A Pastoral

Agha Shahid Ali

‘A Pastoral’ by Agha Shahid Ali is a moving poem. In it, the poet reflects his love for Kashmir and his affection for his motherland.


Agha Shahid Ali

Nationality: American, Indian

Agha Shahid Ali was a prolific writer whose nine poetry collections are still read today.

Notable works include 'Backdropand 'A Pastoral.' 

The Kashmiri-American Diasporic poet was born in Delhi, but brought up in Kashmir, and later on, shifted as well as settled in America. While in Kashmir Ali saw the bloody massacre of innocent people and felt the pangs of separation from his fellow Kashmiri friends who had to leave their motherland due to the chaotic condition rampant there. It was the deteriorating socio-political condition of Kashmir that let him pen down the poems of loss and longing. Wherever the poet has been he has always wished for peace to prevail in Kashmir, a land that has often been threatened by violence.

A Pastoral by Agha Shahid Ali

Background to A Pastoral

Though most of Agha Shahid’s poetic works orbit around Kashmir and its worsening conditions, through his poem, A Pastoral, he brought forth the motherly love of a Kashmiri towards his/her motherland. This poem not only reflects his love for Kashmir and its people, but he also shows his deep love towards his mother. In the poem, he has been shown missing his lost and migrated friends, and in the very first line of the poem he says, “We shall meet again, in Srinagar, by the gates of the Villa of Peace.” Being a resident of Kashmir for long, Ali had witnessed the devastating socio-political condition of Kashmir and always wished that the day will come when the peace will be upon it, and its dwellers will take a sigh of relief from ongoing violence and massacre of the innocent people.

Ali has dedicated A Pastoral poem to his friend “Suvir Kaul” who had spent much time with him. But the separation of his friend and his other childhood friends shattered Ali intensely and internally and led him to pour out his pangs through a poem called A Pastoral. In the poem, the poet has also brought into light the migration of Kashmiri pundits and his Muslim friends.

The poem A Pastoral is ironically titled to invoke the stark desolation of a place that boasts of an admiring tradition, thanks to its everlasting beauty. When the poem starts it shows how hopeful the poet is about the peaceful future of Kashmir. The poet sends an invitation to his friends, try to convince that yes, they will come again and meet in  Srinagar when “our hands will blossom into fists till the soldiers return the keys and disappear”.

Style, Themes & Imagery

Agha Shahid Ali is well-known to write poetry in both traditional forms and free verse, experimenting with verse forms, like the canzone and sestina. While almost all of his writing and poetic works were immensely influenced by the Persian-Urdu tradition, yet he chose to pen down his poetic work in English language, in place of Urdu. His is ghazalesque style, using which he blends the forms and rhythms of the Indo-Islamic tradition with a distinctly American approach to storytelling. A large number of his poems don’t abstractly consider the love and longings, but they concretely detail about the events that are fully personal, and sometimes even political. Since the poet also had interest in geography, so he mixed the landscapes of America with those of his native Kashmir. His work blends the American and Kashmiri landscapes with the clashed and conflicted emotions of immigration, exile, while in his subsequent works, his poetic works have been around loss, illness and mortality. But remember, the credit to introduce and popularize Ghazal form in American poetry definitely goes to Agha Shahid Ali.

Detailed Analysis

Ali uses elegant, reflective and lyrical voice, which gets augmented by the repetition of words, half-rhymes, and culturally specific imagery. As you go through the complicated terrain of his poems, you come to know the intricacy of his language and thoughts.

Stanza 1

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
our last world, the first that vanished

Right from the very first stanza of this poem, which can be read in full here, it becomes evident that how much love the poet has towards Kashmir, and Srinagar, where he promises to meet again his friend or friends who were compelled to migrate due to continuous violence Kashmir, or who lost their lives during any violence or massacre in Kashmir.

He says, comes what may, we will meet again and get united, we shall again get into the world that got barren without our presence. He sees hope of peace and prosperity and wishes today’s Kashmir will be completely different from the future Kashmir. Here, “by the gates of the Villa of Peace” symbolizes that the peace will prevail, and we shall meet again. We shall fight till soldiers surrender and leave us to live in peace.

Stanzas 2-3

in our absence from the broken city.
We’ll tear our shirts for tourniquets
in the massacre, when the Call to Prayer
opened the floodgates”—Quick, follow the silence—

Agha Shahid Ali has kept many of his poems around Srinagar. Through these poems, the poet has praised the city, mourned it, longed for it and even remembered its nostalgia. Most of the time, he even synonymizes Srinagar with Kashmir, and words used for the city even grieves for its sad state. He knows under what turmoil the city has gone through, and is even today going through, but he also knows that how resilient Srinagar has been.

Expressing the same feel, in the second stanza, the poet says that, we shall meet again, in Srinagar, and fight for the revival of Kashmir. We are ready to bear everything to help it gain its glorious past. The fundamental rights of human beings will be restored and reinstituted. The rampant sadness will not live for long, it will some or other day be restored with the independence of the Kashmiri people. The city may be sad today, but we will challenge the sadness, negotiate it, and resist it. We will continue to do so as our elders or ancestors have been doing it for long. Through our struggle, we will be able to succeed in paving peaceful ways for our future generations. I know Srinagar remains alive when it is sad, I know the city can survive even during tough time, and I know the city will be so unless it gets freedom. Yes, the day will come when we will turn ivy into roses, the day will come when we would hear the gardener’s voice, play as we used to in our childhood. The day is not far when the peace will prevail, and our future generation will live as peacefully as ever.

Through the poem, A Pastoral, he has introduced several themes. He has portrayed the city’s sad state and the fighting spirit of its people who never gave up. The poet also portrays the natural beauty spread in the city that also sends the message of fighting till independence, and the role of its elders and ancestors who sacrificed their lives for its revival and prosperity. Moreover, the use of words like tourniquets, thorns, ivy, roses and pomegranate, all indicate the fighting spirit of the people living in Kashmir.

Stanzas 4-5

“and dawn rushed into everyone’s eyes.”
Will we follow the horned lark, pry
rip open, in mid-air, the blue magpie,
then carry it, limp from the talons.”

In these stanzas, the poet asks should we follow the horned lark; search the cemetery, the dust still lying uneasy on the graves that were built in hurry without any names. He further says, “Yes, we will surely hear our gardener’s voice again, but for that, we will have to struggle. Just as the bird remains silent in winter, and comes back in spring, we too shall have to tighten our belts and restart the fight to gain independence from the violence that has snatched our peace and left us in the fetters of massacres and violence. So, the gardener will come again with his voice, and we shall again chirp like birds among the trees, but to achieve all that we shall have to struggle, struggle and struggle.

Stanzas 6-7

Pluck the blood: My words will echo thus
at sunset, by the ivy, but to what purpose?
scripts: “See how your world has cracked.
Why aren’t you here? Where are you? Come back.

In these stanzas, the poet says that when we will step into our old place or territory, we will find the letters that mailman might have left for us. The latter knew that we would definitely return them. It would be better if the postman speeded those letters to death. He further asks why you are not here, where have you gone, and plead him to come back so that we can relive our old days, and breathe free. As we know Ali’s poem, “The Country Without a Post Office (1997)” gained him a lot of recognition and appreciation. And the same scene of mailman the poet has used and described in, “A Pastoral”, whereby the poet wants to show the importance of post offices and postmen.

Stanzas 8-9

Is history deaf there, across the oceans?”
Quick, the bird will say. And we’ll try
will say) that to which we belong, not like this—
to get news of our death after the world’s.

In the last two stanzas, the poet curses the history, and asks are you deaf to our concerns and the pitiable condition of Kashmir and Kashmiris. Don’t you see the atrocities the Kashmiris are facing for years, don’t you see why they are compelled to leave their motherland. If no one comes to our help, we will ourselves make use of the keys; open the door of our drawing-room. As we move ahead, we thought would be engulfed by the dust that has textiled the entire home, and its every possible corners and articles, such as mirror, table, and all. But we will surely light oil lamps; we will definitely go past our elders and ancestors, and hold their wills close to our heart, following what they have been directing us for years. We will surely fulfill their wish and return our home for always. In all, we will revive our Kashmir, and fight till it achieves its goal, and will pave violence-free and peaceful ways for our future generations.

Personal Commentary

Agha Shahid Ali dedicated his poem A Pastoral to one of his Kashmiri Hindu friends, named Suvir Kaul. This is a poem of hope and exuberant future that the poet expects to prevail in Kashmir. However, in view of the condition of today’s and then Kashmir, this has just been a hope, and no concrete solution has been brought about so far. The situations have been getting worst day by day. The state has become a source to take political mileage, and no government seems to be seriously interested in having peace and brotherhood between the two communities – Hindus and Muslims. However, the poet of the poem hopefully says, “We shall meet again, in Srinagar, by the gates of the Villa of Peace.”

Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.

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