“Vacating an Apartment” by Agha Shahid Ali

Agha Shahid Ali
Agha Shahid Ali

I spent the 2013 Christmas/New Year season catching up on some of my favorite magazines and review rags.  I came upon this piece on Agha Shahid Ali:  The Veiled Sweets: Agha Shahid Ali’s Surprising Use of Humor in The Quarterly Conversation.  I’ve been thinking of Shahid ever since.  Not that he is ever far from mine or my mother’s thoughts.  In our lives, there is a time before and a time after Shahid. I’ve struggled to pinpoint the precise moment when Shahid appeared in our lives; I can’t.  It’s like we looked up one day and there he was. He was gregarious, he mocked, he teased, he cared for people, he cooked. Shahid drew people to him. In the time after his early and untimely death, I’ve learnt things about Shahid’s grief that might have informed his zeal to so earnestly celebrate life.

It’s been a strange beginning to the year — one that has been marked with so much death, both private and public.  Today marks 15 years since the murder of Amadou Diallo who was shot at 41 times by officers of the New York Police Department. Amadou was felled by 19 of those bullets.  He was unarmed.

The article that I previously mentioned considers Shahid’s use of humor.  It was Shahid’s way to have us smile and laugh, if just a bit, at life’s bleak moments and the devastation it often brings. It’s been a period of contemplating lives lived in the margins and of the legacies left by early death.  Heavy and bleak thoughts that can only be made easier if accompanied by an Agha Shahid Ali poem.

Vacating an Apartment

Efficient as Fate,
each eye a storm trooper,
the cleaners wipe my smile
with Comet fingers
and tear the plaster
off my suicide note.
They learn everything
from the walls’ eloquent tongues.
Now, quick as genocide,
they powder my ghost for a cinnamon jar.
They burn my posters
(India and Heaven in flames),
whitewash my voicestains,
make everything new,
clean as Death.
When the landlord brings new tenants,
even Memory is a stranger.
The woman, her womb solid with the future,
instructs her husband’s eyes
to clutch insurance policies.
They ignore my love affair with the furniture,
the corner table that memorized
my crossed-out lines.
Oh, she’s beautiful,
a hard-nippled Madonna.
The landlord gives them my autopsy;
they sign the lease.
The room is beating with bottled infants,
and I’ve stopped beating.
I’m moving out holding tombstones in my hands.
Amitav Ghosh wrote a moving tribute to Agha Shahid Ali here: ‘The Ghat of the Only World’: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn.