A dying man, an expatriate from Kashmir, asks the author to write something
about him after he is gone. The following piece is what Amitav Ghosh wrote
to keep his promise.
THE first time that Agha Shahid Ali spoke to me about his
approaching death was on 25 April 2001. The conversation
began routinely. I had telephoned to remind him that we had
been invited to a friend's house for lunch and that I was going
to come by his apartment to pick him up. Although he had
been under treatment for cancer for some fourteen months,
Shahid was still on his feet and perfectly lucid, except for
occasional lapses of memory. I heard him thumbing through
his engagement book and then suddenly he said: " Oh dear. I
can't see a thing." There was a brief pause and then he added:
"I hope this doesn't mean that I'm dying..."
Although Shahid and I had talked a great deal over the last
many weeks, I had never before heard him touch on the subject
of death. I did not know how to respond: his voice was
completely at odds with the content of what he had just said,
light to the point of jocularity.
I mumbled something innocuous:
"No Shahid” of course not. You'll be fine.' He cut me short. In
a tone of voice that was at once quizzical and direct, he said:
"When it happens I hope you'll write something about me.'
I was shocked into silence and a long moment passed before
I could bring myself to say the things that people say on such
occasions. "Shahid you'll be fine; you have to be strong...'
From the window of my study I could see a corner of the
building in which he lived, some eight blocks away. It was just a
few months since he moved there: he had been living a few miles
away, in Manhattan, when he had a sudden blackout in February
2000. After tests revealed that he had a malignant brain tumour,
he decided to move to Brooklyn, to be close to his youngest
sister, Sameetah, who teaches at the Pratt Instituteâ€”a few blocks
away from the street where I live.
Shahid ignored my reassurances. He began to laugh and it
was then that I realised that he was dead serious. I understood
that he was entrusting me with a quite specific charge: he wanted
me to remember him not through the spoken recitatives of memory
and friendship, but through the written word. Shahid knew all
too well that for those writers for whom things become real only
in the process of writing, there is an inbuilt resistance to dealing
with loss and bereavement. He knew that my instincts would
have led me to search for reasons to avoid writing about his death:
I would have told myself that I was not a poet; that our friendship
was of recent date; that there were many others who knew him
much better and would be writing from greater understanding
and knowledge. All this Shahid had guessed and he had decided
to shut off those routes while there was still time.
"You must write about me."
Clear though it was that this imperative would have to be
acknowledged, I could think of nothing to say: what are the
words in which one promises a friend that one will write about
him after his death? Finally, I said: "Shahid, I will: I'll do the
best I can".
By the end of the conversation I knew exactly what I had to
do. I picked up my pen, noted the date, and wrote down
everything I remembered of that conversation. This I continued
to do for the next few months: it is this record that has made it
possible for me to fulfil the pledge I made that day.
I knew Shahid's work long before I met him. His 1997
collection, The Country Without a Post Office, had made a
powerful impression on me. His voice was like none I had
ever heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined,
engaged and yet deeply inward. Not for him the mock-casual
almost-prose of so much contemporary poetry: his was a voice
that was not ashamed to speak in a bardic register1. I knew of
no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like:
"Mad heart, be brave.'
In 1998, I quoted a line from The Country Without a Post
Office in an article that touched briefly on Kashmir. At the time
all I knew about Shahid was that he was from Srinagar and had
studied in Delhi. I had been at Delhi University myself, but
although our time there had briefly overlapped, we had never
met. We had friends in common however, and one of them put
me in touch with Shahid. In 1998 and 1999 we had several
conversations on the phone and even met a couple of times. But
we were no more than acquaintances until he moved to Brooklyn
the next year. Once we were in the same neighbourhood, we
began to meet for occasional meals and quickly discovered that
we had a great deal in common. By this time of course Shahid's
condition was already serious, yet his illness did not impede the
progress of our friendship. We found that we had a huge roster
of common friends, in India, America, and elsewhere; we
discovered a shared love of rogan josh, Roshanara Begum and
Kishore Kumar; a mutual indifference to cricket and an equal
attachment to old Bombay films. Because of Shahid's condition
even the most trivial exchanges had a special charge and
urgency: the inescapable poignance of talking about food and
half-forgotten figures from the past with a man who knew himself
to be dying, was multiplied, in this instance, by the knowledge
that this man was also a poet who had achieved greatness,
perhaps the only such that I shall ever know as a friend.
One afternoon, the writer Suketu Mehta, who also lives in
Brooklyn, joined us for lunch. Together we hatched a plan for
an adda â€” by definition, a gathering that has no agenda, other
than conviviality. Shahid was enthusiastic and we began to
meet regularly. From time to time other writers would join us.
On one occasion a crew arrived with a television camera. Shahid
was not in the least bit put out: "I'm so shameless; I just love
Shahid had a sorcerer's ability to transmute the mundane
into the magical. Once I accompanied Iqbal, his brother, and
Hena, his sister, on a trip to fetch him home from hospital. This
was on 21 May: by that time he had already been through several
unsuccessful operations. Now he was back in hospital to undergo
a surgical procedure that was intended to relieve the pressure
on his brain. His head was shaved and the shape of the tumour
was visible upon his bare scalp, its edges outlined by metal
sutures. When it was time to leave the ward a blue-uniformed
hospital escort arrived with a wheelchair. Shahid waved him
away, declaring that he was strong enough to walk out of the
hospital on his own. But he was groggier than he had thought
and his knees buckled after no more than a few steps. Iqbal
went running off to bring back the wheelchair while the rest of
us stood in the corridor, holding him upright. At that moment,
leaning against the cheerless hospital wall, a kind of rapture
descended on Shahid. When the hospital orderly returned with
the wheelchair Shahid gave him a beaming smile and asked
where he was from. "Ecuador', the man said, and Shahid clapped
his hands gleefully together, "Spanish!' he cried, at the top of his
voice. "I always wanted to learn Spanish. Just to read Lorca2".
Shahid's gregariousness had no limit: there was never an
evening when there wasn't a party in his living room. "I love it
that so many people are here,' he told me once. "I love it that
people come and there's always food. I love this spirit of festivity;
it means that I don't have time to be depressed."
His apartment was a spacious and airy split-level, on the
seventh floor of a newly-renovated building. There was a
cavernous study on the top floor and a wide terrace that
provided a magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline, across
the East River. Shahid loved this view of the Brooklyn waterfront
slipping, like a ghat, into the East River, under the glittering
lights of Manhattan.
The journey from the foyer of Shahid's building to his door
was a voyage between continents: on the way up the rich
fragrance of rogan josh and haak would invade the dour, grey
interior of the elevator; against the background of the songs
and voices that were always echoing out of his apartment, even
the ringing of the doorbell had an oddly musical sound.
Suddenly, Shahid would appear, flinging open the door, releasing
a great cloud of heeng into the frosty New York air, "Oh, how
nice," he would cry, clapping his hands, "how nice that you've
come to see your little Mos-lem!" Invariably, there'd be some
half-dozen or more people gathered inside â€” poets, students,
writers, relatives and in the kitchen someone would always
be cooking or making tea. Almost to the very end, even as his
life was being consumed by his disease, he was the centre of a
perpetual carnival, an endless mela of talk, laughter, food and,
of course, poetry.
No matter how many people there were, Shahid was never
so distracted as to lose track of the progress of the evening's
meal. From time to time he would interrupt himself to shout
directions to whoever was in the kitchen: "yes, now, add the
dahi now.' Even when his eyesight was failing, he could tell from
the smell alone, exactly which stage the rogan josh had reached.
And when things went exactly as they should, he would sniff
the air and cry out loud: "Ah! Khana ka kya mehek hai!'
Shahid was legendary for his prowess in the kitchen,
frequently spending days over the planning and preparation of
a dinner party. It was through one such party, given while he
was in Arizona, that he met James Merrill, the poet who was to
radically alter the direction of his poetry: it was after this
encounter that he began to experiment with strict, metrical
patterns and verse forms. No one had a greater influence on
Shahid's poetry than James Merrill: indeed, in the poem in
which he most explicitly prefigured his own death, "I Dream I
Am At the Ghat of the Only World,' he awarded the envoy to
Merrill: "SHAHID, HUSH. THIS IS ME, JAMES. THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES.'
Shahid placed great store on authenticity and exactitude in
cooking and would tolerate no deviation from traditional methods
and recipes: for those who took short cuts, he had only pity. He
had a special passion for the food of his region, one variant of it
in particular: "Kashmiri food in the Pandit style'. I asked him
once why this was so important to him and he explained that it
was because of a recurrent dream, in which all the Pandits had
vanished from the valley of Kashmir and their food had become
extinct. This was a nightmare that haunted him and he returned
to it again and again, in his conversation and his poetry.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
The Ghat of the Only World
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory . . .
There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself.
There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine, what would not have
been possible in the world?
Once, in conversation, he told me that he also loved Bengali
food. I protested, "But Shahid, you've never even been to Calcutta3 ".
"No,' he said. "But we had friends who used to bring us that
food. When you ate it you could see that there were so many
things that you didn't know about, everywhere in the country..."
What I say is: why can't you be happy with the cuisines and the
clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?' He paused
and added softly, "At least here we have been able to make a
space where we can all come together because of the good things."
Of the many "good things' in which he took pleasure, none
was more dear to him than the music of Begum Akhtar. He
had met the great ghazal singer when he was in his teens,
through a friend, and she had become an abiding presence
and influence in his life. Shahid had a fund of stories about
her sharpness in repartee.
Shahid was himself no mean practitioner of repartee. On
one famous occasion, at Barcelona airport, he was stopped by a
security guard just as he was about to board a plane. The guard,
a woman, asked: "What do you do?"
"I'm a poet," Shahid answered.
"What were you doing in Spain?"
No matter what the question, Shahid worked poetry into
his answer. Finally, the exasperated woman asked: "Are you
carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other
passengers?" At this Shahid clapped a hand to his chest and
cried: "Only my heart.'
This was one of his great Wildean moments, and it was to
occasion the poem "Barcelona Airport'. He treasured these
moments: "I long for people to give me an opportunity to answer
questions', he told me once. On 7 May I had the good fortune to
be with him when one such opportunity presented itself. Shahid
was teaching at Manhattan's Baruch College in the Spring
semester of 2000 and this was to be his last class â€” indeed the
last he was ever to teach. The class was to be a short one for he
had an appointment at the hospital immediately afterwards. I
had heard a great deal about the brilliance of Shahid's teaching,
but this was the first and only time that I was to see him perform
in a classroom. It was evident from the moment we walked in
that the students adored him: they had printed a magazine and
dedicated the issue to him. Shahid for his part was not in the
least subdued by the sadness of the occasion. From beginning
to end, he was a sparkling diva, Akhtar incarnate, brimming
with laughter and nakhra. When an Indian student walked in
late he greeted her with the cry; "Ah my little subcontinental
has arrived.' Clasping his hands, he feigned a swoon. "It stirs
such a tide of patriotism in me to behold another South Asian."
His time at Penn State he remembered with unmitigated
pleasure: "I grew as a reader, I grew as a poet, I grew as a lover."
He fell in with a vibrant group of graduate students, many of
whom were Indian. This was, he often said, the happiest time of
his life. Later Shahid moved to Arizona to take a degree in creative
writing. This in turn was followed by a series of jobs in colleges
and universities : Hamilton College , the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst, and finally, the University of Utah
in Salt Lake City, where he was appointed professor in 1999. He
was on leave from Utah, doing a brief stint at New York University,
when he had his first blackout in February 2000.
After 1975, when he moved to Pennsylvania, Shahid lived
mainly in America. His brother was already there and they were
later joined by their two sisters. But Shahid's parents continued
to live in Srinagar and it was his custom to spend the summer
months with them there every year: "I always move in my heart
between sad countries.' Travelling between the United States
and India he was thus an intermittent but first-hand witness
to the mounting violence that seized the region from
the late 1980s onwards:
It was '89, the stones were not far, signs of change everywhere
(Kashmir would soon be in literal flames)...
The steady deterioration of the political situation in
Kashmir, the violence and counter -violence, had a powerful
effect on him. In time it became one of the central subjects of
his work: indeed, it could be said that it was in writing of
Kashmir that he created his finest work. The irony of this is
that Shahid was not by inclination a political poet. I heard him
say once: "If you are from a difficult place and that's all you
have to write about then you should stop writing. You have to
respect your art, your form, that is just as important as what
you write about."
Anguished as he was about Kashmir's destiny, Shahid
resolutely refused to embrace the role of victim that could so
easily have been his. Had he done so, he could no doubt have
easily become a fixture on talk shows and news programmes.
But Shahid never had any doubt about his calling: he was a
poet, schooled in the fierce and unforgiving art of language.
Although respectful of religion, he remained a firm believer in
the separation of politics and religious practice.
Shahid's gaze was not political in the sense of being framed
in terms of policy and solutions. In the broadest sense, his vision
tended always towards the inclusive and ecumenical4, an outlook
that he credited to his upbringing. He spoke often of a time in
his childhood when he had been seized by the desire to create a
small Hindu temple in his room in Srinagar. He was initially
hesitant to tell his parents, but when he did they responded
with an enthusiasm equal to his own. His mother bought him
murtis and other accoutrements5 and for a while he was
assiduous6 in conducting pujas at this shrine. This was a
favourite story. "Whenever people talk to me about Muslim
fanaticism,' he said to me once, " I tell them how my mother
helped me make a temple in my room."
I once remarked to Shahid that he was the closest that
Kashmir had to a national poet. He shot back: "A national poet,
maybe. But not a nationalist poet; please not that.' In the title
poem of The Country Without a Post Office, a poet returns to
Kashmir to find the keeper of a fallen minaret:
"Nothing will remain, everything's finished,"
I see his voice again: "This is a shrine
of words. You'll find your letters to me. And mine to
you. Come son and tear open these vanished envelopes"...
This is an archive. I've found the remains
of his voice, that map of longings with no limit.
In this figuring of his homeland, he himself became one of
the images that were spinning around the dark point of stillness
both Shahid, witness and martyr , his destiny
inextricably linked with Kashmir's, each prefigured by the other.
I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain...
Among my notes is a record of a telephone conversation on
5 May. The day before he had gone to the hospital for an important
test: a scan that was expected to reveal whether or not the course
of chemotherapy that he was then undergoing had had the
desired effect. All other alternative therapies and courses of
treatment had been put off until this report.
The scan was scheduled for 2.30 in the afternoon. I called
his number several times in the late afternoon and early
evening , there was no response. I called again the next
morning and this time he answered. There were no preambles.
He said, "Listen Amitav, the news is not good at all. Basically
they are going to stop all my medicines now â€” the chemotherapy
and so on. They give me a year or less. They'd suspected that I
was not responding well because of the way I look. They will
give me some radiation a little later. But they said there was
not much hope."
Dazed, staring blankly at my desk, I said: "What will you do
"I would like to go back to Kashmir to die.' His voice was
quiet and untroubled. "Now I have to get my passport, settle my
will and all that. I don't want to leave a mess for my siblings.
But after that I would like to go to Kashmir. It's still such a
feudal system there and there will be so much support and
my father is there too. Anyway, I don't want my siblings to have
to make the journey afterwards, like we had to with my mother."
Later, because of logistical and other reasons, he changed
his mind about returning to Kashmir: he was content to be laid
to rest in Northampton, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred
to the memory of his beloved Emily Dickinson. But I do not
think it was an accident that his mind turned to Kashmir in
speaking of death. Already, in his poetic imagery, death, Kashmir,
and Shahid had become so closely overlaid as to be
inseparable, like old photographs that have melted together in
Yes, I remember it,
the day I'll die, I broadcast the crimson,
so long ago of that sky, its spread air,
its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth
bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went
on the day I'll die, post the guards, and he,
keeper of the world's last saffron, rowed me
on an island the size of a grave. On
two yards he rowed me into the sunset,
past all pain. On everyone's lips was news
of my death but only that beloved couplet,
broken, on his:
"If there is a paradise on earth
It is this, it is this, it is this."
The last time I saw Shahid was on 27 October, at his
brother's house in Amherst. He was intermittently able to
converse and there were moments when we talked just as we
had in the past. He was aware, as he had long been, of his
approaching end and he had made his peace with it. I saw no
trace of anguish or conflict: surrounded by the love of his
family and friends, he was calm, contented, at peace. He had
said to me once, "I love to think that I'll meet my mother in
the afterlife, if there is an afterlife.' I had the sense that as
the end neared, this was his supreme consolation. He died
peacefully, in his sleep, at 2 a.m. on 8 December.
Now, in his absence, I am amazed that so brief a friendship
has resulted in so vast a void. Often, when I walk into my living
room, I remember his presence there, particularly on the night
when he read us his farewell to the world: "I Dream I Am At the
Ghat of the Only World..."
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