s. ‘You were the last, we know,
to see her in Delhi, Desperado
in search of catastrophe.’ Heartbreak of perfume
is mine again. The pilot turns up the volume:
Attar – of jasmine? What was it she wore
that late morning in October ’74
when we were driven (it was the sunniest day) from Connaught Place to Palm Airport? She pressed
a note – Rs 100 – into my palm:
“Take it or, on my life, will perish.’
They announced DEPARTURE. I touched her arm.
Her sari was turquoise! She turned to vanish,
but then turned to wave. (My silk is stained,
How will I face my Lord? she’d set in Pain -
her chosen raga that July in Srinagar.)
A week later: GHAZAL QUEEN BEGUM AKHTAR
IS DEAD. She had claimed her right-to-die:
She had sung ‘Everyone Will BE Here But I’
those days in every city and trebled that nocturne
desperately – with love – to aubade.
Drunk one night, she had wept, ‘Shahid, I yearn
to die.’ What was her encore there in Ahmedabad -
the last song of her concert? In the middle
of the night they took her to Intensive Care.
Alone, in words whirled in the hospital,
her heart had set – forever solitaire.
The hostess pours tea, hands me the Statesman:
31 October 1974?
BEGUM AKHTAR IS DEAD: under the headline:
her picture: she smiles: she lights a Capstan.
Sharp in flame, her face dissolves in smoke
It’s 1994: ARMY LAYS SIEGE TO SHRINE
“Each ray of sunshine is seven minutes old,”
Serge told me in New York one December night.
“So when I look at the sky, I see the past?”
“Yes, Yes,” he said, “especially on a clear day.”
On January 19, 1987,
as I very early in the morning
drove my sister to Tucson International,
suddenly on Alvernon and 22nd Street
the sliding doors of the fog were opened,
and the snow, which had fallen all night, now
sun-dazzled, blinded us, the earth whitened
out, as if by cocaine, the desert’s plants,
its mineral-hard colors extinguished,
wine frozen in the veins of the cactus.
The Desert Smells Like Rain: in it I read:
The syrup from which sacred wine is made
is extracted from the saguaros each
summer. The Papagos place it in jars,
where the last of it softens, then darkens
into a color of blood though it tastes
strangely sweet, almost white, like a dry wine.
As I tell Sameetah this, we are still
seven miles away. “And you know the flowers
of the saguaros bloom only at night?”
We are driving slowly, the road is glass.
“Imagine where we are was a sea once.
Just imagine!” The sky is relentlessly
sapphire, and the past is happening quickly:
the saguaros have opened themselves, stretched
out their arms to rays millions of years old,
in each ray a secret of the planet’s
origin, the rays hurting each cactus
into memory, a human memory —
for they are human, the Papagos say:
not only because they have arms and veins
and secrets. But because they too are a tribe,
vulnerable to massacre. “It is like
the end, perhaps the beginning of the world,”
Sameetah says, staring at their snow-sleeved
arms. And we are driving by the ocean
that evaporated here, by its shores,
the past now happening so quickly that each
stoplight hurts us into memory, the sky
taking rapid notes on us as we turn
at Tucson Boulevard and drive into
the airport, and I realize that the earth
is thawing from longing into longing and
that we are being forgotten by those arms.
At the airport I stared after her plane
till the window was
again a mirror.
As I drove back to the foothills, the fog
shut its doors behind me on Alvernon,
and I breathed the dried seas
the earth had lost,
their forsaken shores. And I remembered
another moment that refers only
in New Delhi one night
as Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out.
It was perhaps during the Bangladesh War,
perhaps there were sirens,
But the audience, hushed, did not stir.
The microphone was dead, but she went on
singing, and her voice
was coming from far
away, as if she had already died.
And just before the lights did flood her
again, melting the frost
of her diamond
into rays, it was, like this turning dark
of fog, a moment when only a lost sea
can be heard, a time
every shadow, everything the earth was losing,
a time to think of everything the earth
and I had lost, of all
that I would lose,
of all that I was losing.
What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief’s lottery, bought even the rain.
"our glosses / wanting in this world" "Can you remember?"
Anyone! “when we thought / the poets taught” even the rain?
After we died—That was it!—God left us in the dark.
And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.
Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you’d poured—what?—even the rain.
Of this pear-shaped orange’s perfumed twist, I will say:
Extract Vermouth from the bergamot, even the rain.
How did the Enemy love you—with earth? air? and fire?
He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain.
This is God’s site for a new house of executions?
You swear by the Bible, Despot, even the rain?
After the bones—those flowers—this was found in the urn:
The lost river, ashes from the ghat, even the rain.
What was I to prophesy if not the end of the world?
A salt pillar for the lonely lot, even the rain.
How the air raged, desperate, streaming the earth with flames—
to help burn down my house, Fire sought even the rain.
He would raze the mountains, he would level the waves,
he would, to smooth his epic plot, even the rain.
New York belongs at daybreak to only me, just me—
to make this claim Memory’s brought even the rain.
They’ve found the knife that killed you, but whose prints are these?
No one has such small hands, Shahid, not even the rain.
For Christopher Merrill
Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land—
There is no sugar in the promised land.
Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love,
I’m already drunk in your capitalist land?
If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here—and always a missed land.
The hour’s come to redeem the pledge (not wholly?)
in Fate’s “Long years ago we made a tryst” land.
Clearly, these men were here only to destroy,
a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.
Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy,
when springtime returns to our dismissed land?
The prisons fill with the cries of children.
Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?
“Is my love nothing for I’ve borne no children?”
I’m with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.
A hurricane is born when the wings flutter …
Where will the butterfly, on my wrist, land?
You made me wait for one who wasn’t even there
though summer had finished in that tourist land.
Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes
when we steal their gods for our atheist land?
Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels
so Rome—on our descent—is an amethyst land.
At the moment the heart turns terrorist,
are Shahid’s arms broken, O Promised Land?
Translated by Agha Shahid Ali
That which then was ours, my love,
don’t ask me for that love again.
The world then was gold, burnished with light—
and only because of you. That’s what I had believed.
How could one weep for sorrows other than yours?
How could one have any sorrow but the one you gave?
So what were these protests, these rumours of injustice?
A glimpse of your face was evidence of springtime.
The sky, wherever I looked, was nothing but your eyes.
If you’d fall into my arms, Fate would be helpless.
All this I’d thought, all this I’d believed.
But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love.
The rich had cast their spell on history:
dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks.
Bitter threads began to unravel before me
as I went into alleys and in open markets
saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.
I saw them sold and bought, again and again.
This too deserves attention. I can’t help but look back
when I return from those alleys—what should one do?
And you still are so ravishing—-what should I do?
There are other sorrows in this world,
comforts other than love.
Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.
Translated by Agha Shahid Ali
You haven’t come
I’ve spent the night waiting
The dawn is in search
It passes this way again and again
Whatever I bore in the madness of rapture
has proved useful
though the heart’s been made useless
broken a thousand times
The evening I must listen
to words of caution
from the wise
That night without fail
I’m in my lover’s arms
There are no blossoms
there is no lover
and no wine
In what strange manner
has spring come this time?
what was the garden’s grief
when it saw its flowers crushed to nothing?
This was seen: when dawn came
the breeze passed
a restless wind through the cages
By dark the world is once again intact,
Or so the mirrors, wiped clean, try to reason…
This dream of water—what does it harbor?
I see Argentina and Paraguay
under a curfew of glass, their colors
breaking, like oil. The night in Uruguay
is black salt. I’m driving toward Utah,
keeping the entire hemisphere in view—
Colombia vermilion, Brazil blue tar,
some countries wiped clean of color: Peru
is titanium white. And always oceans
that hide in mirrors: when beveled edges
arrest tides or this world’s destinations
forsake ships. There’s Sedona, Nogales
far behind. Once I went through a mirror—
from there too the world, so intact, resembled
only itself. When I returned I tore
the skin off the glass. The sea was unsealed
by dark, and I saw ships sink off the coast
of a wounded republic. Now from a blur
of tanks in Santiago, a white horse
gallops, riderless, chased by drunk soldiers
in a jeep; they’re firing into the moon.
And as I keep driving in the desert,
someone is running to catch the last bus, men
hanging on to its sides. And he’s missed it.
He is running again; crescents of steel
fall from the sky. And here the rocks
are under fog, the cedars a temple,
Sedona carved by the wind into gods—
each shadow their worshiper. The siren
empties Santiago; he watches
—from a hush of windows—blindfolded men
blurred in gleaming vans. The horse vanishes
into a dream. I’m passing skeletal
figures carved in 700 B.C.
Whoever deciphers these canyon walls
remains forsaken, alone with history,
no harbor for his dream. And what else will
this mirror now reason, filled with water?
I see Peru without rain, Brazil
without forests—and here in Utah a dagger
of sunlight: it’s splitting—it’s the summer
solstice—the quartz center of a spiral.
Did the Anasazi know the darker
answer also—given now in crystal
by the mirrored continent? The solstice,
but of winter? A beam stabs the window,
diamonds him, a funeral in his eyes.
In the lit stadium of Santiago,
this is the shortest day. He’s taken there.
Those about to die are looking at him,
his eyes the ledger of the disappeared.
What will the mirror try now? I’m driving,
still north, always followed by that country,
its floors ice, its citizens so lovesick
that the ground—sheer glass—of every city
is torn up. They demand the republic
give back, jeweled, their every reflection.
They dig till dawn but find only corpses.
He has returned to this dream for his bones.
The waters darken. The continent vanishes.
You who will find the dark fossils of paisleys
one afternoon on the peaks of Zabarvan -
Trader from an ancient market of the future,
alibi of chronology, that vain
collaborator of time - won’t know that these
are her footprints from the day the world began.
(Oh see, it is still the day the world begins:
and the city rises, holding its remains,
its wooden beams already their own fire’s prophets.)
And you, now touching sky, deaf to her anklets
still echoing in the valley, deaf to men
fleeing from soldiers into dead-end lanes
(Look! Their feet bleed; they leave footprints on the street
which will give up its fabric, at dusk, a carpet) -
you have found-you’ll think- the first teardrop, gem
that was enticed for a mogul diadem
…three men are discussing, between
sips of tea, undiscovered routes on emerald
seas, ships with almonds, with shawls for Egypt.
It is dusk. The gauze is torn. A weaver kneels,
gathers falling threads. Soon he will stitch the air.
translated by Agha Shahid Ali
Each star a run,
night comes down the spiral
staircase of the evening.
The breeze passes by so very close
as if someone just happened to speak of love.
In the courtyard,
the trees are absorbed refugees
embroidering maps of return on the sky.
On the roof,
the moon—lovingly, generously—
is turning the stars
into a dust of sheen.
From every corner, dark-green shadows,
in ripples, come towards me.
At any moment they may break over me,
like the waves of pain each time I remember
this separation from my lover.
This thought keeps consoling me:
though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed
in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,
they cannot snuff out the moon, so today,
nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed,
no poison of torture make me bitter,
if just one evening in prison
can be so strangely sweet,
if just one moment anywhere on this earth.
For Galway Kinnell
At dawn you leave. The river wears its skin of light.
And I traced love’s loss to the origin of light.
"I swallow down the goodbyes I won’t get to use."
At grief’s speed she waves from a palanquin of light.
My book’s been burned? Send me the ashes, so I can say:
I’ve been sent the phoenix in a coffin of light.
From History tears learn a slanted understanding
of the human face torn by blood’s bulletin of light.
It was a temporal thought. Well, it has vanished.
Will Promethus commit the mortal sin of light?
She said, “My name is icicles coming down from it…”
Did I leave it, somewhere, in a margin of light?
When I go off alone, as if listening for God,
there’s absolutely nothing I can win of light.
Now everything’s left to the imagination -
a djinn has deprived even Aladdin of light.
We’ll see Manhattan, a bride in diamonds, one day
abashed to remind her sweet man, Brooklyn, of light.
"A cheekbone, / A curved piece of brow, / A pale eyelid…"
And the dark eye I make out with all within of light.
Stranger, when the river leans toward the emptiness,
abandon, for my darkness, the thick and thin of light.
Feel the patient’s heart
Pounding—oh please, this once—
I’ll do what I must if I’m bold in real time.
A refugee, I’ll be paroled in real time.
Cool evidence clawed off like shirts of hell-fire?
A former existence untold in real time …
The one you would choose: Were you led then by him?
What longing, O Yaar, is controlled in real time?
Each syllable sucked under waves of our earth—
The funeral love comes to hold in real time!
They left him alive so that he could be lonely—
The god of small things is not consoled in real time.
Please afterwards empty my pockets of keys—
It’s hell in the city of gold in real time.
God’s angels again are—for Satan!—forlorn.
Salvation was bought but sin sold in real time.
And who is the terrorist, who the victim?
We’ll know if the country is polled in real time.
“Behind a door marked DANGER” are being unwound
the prayers my friend had enscrolled in real time.
The throat of the rearview and sliding down it
the Street of Farewell’s now unrolled in real time.
I heard the incessant dissolving of silk—
I felt my heart growing so old in real time.
Her heart must be ash where her body lies burned.
What hope lets your hands rake the cold in real time?
Now Friend, the Belovèd has stolen your words—
Read slowly: The plot will unfold in real time.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
They make a desolation and call it peace.
when you left even the stones were buried:
the defenceless would have no weapons.
When the ibex rubs itself against the rocks,
who collects its fallen fleece from the slopes?
O Weaver whose seams perfectly vanished,
who weighs the hairs on the jeweller’s balance?
They make a desolation and call it peace.
Who is the guardian tonight of the Gates of Paradise?
My memory is again in the way of your history.
Army convoys all night like desert caravans:
In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved- all
winter- its crushed fennel.
We can’t ask them: Are you done with the world?
In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s
Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are found like this
centuries later in this country
I have stitched to your shadow?
In this country we step out with doors in our arms
Children run out with windows in their arms.
You drag it behind you in lit corridors.
if the switch is pulled you will be torn from everything.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me.
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can’t forgive me.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect Enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory:
I am being rowed through Paradise in a river of Hell:
Exquisite ghost, it is night.
The paddle is a heart; it breaks the porcelain waves.
It is still night. The paddle is a lotus.
I am rowed- as it withers-toward the breeze which is soft as
if it had pity on me.
If only somehow you could have been mine, what wouldn’t
have happened in the world?
I’m everything you lost. You won’t forgive me.
My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.
There is nothing to forgive.You can’t forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself.
There is everything to forgive. You can’t forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?