Agha Shahid Ali

The Ghazal “In Real Time” By Agha Shahid Ali

‘The Ghazal “In Real Time”’ by Agha Shahid Ali intertwines pain, suffering, and injustice. The powerful poem creates meaning within the complex structure of a ghazal.

A ghazal is a poetic form that consists of rhyming couplets and a refrain with each line sharing the same meter. The refrain for this In Real Time ghazal poem is the phrase “In real time,” and it is repeated at the end of its every couplet. Ali takes that structure and applies it to a poem that reveals, through short eleven-syllable lines, the hellish nature of life in India, Ali’s home country. Pain, suffering, and injustice have all been intertwined very skillfully and carefully to create powerful meaning within the complex structure of a ghazal, which relates directly to the complicated social structure that is central to the underlying meaning of the poem.

First developed in the 6th century in pre-Islamic-Arabic verse, this style of poetry has very personal ties with Ali as it pays homage to his Hindu and Muslim heritage. Concurrently many of his themes that Ali uses correlate with that heritage, as well. “Exile, nostalgia for lost or ruined landscapes, and political conflict” inform Ali’s all poetic works and expose his heritage. In this ghazal poem, all of these themes are evident.

In the second line of the first stanza, the word “refugee” brings the themes of exile and political conflict to life. Ali could have chosen to use “wanderer” or “migrant” which have similar if not identical denotation. The connotation of “refugee,” however, is much more powerful and directly refers to exile and political conflict. A refugee is defined as a person who is forced from his home or exiled. The connotation of the term refugee also consists of political significance. Refugee often alludes to a person displaced or dislocated by an armed conflict within his own country. Ali makes use of this politically-charged word in order to evoke not only the exile but governmental turmoil as well, and at the same time also emphasize the emotions as well as situations of people around the globe.

The Ghazal “In Real Time” By Agha Shahid Ali

Analysis of Ghazal In Real Time

The Ghazal In Real Time, which can be read in full here, begins with a quote about hope by James Merrill who says, “Feel the patient’s heart / Pounding—oh please, this once—” Through this quote; the poet wants to present the idea of hope – and false hope – as well as the idea of a near future, which has a very important role to play in the poem ahead though this weak wish finds itself denied or granted. The quote is pessimistically optimistic, and right from this point, it becomes more and more pessimistic as Ali continues to depict how worse our life has become. It is completely different from what see on the surface. Though the context of this quote helps in establishing the significance of the poem, in the second stanza, Ali starts employing many different types of literary skills to specifically provide, more deep meaning to the poem.

Lines 1-4

I’ll do what I must if I’m bold in real time.
A former existence untold in real time …

These lines of the poem work as a window for the entire poem. It establishes the meaning of the whole poem. And with the frequent use of a term like ‘real time, which occurs on the second line of each stanza for the rest of the poem’ the poet wants to describe the near future, which means the near future of the speaker’s decision to do whatever he wants to. But remember, each of the intertwined stanzas in the poem describes why we should behave warily in our everyday lives.

Ali succeeds in showing why wariness is necessary when he is seen discussing the way irrationality and rage “clawed off” reason and logic. The clawing off of evidence as one would rip off a burning shirt leads to the idea that human flesh is being destroyed to hide inhumane and illegal acts of human beings. Technically speaking, the human body isn’t a landscape, but it is yet a naturally occurring form. Later in the poem, this idea of ruin and loss reappears when Ali describes a “body (lying) buried.” Once again the loss of the human figure as a result of fire brings about a powerful image, which begs to be explained. Here Ali throws a ball into the court of his readers, allowing the unique and potentially biographical experiences that he has turned into verse to be applied to any person in any place in life. This could be India, but it could also be innumerable other places around the globe.

Lines 5-8

The one you would choose: Were you led then by him?
The funeral love comes to hold in real time!

In these lines, the poet makes use of strong and detailed word selections to highlight the foolishness that humans do while selecting their leaders. Though they know their selected leaders would later create problems for them, and cause more harm than any good, they continue to repeat this foolishness. The poet further says that in today’s wild goose chase, no one thinks of worrying about others. Today’s man is very selfish and self-centered.

This is the reason why the poet has used phrases like “The waves of our earth,” which means human nature and the fast-paced, egocentric, day-to-day lives of people in a ‘fend-for-yourself’ world that gobbles up the pleas as well as ideas of others. He says the world is harsh not just in public, but also in the more secreted lives of its people.

Lines 9-12

They left him alive so that he could be lonely—
It’s hell in the city of gold in real time.

In lines 9-12 of the poem, the poet wants to show the inhumane aspect of human beings. He wants to show how ruthless and cynical humans have become over time. He says that to make him suffer more and more somebody left “him” alive so that he goes on suffering. The image shown here brings forth the sorrowful and horrible things taking place behind the curtain of life. The readers here are again introduced with the themes of hope and lack of hope, especially when the poet mentions “the god of small things.” The poet says this god, who represents those who are concerned about and have trust on the small things for happiness, doesn’t provide any comfort to the needy.

He says there is no place for small things in “real time.” Though we remain focussed on the little things for the least and greatest joy they bring for us, in actuality, they have no such power to do so, taking into account the tyranny and awful aspect of this world. By virtue of his careful selection of words, Ali creates an amazing picture of how the world’s inhabitants put an end to their and other’s happy lives. The hopelessness of god and the suffering of others exist due to the inhumanness of humans. Life does appear wonderful, but in actuality, it isn’t.

When Ali says, “Please afterwards empty my pockets of keys,” this depicts that the world is full of brigands and thieves, and there is no such place in the whole world where our valued possessions could be safe and sound. The speaker of the poem himself says why we shouldn’t confide others for our secrets. If there were existence of a generous and kind world, we could have trusted one another. Today, Ali says, we are surrounded by the non-trustable people. In order to support his warning, the poet provides facts and evidence. In fact, the sixth stanza of the poem helps in holding Ali’s essential and actual warning, which goes like: “It’s hell in the city of gold in real time.”

Lines 13-16

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.

Ali makes a very captivating selection in the seven and eight stanzas. The careful and entrancing use of these words shows what he actually means when he says, “It’s “hell.” The use of this imagery in the seventh stanza also creates emotion in the poem. We (as readers) can almost notice the angels weeping while Satan takes away their hope for the people. Ali says, “God’s angels again are—for Satan!—forlorn.” He means that people today have been empowered by Satan, and all the angels on this earth are now hopeless and sad. It is almost a win-win situation for Satan. Explaining clearly, Ali says that we ourselves surrendered this power to Satan, and led our nation to corruption.

Further in the second line of the seventh stanza, the poet says, “Salvation was bought but sin sold…” He asks how sin can be sold while salvation is bought. There is a double standard in this stanza. Hypocrites try for their sole salvation; still they keep on selling sin to others, as a result thoughtlessly taking others into an even further corrupt nation.

In the eighth stanzas, when the poet says, “And who is the terrorist, who is the victim? We’ll know if the country is polled in real time,” he means we, as a society, are unable to differentiate between the villains and the heroes because a lot of people in and around us have disguised themselves as good, but in actuality, they are a wolf in the skin of a tiger. These are the very people who raise their fingers just to show themselves victim, but in actuality, they aren’t.

And this could be the reason why we are unable to distinguish between a victim and a terrorist. As said in the poem, “We’ll find out if the country is polled,” which means that we will come to know when the people make their decision.

Lines 17-20

“Behind a door marked DANGER” are being unwound
the Street of Farewell’s now unrolled in real time.

Ali has written these two stanzas in different ways, as compared to the previous ones. In these lines, he has capitalized on each letter of the word: “DANGER,” whereby he wants to make his readers understand that danger is not always where it is expected by us. All throughout the poem, the poet wants to warn his readers about something that would take place in the future. He says, “Behind a door marked DANGER are being unwound / the prayers my friend had enscrolled in real time.”

People are silent. Ali asks the question: ‘what do they need to worry about?’ Unless they come out, the danger neither can be defined nor faced. Though everyone needs to get worried about this unknown danger, he has many other businesses to take care of, and his past is one of those things that he has to handle first of all. The stanza ten of this poem tells that this haunting person (poet) has been swallowing him up for long. Ali here makes use of several metaphors that also abets the imagery of the poem. For instance, he says, “The throat of the rear-view and sliding down it…” The meaning of which is that while looking at the mirror, the poet is thinking about his past, and recollects what all things he did in his past, what all he missed out. Things in our lives are like the things in the rearview of our cars that though look far in the mirror, in actuality are very close to us. Our past actions affect our future, and this has been best defined and presented by Ali in this stanza. In the same stanza, the poet also talks about “the Street of Farewell,” which means a street of goodbyes. The future has both death and tragedy for us, and Ali has made it quite clear by employing exact detail.

Lines 21-27

I heard the incessant dissolving of silk—
I felt my heart growing so old in real time.
Now Friend, the Belovèd has stolen your words—
Read slowly: The plot will unfold in real time.
(for Daniel Hall)

Continuing his warning by virtue of his beautiful use of metaphor and poetic skills as well as tools, Ali says in the eleven stanza of the poem, “I heard the incessant dissolving of silk.” This means that the person in the poem heard an awe-struck sound of something beautiful, which is dissolving into nothing. This is magnificent imagery because we, as readers, can notice a man engulfing his ears and just crying as the sound is too loud to hear. The poem further reveals the heart of the poet is getting old day by day, “I felt my heart growing so old in real time.” Similarly, the poet is also getting aged and old and is now too exhausted to wait for the future to come. But being still hopeful, he remains stuck and tries to discover something to live for.

The stanzas twelve and thirteen of the poem hold a lot of significance in the poem. Here in the twelfth stanza, the readers are introduced with a woman, who was nowhere to be heard about and found out in the above stanzas of the poem, but we as readers can guess that she has been burned and her heart remains as ash. This woman could be thought of as the people’s hope. Being a citizen of this horrifying world, we must grip hope as and when we get an opportunity. This can be best done by living in and for the moment as we hardly know when it’s our last.

On the other hand, stanza thirteen of the poem is poet’s goodbye, when he says; “Now Friend, the Belovèd has stolen your words—” The Beloved in this quote introduces the muse of the poem. This may also mean that he is unable to express himself now. Thus, having gone through all of the sufferings of the world, in addition to the loss of the muse, Ali sends one last warning through his poem about the future to come. He says, “Read slowly: The plot will unfold in real time,” which implies that we are not left with much time, and we even can’t do much as the life itself has written  “The plot,” which will unfold in the near future. We don’t have much time left to change the future because there is always an upsurge of a new problem waiting for us as soon as we think of doing something to get rid of our previous problems. Thus, through this warning, Ali gets succeeded in conveying what he feels.

Final Commentary

Through In Real Time ghazal poem, Ali simply basks: ‘what kind of world do we live in?’ His intention by asking this (these) question (s) he simply wants to provoke his readers and make them think more deeply about the shallowness and hollowness of the human race. He says that the human race is a very self-centered and egoistic race. Without worrying about others, we just care about our pain. Sufferings of other people don’t matter for us unless we ourselves get into these pains. However, this way, we bring ourselves closer to disaster, and dig deep around us for our future wherein we will fall into some or other day.

About Agha Shahid Ali

Born in India in 1949, Agha Shahid Ali grew up as Muslim in Kashmir. He studied at the University of Delhi and the University of Kashmir. He also earned a Ph.D. in English from Penn State in 1984, and an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in 1985. Ali was a prolific poet and professor who taught in the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at the University of Massachusetts, but unfortunately, he died early on December 8th, 2001, due to brain cancer.

Themes in Ali’s Poems

The major themes in Ali’s poems include the past (fixation with ancestry and history), loss (of culture, of home, of identity, of stability), separation (being away from home; home itself being separated and disjointed), dislocation (feeling displaced; in cultural limbo: Kashmiri-American), exile (loss of home: feeling like a foreigner no matter where you go).

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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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