Another Poem on Begum Akhtar's Death

In 1979 Ali published a volume of poetry titled In Memory of Begum Akhtar and Other Poems, in which the following poem first appeared. It has been reprinted in subsequent volumes since.

In Memory of Begum Akhtar

(d. 30 October 1974)


Your death in every paper,
boxed in the black and white
of photographs, obituaries,

the sky warm, blue, ordinary,
no hint of calamity,

no room for sobs,
even between the lines.

I wish to talk of the end of the world.


Do your fingers still scale the hungry
Bhairavi, or simply the muddy shroud?

Ghazal, that death-sustaining widow,
sobs in dingy archives, hooked to you.
She wears her grief, a moon-soaked white,
corners the sky into disbelief.

Ghazal, that death-sustaining widow,
You've finally polished catastrophe,
the note you seasoned with decades
of Ghalib, Mir, Faiz:

I innovate on a note-less raga.


Exiling you to cold mud,
your coffin, stupid and white,
astounds by its ignorance.

It wears its blank pride,
defleshing the nomad's echo.
I follow you to the earth's claw,

shouldering time's shadow.
This is history's bitter arrogance,
this moment of the bone's freedom.


One cannot cross-examine the dead,

but I've taken the circumstantial evidence,
your records, pictures, tapes,
and offered a careless testimony.

I wish to summon you in defence,
but the grave's damp and cold, now when
Malhar longs to stitch the rain,

wrap you in its notes: you elude
completely. The rain doesn't speak,
and life, once again, closes in,
reasserting this earth where the air
meets in a season of grief.

(for Saleem Kidwai)

« Back to "Snow on the Desert"