Or How Reading Agha Shahid Ali Changed the Way I Write
“In the Name of the Merciful” let night begin.
I must light lamps without her – at every shrine?
God then is only the final assassin.
On a hot summer afternoon, I find out that the eighth world of Super Mario Bros. is laid out like a labyrinth. The earlier seven Bowsers that have been killed were false bowsers. The real Bowser must be found and defeated in this last world. It is almost impossible to find a way out of the dark underground with dangerous Koopa Troopas keeping a careful watch, Goombas that must be trampled upon, and a sea of lava flowing beneath – at the end of which stands the ultimate enemy. The king of the kingdom possesses immense strength, is almost indestructible, and has mastered the occult arts. He almost always conspires against Mario but in the RPG series he occasionally collaborates with Mario to defeat evil greater than himself.
“Who is god?” my grandmother reads aloud from a newspaper at a distance while peeling baby potatoes.
I look at my grandmother, then look at the real Bowser and think God then is only the final assassin. God breathes fire and the screen flashes that no more lives remain. The game is suddenly over.
Jesus and his disciples, passing through the plain of Karbala, saw “a herd of gazelles, crowding together and weeping.” Astonished, the disciples looked at their Lord. He spoke: “At this site the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) will one day be killed.” And Jesus wept. Oh, that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain …
Syria hear me
Over Hussain’s mansion what night has fallen
(from Karbala: A history of the ‘House of Sorrow’ and Zainab’s Lament in Damascus)
It was in the humidity of Calcutta that I discovered the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, between classes at Jadavpur, or it was in the dusty summers of Delhi when Rehman came every Tuesday from J.N.U. to Patparganj to teach me the arabesques of Nastali’q, or it was in the unkempt lanes of old Jaipur laid out in the pattern of nine planets, or it was on the grave of Forough Farrokhzad in Tehran where one day I will travel to place a rose like that old Bengali man I had once known, or it was in Oulan-Batore of the seventeenth century when I lit the lamps of a Buddhist monastery with my ancient hands, or it was in St. Petersburg in the middle of a performance of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre, or it was in the salt marshes of Brittany where I saw a girl make necklaces of salt flakes more brilliant than diamonds, or it was in Abomey of the twenty-seventh century, or it was in Karbala where I once dreamt every person turning into the Hussain of their own tragedy, composing with their own life a structurally unsound ghazal of grief.
In my dream, every person in the world is Hussain and every person asks the same question to the final assassin, “Over Hussain’s mansion what night has fallen?”
His wings waxed silver to track the Atlantic
he won’t – like any body – let
the soul go So delete my emerald beats
(in each colour all night a candle burns)
Hit ENTER the Mediterranean
this minute is uncut sapphire
(from Barcelona Airport)
There lived a woman off the coast of Crete, fifty thousand years ago, who once carved a naked woman and a skull on a rock that is yet to be found by archaeologists as a marker of an unknown civilization. I declare today that I am the sole survivor of that lost civilization, and I am the one who carved the unfound petroglyph under the walnut tree on a lazy summer afternoon. The fossils of Kreta await the return of the woman older than the oldest olive tree.
Where others drown, I alone dance en pointe.
On my every step, a part of the Mediterranean crystallizes into uncut sapphire. Some day I will wear it on my finger.