Saturday, December 10, 2011

Agha Shahid Ali: Ten Years On

December, 2011

‘...Shahid was invited at the India International Centre for a poetry recitation...A funny incident took place...As the two of us [Shahid and Irfan], along with Sufia aunty [Shahid’s mother] entered, a former Governor of J&K State was eating pastry - those days militancy was at its peak in Kashmir. The moment he saw two Kashmiris in Pherans he thought we were militants and within no time he left his pastry half-eaten, Shahid couldn’t control himself and laughed. For no fault of ours the Governor had left but, as he said later, ‘the Pheran had done its trick’’ - Irfan Hassan, Shahid’s close friend

Agha Shahid Ali (ASA): ‘[reading out his ‘The Floating Post-Office’ from his collection ‘The Country without a Post-Office’ in an interview with William Moebius (WM), around 1998, nearing the end of the poem]...For if letters / come, I will answer those letters / and my year will be tense, alive / with love! The temple receives the road: / there, the rain has come to a close. / Here the waters rise; our each word / in the fog awaits a sentence...he gives his word: / Our letters will be rowed through olive / canals, tense waters no one can close.
WM [quiet for a bit, soaking it in, then]: ‘That’s remarkable, just a remarkable...’
ASA [amused, chimes in]: ‘Well, there’s nothing like a compliment [both laugh] for a poet. They’re so shameless, they pretend [campily] O you’re just saying that [laughs again]’ - Interview, ‘Poets of New England’ series     

Agha Shahid Ali, around 1998 (Images from the interview for the 'Poets of New England' series with William Moebius)

William Moebius, Faculty, Comparative Literature, U Mass, Amherst 
This first week of December just gone in Delhi was the week of Kashmir. Two events which could not be more unlike each other cited Kashmir, cast it in their own particular image, one distorted by political presumption, another trying to see through years of such distortion.

On the 2nd of December, 2011, Omar Abdullah, Jammu and Kashmir’s doe-eyed CM inaugurated a 3-day festival celebrating his State at the India International Centre, Delhi with words that could be entered as definition for politics-induced amnesia: ‘For far too long,’ he said, ‘J&K has only been seen through the prism of its security environment...I think the time has come that we should start looking at JnK in a positive light.’ His father then explained to the audience and, more specifically in the words of the anchor, to ‘our friends here in the electronic and the print media’ what the Abdullah family meant by this ‘positive light’ - to see Kashmir as little else than a tourist destination, to see its arts and crafts, music and dance, flora and fauna, all in order to compensate for its other less ‘positive’ images, to somehow find inoffensive, apolitical frames to understand the region. During the half an hour they spoke, father and son, and later the (non-pastry-eating) Governor of J&K, they sounded like agents offering honeymoon packages and weekend getaways to Dilliwallahs. It was like they were throwing the political question of Kashmir out from the backdoor of culture. ‘Look northwards,’ Omar said, ‘when you want to travel, we look forward to welcoming you.’

Nauseating amount of myth-making followed this, all geared towards Delhi’s media and what Omar had (not so) shockingly called his ‘target audience here in IIC...the cream of Delhi intelligentsia’. Kashmir was sold as firmly set on the yellow brick road to ‘normalcy’, successful Panchayat elections (mentioned four times at least) and a kind of tourist-friendliness that they seemed to prize above anything else, as if so long as this IIC intelligentsia believes that all is good in Kashmir, so long as they repeat it after him, verbatim, and write it in their columns in national dailies, Omar’s job seemed done and this 3-day fest would have earned back its costs.       

In this vein, Farookh Abdullah, sure of this IIC’s audience’s laughter, went on to crack many of what he thought were good jokes: ‘Aap chuttiyon mein Kashmir zaroor peete hain, wo pee lein, bas talab kinare se zara door baithein, kaheen gir na jayein...lekin aayiye zaroor...Pahalgam mein mujh jaise buddhe mein bhi nayi jawani paida ho gayi...Gulmarg mein sardiyon mein aayiye...skiing kariye (‘Do make it a point to come to Kashmir during your holidays...those who drink, do drink, just sit away from the edges of lakes, what if you fall over...but do come...In Pahalgam even an oldie like me feels all charged up and young...Come to Gulmarg in the winters...Do some skiing’)’.

Delhi cameras were lapping up this whole J&K public relations scene which is why it was staged in the first place. There is a very careful selection of scenes which the J&K State government lets pass to the national media. Some scenes just have to struggle to get out because they interrupt the anodyne story that the Abdullahs and their like are trying to sell. In the last week of November this year, four photojournalists - the carriers of these scenes - were beaten up on the streets of the Old City in Srinagar by the CRPF jawans and the local police because they were covering the Friday prayer protests against the human rights violations by the Indian troops. Umar Mehraj, video journalist for the Associated Press who was present there, had his camera broken and heard those forces shouting ‘Uthao, uthao video ab (‘Shoot, shoot the video now’)’. Another photojournalist Yawar Kabli was also beaten up and had his cameras snatched away. There is an anxiousness about what images get to travel and what story they tell of Kashmir. It is this anxiety that brings such fests to the doorstep of Delhi, it is this anxiety that steals the very equipment that produces carbon-copies of whatever it sees in front, the apparatus that extends the eyes and arms of Kashmir’s many witnesses. It is the anxiety about what people outside Kashmir get to see, on the basis of which they might form an independent interpretation of this story of ‘normalcy’.

The Abdullahs have a knack of this thing - knowing how media works. They have read their Sontag kunjis well. They know that the first function of a photograph or a video is giving evidence, is being a witness to something, that in its final turn, the image can clear doubt, can incriminate. They know that once you see a photograph of something, no amounts of press manipulation will be able to simply deny it. They have worked out the fact that today ‘our very sense of situation is...articulated by the camera’s interventions. The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing. After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed.’ In J&K today this finds a perverse interpretation: if you can deal with the picture, you have already effectively dealt with the event. And if no one sees the picture, the event has not happened at all. This is the fear of the figure of the witness. ‘Uthao, uthao video ab’. Witness, whose very root is the Old English, wit, which implies knowledge. If there is no witness to something, you will never really know of it. ‘If you leave,’ Shahid Ali wrote, ‘who will prove that my cry existed?’

Six days after this festival began, another event on Kashmir in Delhi was spun around this particular figure of the witness, replacing any uneasiness with this figure with a sense of love and replacing official insistence on amnesia with collective efforts at remembrance. A number of people, mainly among them Kashmiri students, had organized this event at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on the tenth death anniversary of the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001). Shahid had died on 8th December, 2001 in Amherst, Massachusetts, a culmination of a life of poetry and teaching whose five decades spanned Kashmir, India and the United States. If I were to make a text-cloud of the kind of phrases that the people gathered that evening in Delhi used for Shahid, it would give an idea of how ten years after he left us, he is being remembered, how remembering him is crucial to retrieving an entire archive of events in Kashmir, of witnessing them today, of trying to work them out when many are asking you to forget them. In the words of those present, Shahid was ‘a true ambassador of our pain’, ‘the first global person to talk of the suffering of Kashmir’, he was, what several there claimed and some disputed, ‘for Kashmir what Mahmoud Darwish was for Palestine.’ Mahmoud Darwish, who once writing of the struggle of Palestinians, said that ‘we have triumphed over the plan to expel us from history.’ In the words of those present that evening in JNU, Shahid was doing the same work for Kashmir.

The event was marked by young Kashmiri poets reading from their own and Shahid’s works and by Shahid’s friends offering moving accounts of him. I had goosebumps when Muzaffar Karim, a young poet and a PhD student at JNU, read his nazm in remembrance of the poet. We are now ten years old in our loss of Shahid and to see him blossom in these ten years in the poetry of young Kashmiris both intensifies and calms that sense of loss. Muzaffar, dressed in an unassuming black leather jacket, read out slowly and powerfully, his poem ‘Shahid’:

‘Kagaz khaali hai
Srinagar ki raat
khayal muqeed
Shergadi thaney mein Kashmiri bacchey
merey dil key saarey harf
curfew mein atkey huwey


raat badhi shayirana guzri
din bhar ka'en-i-jung huwa
Malcolm X ney Fanon padha
aur maine Agha Shahid Ali

din bhar uski nanhi hatheliyoun sey
pathar goliyoun sey nikaltey rahey

aaj woh pakda gaya
aik khayal
jail ki chhat sey ulta latak raha hai

woh dard ki shidat badhatey hain
mai apni yaadasht

mai aik khayal key izhar ka muntazir hoon
woh 'Aazadi' chilata hai

bandooq uthti hai
khayal chalta hai
khoon behta hai

merey kalam ki nok sey
aik sitara ubharta hai
aur kagaz pey phael jaata hai
mai kagaz ko fold kar key
Shahid ki
Country Without Postoffice mein daal deta hoon’
There were wah wahs at regular intervals as Muzaffar read. I was scribbling down his lines in my notepad as he read them out but then somewhere in the middle I gave up and chose just to listen. It seemed that in Muzaffar’s poem, and in those of the other four young poets, Uzma Falak, Muhammad Gowhar Farooq, Zooni Tickoo and Manash Bhattacharjee, who read from their work that evening, that Shahid’s The Country Without a Post Office (hereafter The Country), in the fourteen years it has seen of its publication, had already become an intimate handbook for Kashmiris, a record of their most difficult memories and emotions of the last two decades. In a reading that I had attended earlier this year of Mirza Waheed’s novel The Collaborator, in my last year as a PhD student in London, I heard him talk of Shahid, saying, with an exaggeration that had the peculiar accuracy of emotion, that ‘Shahid Ali was a poet that every Kashmiri reads for breakfast’. His friend, Kamila Shamsie, also a novelist, who was chairing the event had added, ‘...and for lunch and dinner’. This was the sense that surrounded us in that room in JNU, the sense that as Najeeb Mubarki, one of the organisers put it in his opening words, that ‘we reclaim [Shahid] as a Kashmiri poet’, that we read him (though he hesitated a little, ‘Shahid hamari jaageer naheen hain (‘Shahid is not a property of Kashmiris alone’)) for what he has made of Kashmir in his verse, that we read him almost as the poet-laureates of the not-yet nations - Palestine or Kashmir - are read. Najeeb, like many others, prized The Country immensely in Shahid’s oeuvre. He went on to wonder if he would have ‘been here remembering Shahid if he had not written’ The Country. As a former literature student, he mused, perhaps he would have talked of the beauty, the symbols and the images of his other poetry, but he seemed skeptic if he would have come to such an event. The Country seemed to have outstripped others in its claim on Shahid. Shahid’s most remembered version that evening was the one reflected in the glass of Kashmir, and particularly, in the glass of this slim volume he wrote through most of the 90s.

As a non-Kashmiri (but who really is a ‘non-Kashmiri’ once he has read Shahid?), I had a passing insecure moment. I sat there trying to, in my head, claiming Shahid for myself every time I felt that others around me in the room somehow knew him better because they had that connection with Shahid that I did not, that connection with Kashmir where I had never been except through his verse. As an immediate panic-reaction I tried to jealousy guard my version of Shahid, the Shahid that I had first read in Delhi during my Masters in literature, the Shahid who pushed me to write a kind of poetry that was unafraid of grief or longing, the Shahid who had later helped me during my years in London to come to terms with some of those unrelenting moments we make for ourselves when we are in love, the Shahid who wrote of the man lying next with him in bed: ‘I pull my arm out from under his sleeping head, / limited to my own form, my Scream about me,’ and for him who lay far away, with someone else, ‘Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight? / Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?’ This was the Shahid I thought was mine alone.

As that first reaction passed, I realized that I had got it entirely wrong. Because this was exactly the Shahid that was also others’, Kashmiri or otherwise. I do not have to subtract Kashmir from Shahid to make him mine, he is mine lock, stock and barrel. Neither does Najeeb have to imagine a possibility of a Shahid without The Country for there will never be this Shahid, like there will never be a Shahid who is not locked in the constant present of the loss of his mother (The Country is dedicated to her) or a Shahid that does not love Hindi film songs or Begum Akhtar, one that does not die over paisleys, shikaras, embroidery or men. All of this was Shahid, all of it could lay claim on him. It is a stunted imagination, that I had seen exhibited by the Abdullahs a few days back in IIC, that would have us do the sort of compartmentalization I almost did, of forgetting something to remember others, of remembering selectively, wanting us to neuter the political question of Kashmir to cherish its art and culture. You can not do that to Shahid’s oeuvre because he never divided his concerns like that - ‘Kashmiri’ and ‘non-Kashmiri’. He did not sacrifice the ‘artistic’ in his poetry on the altar of what we think as ‘political’, did not let these categories form a double-bind for him, treating them instead as working each other out, framing each other. This is precisely the tension that makes The Country lasting.  

In a long interview that he did with William Moebius, his colleague, for the ‘Poets of New England’ series at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he had taught for years, he talked about the political circumstances when he first began to experiment with poetic forms under the influence of the American poet James Merrill, saying, ‘it also occurred nicely in the sense that when the troubles in Kashmir started, this huge subject matter, the destruction of one’s home, I found these forms [canzones, sestinas and villanelles] did not allow me to make things convenient for myself.’ Wearing a dark green kurta, with combed hair and with visible dark circles that hinted at sleepless nights, of reading or of thinking, he talked of the primacy of writing a good poem as one and the same thing as the importance of the political subject matter. When asked whether he saw himself as having a ‘mission’ with his poetry, as ‘representing that which is lost in Kashmir’, Shahid replied (and indulge the length of my quotation, for it seems that when Shahid is impassioned about the subject he is speaking of, he speaks at length): ‘Well, I am sure there is a political component but when I write, I am sensuously engaged with language, and imaginatively, so at that point I am just thinking how to make it the best possible poem I can, so I also want people, if they are reading something on Kashmir, I don’t want them to say, well he is the voice of Kashmir, because first of all I don’t have the right to do it because I write in English and that voices of Kashmir have to be in Kashmiri, so it would be an act of awful appropriation for me to say it, all I can say is, hmm, explain my subjective standing as someone who comes from a fairly privileged background, from a certain kind of family, in a cosmopolitan way, travelling everywhere around the world and writing in English, always having written in English. I say these are the givens, within those givens I do what I do, but make sure that when you study my work, when you see it, try not to turn me into a voice, for, hmm, for something, that I represent India or Islam or Kashmir or something like that. Since I am writing about this very difficult material which is obviously political, though I would say largely in an elegiac manner, the work has to be read politically, it can’t be divorced but I have always thought that any kind of poetry, political poetry, love poetry, whatever, becomes good poetry when the subject matter is apassioned with the writer that is, let’s say, if you can write about your country or about the sufferings of your people the way you would write about the loss of a lover, but if you’re going say I am going to write the meaningful political poem, unless, hmm, you might be able to do it with epic, but I don’t think you can quite do it with the lyric poem, it starts immediately smelling, of, [giggles a little] compost or something, I don’t know [laughs loudly], right now I have done this book [The Country], it was not an easy book to write, it took a lot out of me, I finished it and I can’t write, I don’t think I can write directly about this subject matter, and in a way, for me, a much bigger subject matter has occurred, which is the loss of my mother so I am writing very much about her, in which Kashmir comes in, in one way or the other, and will, but that, for me is a, hmm, for my personal life, is the end of the universe, it is even a greater loss for me than the sufferings of Kashmir.’

As he speaks, it becomes clear that there is no settled location of the political in Shahid’s verse, isolated from other ways of looking at the world around him, that he extends what Najeeb later in the evening called ‘a precognition of loss in all he sees’ to everything, he writes of Kashmir as he would write of his beloved or of his mother. It is as if he waits till political opinion becomes the deepest of all feelings, waits till politics begins to break your heart to then make of it a poem. It is also the historical turn of events that we live out which matches the idea of the political with other frames like longing, grief or love. Talking back from the late 90s about one of his most anthologized poems ‘Postcard from Kashmir’, a poem that he wrote in the mid-80s, he said that ‘there was no attempt at being political in this poem but it is read so politically by everybody but it was not a political poem, it was a poem of sheer longing’. The way he puts it, Shahid suggests that it is also the times that lend ‘politics’ to writing, that moulds them and its authors in certain shades of light, and that when these times change - and Kashmiris dream of change very passing hour - then that shade in which we see the writer will also change, he will be moulded a little differently, received and read in some other ways, will begin to glow by other lights.

Shohini Ghosh, a film-maker and teacher based in Delhi, who first met and befriended Shahid in 1993, and who spoke beautifully that evening of her friendship with him, tried to understand that evening in JNU and this contemporary reclamation of Shahid as pre-eminently Kashmiri in a way in which I think Shahid would have agreed, that is, within the changing historical push and shove of significances, how we alter our frames with the call of our times, but more importantly, how, at any given time, we should never let go of all of the other frames, memories or personas by which we understand and remember a person, never to let any one of them make the final claim on him. It was clear to her that this particular reclamation of Shahid is intimately tied with the on-going movement in Kashmir against the Indian occupation, but once azadi (‘freedom’), in all those complex forms in which the Kashmiris are voicing it and trying to think about it, once that azadi comes, once it gives people room to breathe, Shahid’s oeuvre will also be aired out, he will also be at large returned to all that he was along with being Kashmiri. But Shohini knew that we do not have to wait till then to populate this universe of ‘all that he was’. For these too, our dreams of azadi in Kashmir will receive Shahid (they have to) for everything in him and in his poetry, there is no other way for conceptualizing freedom fully, with love and with precision. She was doing exactly this that evening when she told all of us the story of how she first met Shahid. It is also the story about the many ways in which we can remember him, how we can respect and enjoy the plentiness of our own memories.

‘I was first introduced to Agha Shahid Ali,’ she read out, ‘by Mr. P.C Chatterjee and his wife Lola Chatterjee. The erudite and scholarly broadcasting pioneer Mr. P.C Chatterjee, more popularly known as Tiny Chatterjee, had been my teacher at the Mass Communication Research Centre in Jamia Millia Islamia where I took admission in 1985 while Lola was a much loved and respected teacher of English at Miranda House. Tiny Chatterjee and I shared many interests and during the three years that I was at the MCRC – two years studying and one year working - he kept saying that I should meet a young man called Agha Shahid Ali who, he was sure, I would like very much. Shahid’s parents lived in Zakir Bagh which is also where I lived then and Shahid lived in the US. When he came to visit his parents every year, Tiny Chatterjee would propose that I meet him. I was beginning to wonder whether he was trying to set me up with a prospective husband and since I had no intentions of being set up with a man or anyone else for that matter, I started jeopardizing Mr. Chatterjee’s many attempts to make us meet.’  
Shohini could not keep refusing her teacher so ‘finally in 1993,’ after she ‘had come back from studying in the US,’ she found herself, she told us ‘making my way to the Saket home of the Chatterjee’s where I had been invited to lunch with Shahid and his parents. When I knocked, the door was opened by Shahid who greeted me with a wide grin and locked me in warm embrace. It must have been quite a queer sight: a boyish woman wearing masculine clothes being warmly embraced by a beautifully feminine man who literally exuded cheerfulness. Mr. Chatterjee’s skills for match-making were far more imaginative than I had given him credit for.’
Shohini went on to remember that afternoon, calling it ‘one of the most joyful I can ever remember.’ ‘It was a sunny day,’ she read out to us, ‘with a nip in the air and the house was filled with laughter and relaxed banter. Everyone was in high spirits and the ever-smiling Shahid would frequently break into the Hindi song that seemed to have captured everyone’s imagination at the time:  “Choli ke Peechey Kya Hai.” [‘What lies behind the blouse?’] We sat for lunch during which Shahid sang, spoke, recited, giggled and whispered many irreverent comments. He talked pretty much constantly and everybody seemed to be quite used to it.  Since the Chatterjees’ were busy catching up with the Ali’s, Shahid and I had time to share notes about ourselves. After lunch had been cleared from the table, Shahid called everyone to attention and said that he would like to read out some ghazals that he had been writing.  We gathered under the sun in the balcony and heard him read out poems from sheaves of papers both typed and written in longhand. On many Shahid had made corrections and clearly the poems had been re-worked and revised many times. That afternoon,’ Shohini told us, ‘he read out what would later become the collection titled Country Without a Post Office which would be ranked amongst his finest works and earn him the appellation of the National Poet of Kashmir.’

I want to end this piece by telling you a story which might help us understand this figure of Shahid, one that Shohini so lovingly and caressingly brings into being in her memory, one who reads from The Country in the same afternoon, in the same breath as he breaks into the raunchy ‘Choli ke peechey kya hai’, one who mixes sincerity with irreverence and grief with effervescence. A Shahid who, as one of his former students in U Mass, Amherst Anita Mannur told me last year when I detained her one evening in London to tell me about her teacher, ‘used to laugh most loudly at his own jokes, a little girl kind of laugh,’ who when he was asked why he was going to Utah of all places when changing jobs, told his friends, Anita heard this from them, that ‘I just want to be the brownest thing in all of Utah’. An animated Shahid who, as Sanjay Kak, a Kashmiri film-maker told us that evening in JNU, was the only guy who used to somehow, because of his older sister Henna, gate-crash the all-girl 'dance-parties' that Sanjay's older female cousins used to have in his grand-father's house in Srinagar and no one managed to stop him, and who at the weddings of these cousins later in Delhi would sing and dance the most boisterously, with all the moves. Shahid was so many things: a Kashmiri poet, an American poet, writing of the land he loved, to the men he loved, a teacher who loved joking with his students as much as helping them, someone who was always anxious about his weight, also one who, as one of his friends of the early 70s told me, was ‘camp publicly in Delhi University, when being camp was dangerous’, who thought he had started looking like Begum Akhtar he so admired, who loved paan and Kashmiri kababs, whose cooking was to die for, especially his Pandit delicacies, who bought his car the ‘Nissan Stanza’, Kamila Shamsie told me, only because it was called ‘Stanza’ (what other car would a poet buy, he asked the woman from Nissan who had called him for a customer survey) he was all these things, together and none of them by itself. The story I want to relate finally is to hint how Shahid thought of being these many things in relation to poetry, in relation to his life itself, why he would always spill over any one label or frame of remembrance that we might end up giving him. It is also about an ability that Shahid prized deeply, and exemplified, that is, the ability to be someone else altogether, to beautifully claim and own that which is entirely unfamiliar. An ability which also allows each one of us to always make a claim on him, to keep him close to us.

In March earlier this year, Kamila Shamsie, Pakistani novelist and a student of Shahid Ali in the 90s met me near her house in Little Venice in London and told me of one of the techniques that Shahid Ali used to use with his MFA creative writing students in the U.S., a technique that makes all our projects of reclamation of Shahid more involved, more tentative and always inexhaustive. I had already read her obituary for Shahid in which she had written that as ‘a teacher, what he absolutely refused to do was mollycoddle his students’. The first class she took with Shahid, they were asked to write both fiction and poetry. ‘For the fiction side of things,’ she recollects ‘we had to write two stories. First a story employing magical realism (when the term was still fresh and new and hadn’t been beaten to death) and then a story in the voice of some-one of the opposite gender. The old “write what you know” adage he exposed as unimaginative and cowering. Shahid encouraged us to look beyond our personal lives, beyond our personal notions of the plausible, and allow our imaginations free rein...Expansiveness,’ she emphasized, ‘is the word I most associate with Shahid when I think of the ways in which he talked about fiction.’

To add to this episode, Shamsie told me that afternoon that among many other interesting techniques, Shahid often asked his students, especially those who were thinking seriously about transcribing into their writing their personal ‘identities’ (such that we are often proud of, and yet which often weigh on us), for instance some black student who would be anxious about and write only about her blackness, or a gay student interested in his gayness alone, he used to tell them to write a story that is a first person narrative of an inanimate object like, let’s say, a pole or a lamp. He suggested this wonderful detour in which the writer is at once stripped of all that she thinks she is and is made to return to the familiar terrain through the waters of the unfamiliar, a process that is both difficult and one that plants the germ of the creative. It is about the radical ability to look outside oneself, to be someone else, to not be hemmed in by what we think we are. What it does foremost for the writer and of our memories of him is that it leaves some room, it lets him forever expand.

It is in this story that I see Shahid reflected most beautifully. He is all that he is but through a detour, a poetic detour which he has passed with difficulty and one which would have overwhelmed most others, a detour by which he has made his material worth the kind of remembrance and passion that it triggers years after he has left us, among those who never met him, and who at first glance, had little in common with him. Through this poetic detour, Shahid is powerfully specific, a Kashmiri, neither afraid of or curtailed by that specificity. In 1992, for instance, when Kamila had asked Shahid where he had spent his last summer. 'I was in Delhi, and in Srinagar,' he had said. She casually asked if he had also gone anywhere other than India. Shahid quickly repeated, 'I was in Srinagar'. After the early 90s events in Kashmir, he was very specific about where Kashmir lies, where India ends, what specificity he and other Kashmiris inhabit imaginatively in relation to their land, what they have to go through to keep these imaginations alive.

And yet along with this specificty, he also retains, in the pages of his poetry and memories that he leaves with us, a caring love for but also, as Shohini put it during the discussion that evening, a very ‘critical understanding of any position, especially those of the margin’. For Shahid becomes specific for a time, is cast in one image, and then expands again, breaks through that image and it is only this expansiveness that allowed him to write of the loss of Kashmir as if he had lost his lover (what other way could there be), and then to write of the loss of his mother as if he had lost all of Kashmir, as if the whole universe had ended. It is this expansiveness of his verse that allows the non-Kashmiri to reach Shahid, to reach Kashmir itself. It allows Shahid to write lovingly to them who think they are entirely different from him; ‘In your absence,’ he writes, ‘you polished me into the Enemy...I am everything you lost.’ Shahid who first made me realize that, in loving others, we lose a part of ourselves in them and then keep searching for it. Who made it impossible to deny that to be yourself you will also have be to someone else, something else, elsewhere. Shahid Ali, who was Kashmiri, teacher, poet, foodie, gay, American, feminine, funny, mournful, witty, broken-hearted and gregarious beyond belief. Shahid Ali who was a beloved witness for us all.

(From Left to Right) Uzma Falak, Suvaid Yaseen, Najeeb Mubarki (Photograph by Nawaz Gul Qanungo)

(From Left to Right) Uzma Falak, Najeeb Mubarki, Zooni Tickoo and Muzaffar Karim (Photograph by Nawaz Gul Qanungo)

Sanjay Kak (Photograph by Nawaz Gul Qanungo)

Audience (Photograph by Nawaz Gul Qanungo) 

Audience (Photograph by Nawaz Gul Qanungo) 

Audience (Photograph by Nawaz Gul Qanungo)

(In the foreground) Muhammad Gowhar Farooq (Photograph by Nawaz Gul Qanungo)

(Thanks to Shohini Ghosh for sharing her piece on Shahid, Kamila Shamsie for our long, long conversation and for sharing the Moebius interview, Suvaid Yaseen, Najeeb Mubarki, Muzaffar Karim for his gorgeous nazm, Saleem Kidwai, Anita Mannur, Geeta Patel, Nawaz Gul Qanungo for the photographs, Jasir Haqani for first telling me about the event, Irfan Hassan, Brinda Bose, Sanjay Kak, Uzma Falak, Muhammad Gowhar Farooq, Zooni Tickoo, Manash Bhattacharjee, Inayat Anaita Sabhikhi and Mirza Waheed.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Begum Akhtar's Tomb, Lucknow: Some Photographs

After asking for directions in Thakurganj's vast network of alleys from at least fifteen people, each of whom offered something by way of an answer, whether right or not, my friend and I reached the narrow lane which houses Begum Akhtar's tomb at about 4 in the afternoon.

When we thought we were near, we asked this handsome young guy who showed us that little bylane, ten meters deep into a dead end, at the end of which was the black gate over which a marble plaque mentioned Begum's name in bold letters, Padmashri, Padmabhusan.

I had asked him for directions as much to know where the tomb was as it was to talk with him however briefly. I am glad I did that because he told me that the tomb was locked and immediately offered to take me to the house around the corner 'jahan unke rishtedar rehtein hain, jo ki mazaar ki dekhbhaal kartein hain' ('where her relatives still live and take care of the tomb'). His name was Shanu. I told him my friend's and my name, Jean and Akhil.

He asked us where we were from. 'Main to Lucknowala hi hoon,' I replied, 'aur mera dost London se hai' ('I am from Lucknow itself and my friend is from London'). 'Lag raha hai,' ('it looks like that') he said smiling looking at Jean, the most gorgeous smile I had seen that day. He led us to the back door of the house, saying things like 'Begum Akhtar bahut valuable hain, koi unki value samajhta nahin hai aaj kal' ('Begum Akhtar is very valuable, no one understands her worth these days'), shook our hands, and left us at the door.

We saw two girls of about four or five in the backyard of the small one storey house (Shanu had left us at the backdoor seeing the front door locked) and asked them if someone older was at the house. They got their dad. He was about forty and introduced himself to us as Imran. We requested him to let us see the mazaar and he went back inside to get the keys.

He was the grandson of the Begum. He told us that he kept the tomb locked because sometimes dogs or cows would enter the compound if he were to leave it open.

I mentioned that I knew Saleem Kidwai, the Lucknow historian who is currently writing the biography of the Begum. Hearing this, he smiled, and mentioned that Saleem frequently comes to the mazaar and that he knows him well.

The compound was small, about thirty by twenty feet, if my instinctive measurements are not absolutely abysmal. I asked him if I could click pictures and then clicked a few using Jean's camera. Next to the Begum's mazaar was that of her mother. I asked him if there was some programme planned for the Begum's death anniversary on the 30th of October, three days from then. He told us that nothing happens at the mazaar but there is a reading of the Quran which is organized at a madrassa near by which is attended by some family members and others who liked to come. I asked him if I could join and he said 'zaroor' ('of course') also smirking at my slightly obsequious series of questions.

We stayed for about five minutes. I took his phone number, we shook hands and decided to leave. Back in the lane, Imran gave us directions to get to the main Thakurganj road more quickly than we had managed to come. I turned back, looking for Shanu, who was sitting at his roadside shop again, and thanked him (if only to look at him once more). He waved back at us. We left right after.

Monday, October 10, 2011

‘i swear…i have my hopes’: Agha Shahid Ali’s Delhi Years

(First published on on January 30, 2011)

Born on 4th February, 1949, Agha Shahaid Ali would have been 62 next month. The Kashmiri-American poet who spent the last half of his life in the States (he migrated to Pennsylvania in the mid 70s) died in the winter of 2001 due to brain tumour. 

The next year had begun with papers and journals in the States, and in Kashmir and India, remembering Shahid. ‘Your death in every paper,’ Shahid had written for his own idol the singer Begum Akhtar after she passed away in 1974, ‘boxed in the black and white / of photographs, obituaries.’ In his new absence, he similarly reappeared in the words of his friends as an insurmountably beautiful poet, a gregarious Brooklyner, a near perfect cook, an impossibly good teacher and a lasting friend.

Apocrypha started building around him very soon after his death. One could say this was the final proof that Shahid’s name would abide – that stories began to be spun around him as soon as he was not around. 

The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, Shahid’s creative writing student at Hamilton College in New York and then at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the 90’s, and someone who always recounts his indelible influence on her writings (he coloured her drafts red), was one of the first to add to the stories that have multiplied since in this decade after Shahid’s death. 

Kamila’s friend, also a student of Shahid, had told her that some months after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, Shahid was riding the subway going to teach his class at NYU when he started to feel faint and began to black out. ‘For a moment,’ her friend told her, ‘he thought, “I’m dying,” and then he told himself, “No. First I’ll teach my class, then I’ll die.”’

It was in the summer of last year that the Indian historian and biographer Saleem Kidwai, Shahid’s close friend since the early 70s, had told me how reading the apocryphal is an art by itself. It is like embroidery (one of Shahid’s favorite poetic images), he said, like all the wonderful literature we read about those times that have left no definite historical documents. It is a form of prying open our idea of the archives, entering a time or a personality not only through the definiteness of the records and reports but also through the layers of memories and hearsay. For nineteenth century Delhi, one reads what the Urdu poet Ghalib said to so and so on the streets of Shahjahanabad recounted in his ghazals. For ancient Greece, we hear the conversations between Socrates and his disciples recounted by Plato. 
I had this conversation with Saleem last summer in one of his hometown Lucknow’s oldest and most cherished bookshops – Ram Advani Booksellers in Hazratganj. That afternoon Saleem himself, half-trusting me with some of his most sheltered memories, contributed to the trove of stories about his friend. 

‘Shahid had told me a very funny story about the [Palestinian-American writer] Edward Said, who was his friend (he had got to know him through Eqbal Ahmed, the Pakistani writer and anti-war activist in the States). So one day Said rang up Shahid and told him that he has one good news and one bad news and asked him what he wants to hear first. Shahid asked for the bad news. Said told him that Aijaz Ahmad [the Marxist literary theorist whose book ‘In Theory’ was as popular as it was reviled] had had a heart-attack. The good news, Said added, was that it had happened in England where the health services are really bad.’

Shahid used to tell many such stories, Saleem remembered, he loved telling them and weaved in all those people he knew within them. After a point, he told me, it did not matter whether they were true (in all likelihood they were) but that they were so complete in their own universe and went so well with the shaksiyat (the personality) of Shahid. That is what apocrypha does, it builds personalities while facts can only make up the biodata. Everyone by now knows the story about the Barcelona airport where the security guard had asked Shahid “Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other passengers?” Shahid had lightly held his hand to his chest and said ‘Only my heart’.

In 1968, after completing his Bachelors in English Literature at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar, Shahid began studying for the two year Masters in the same subject in Hindu College at Delhi University. He passed with a distinction and became a lecturer in the same college where he taught till he migrated to the States for his PhD at the Penn State University. 

It seemed odd to me how Shahid, whose name virtually indexes the keywords ‘Kashmir’ and ‘America’ when he is remembered in memoirs and profile sketches, was never to be recalled in any close association with Delhi, a place where he spent about seven of his formative years as a poet, a place where he published his first collection ‘Bone-Sculpture’ when he was 23, and a place where, importantly enough, he was born. 

In ‘A Lost Memory of Delhi’ which he published in the late 80s in America, he takes the poetic leap and remembers the night of his birth -

I am not born
it is 1948 and the bus turns
onto a road without name
There on his bicycle
my father
He is younger than I
At Okhla where I get off
I pass my parents
strolling by the Jamuna river
…this the night of my being
They don’t they won’t
hear me they won’t hear
my knocking drowning out
the tongues of stars.
I first heard of Shahid Ali in Delhi. It was about seven years back, through a small article posted on the wall magazine in Hindu College where I was to study for my bachelors in the same department about thirty years after Shahid. 
It had been pointed out to me by Leela Gandhi who used to teach in the same department and was now visiting for a lecture during the first year of my college in 2004. I had not read any of Shahid then but his name had stuck in my head because Gandhi, who otherwise has a very soft, measured way of speaking (I don’t know if her being the great-grand daughter of Mahatma Gandhi has anything to do with it) was unusually excited when she spoke of him. 

She told me that he used to teach ‘here’, familiarizing a young student with someone who she thought was remarkable, someone who she thought should be known, and someone who had died tragically young. It had been only three years since Shahid’s death then.

When I go back to Shahid’s years in Delhi it is to tell his story as part of the story of this city. When his friends started talking about Shahid, as they knew him in the early 70s, they were sharing with me not only the memories of their friend, but also of a city where these friendships had begun and matured. 

We can scarcely underestimate that part of our lives where we step outside our families for the first time and are on our own, where we try out things we could not back home and where we face, perhaps like never before, our lives as lived in more than one world, now irreparably split between places. For Shahid, that part of his life was spent in Delhi. The years in this city see Shahid, in his own words, ‘stumbling through my twenties’. 

Shahid was 19 when he first moved to Delhi to start studying English literature in Hindu College. In the late 60s it was the ‘old syllabus’ for those studying literature at DU, a syllabus that was to remain more or less intact till the turn of the millennium, when it was replaced by what was sheepishly called the ‘new’ curriculum, that I got to study and which fortunately included more of those writers that were not dead, Anglo-Saxon or men.

The first syllabus had been an unequivocal nod towards the English canon, populated by Hardy (someone who had put the writer Amitav Ghosh, a contemporary of Shahid in DU, off his literature classes and sent him running into history for his bachelors at St. Stephens), Dickens, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and the Romantics. For literary sleuths who try and trace where the writers first found their inspirations, where some abiding ‘themes’, as critics call it, find their beginning, Shahid’s years in Delhi University are an unmissable clue. 

In the first poem ‘Bones’ of his first collection ‘Bone-Sculpture’ published two years after his Masters in 1972, and while he was teaching, he wrote unsparingly in the vein of Eliot – ‘The years are dead. I’m / twenty, a mourner in the Mohorrum / Procession, mixing blood with / mud, memory with memory. I’m / still alone.’ Eliot’s lines, penned in 1922 for ‘The Wasteland’, were ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire’. Shahid was overdosed on Shelley and Keats till he had found Eliot who was to be cited in his style and content for years after, before the American poet James I. Merrill took over by the 90’s. 

In his second collection published while he was finishing his own PhD on T.S. Eliot as an editor, he recounted his Delhi classrooms at the Faculty of Arts, ‘A Ph.D. from Leeds / mentioned discipline, casually / brought the waste-land.’ In the first review of ‘Bone-Sculpture’ that came out in 1972, the reviewer Sumi Sridharan, who used to teach in I.P. College not very far from Shahid’s college, had noted this strain in Shahid – ‘[t]he weakness of Shahid’s writing,’ she had written, ‘is the abstractness of some of the experience and the echoes from Eliot that mar even a good poem like ‘’Bones’’’. She had relented in the end, however, and said that Shahid’s collection ‘reaches for the stars’ and that the intensity of his poetic vision is unequaled by the contemporary new poets of the seventies.

Shahid’s mother, Sufia Nomani, who was from Rudauli and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, and who had brought with her a love of Sufi poetry and ghazals to Kashmir, and his father, Agha Ashraf Ali, who was fed on Martin Buber, Marx, Zakir Hussain and Freud, both gave Shahid a childhood that mixed and matched different influences, Urdu, Hindi and Anglo-Saxon, from the beginning, so much so that they were quite inseparable in Shahid’s head. Years later, he was to tell his friend Rehan Ansari and Rajinderpal S. Pal that the ‘point is you are a universe, you are the product of immense historical forces. There is the Muslim in me, there is the Hindu in me, there is the Western in me. It is there because I have grown up in three cultures and various permutations of those cultures.’ 

When Shahid started finding his feet as a poet (he had found poetry easy when fifteen) he was mixing these various influences in his early Delhi verse. In Kashmir, his teachers had taught him poetry sitting under the Chinar trees and while their eyes had been misty with the odes to autumn, they had also recited the old game of moths and flames that are staple in the history of Urdu verse. ‘Shahid used to quote at the drop of a hat,’ his friend from the DU years, poet, painter and teacher Rupendra Guha Majumdar told me, ‘always Faiz, Ghalib and Mir.’ 

Last summer, sitting in his study in his campus house in Delhi University where he now teaches English at the main department, Rupen recalled to me the early 70s when he had first met Shahid, as I quickly typed every word he said. 

Shahid and Rupen’s first collections of poems, ‘Bone-Sculpture’ and ‘Blunderbuss’ respectively, had come out in the same year under the aegis of ‘Writers Workshop’ run by the patron-saint of Indian English poetry P. Lal (d. 2010) who edited and printed these collections out of his Lake Gardens house in Calcutta. ‘We were just starting to write those days,’ Rupen recounted, ‘I had just finished my masters and Shahid had started teaching. You know, the poetry scene was just starting then at the university, we organized small readings in Delhi colleges. That was the time we began seeing ourselves as poets in some tangible way. Shahid and I used to meet very often then. I remember, it was around this time that I organized this big poetry reading in Miranda House in the north campus. I had requested Mrs. Krishna at MH to let us use their large chemistry lecture theatre for this. There were almost a dozen resident poets of Delhi who came and read, Rakshat Puri, Keshav Malik, Keki Daruwala, Chitra Prasad from Miranda House, Lalita Venkateswaran, Aman Nath, Shahid, I and some others whose name I have forgotten now. The theatre was packed, I can remember.’ 

Agha Shahid Ali, 1973, Delhi, in the photograph he gifted to his friend Rupendra Guha Majumdar.

Behind the photograph, Shahid’s inscription, From ‘The Poet’ to ‘The Poet’, 11th March, 1973.

Saleem, who was two years younger than his friend Shahid and was studying History across the road from him at St. Stephens in 1972, recalls that ‘he was a brilliant performer at poetry readings. It was at a reading in Daulat Ram College that I first saw him saw him. His family and mine were both closely connected to Jamia Milia University in Delhi (Shahid’s father Ashraf sahab had taught there and was deeply influenced by the founders of Jamia, among whom was my brother-in-law’s father). They used to come to my brother-in-law’s house quite often, Shahid’s mother’s family had come to live in Jamia in Delhi, you know. But about that reading where I first saw him. I had gone with my friend Aman Nath, and Shahid, he read that Bone Sculpture poem, bones that refused to burn when they set fire to your flesh, something like that, oh everyone was very impressed, it was a clever poem, that poem was meant for taalis [applause].’ Saleem was referring to ‘Cremation’, Shahid’s four line poem published in his first collection: ‘your bones refused to burn / when we set fire to your flesh / who would have guessed / you’d be stubborn in your death.’

Delhi University was young around this time (Delhi itself was young as a capital). Set up by the Viceroy’s council in 1922, it was only about fifty years old when Saleem, Shahid, Rupen, Amitav and others coincided in their years of study and teaching at the university. Their colleges, Hindu and St. Stephens, predated the university by a couple of decades. 

Set up on a pauper’s purse of 40,000 rupees, the University had had a difficult start and was housed out of few colleges and buildings. By the 1970s the institutions within the university had grown but it never had enough hostels (which is true even today) to house all its students. This meant that the areas around the university swarmed with student flats, with girls and boys hostels and lots of daily tiffin services. The largely Punjabi refugees, fall out of the 1947 partition of the sub-continent, opened their houses to students at modest rents. 

Shahid had a small room in a flat in Tagore Park, which is about two kilometers from Hindu College where he taught. Later, while he was teaching, he had shifted to Model Town which is also a residence area for students and young teachers at the University. These were areas – Model Town, Kingsway Camp, Tagore Park, Dhakka Village, Indra Vihar – that enveloped the university and grew haphazardly in the late 60s and early 70s. They were in little control of the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s unwieldy urban Masters plans by which he wanted to bring a planned modernist aesthetic to the capital of independent India. The story of those Master plans are as popular for their ambition as for their failure. 

In the early 70s, residence areas around Delhi University, Rupen told me, had ‘open grassy areas and lots of kachha roads [‘mud roads’]. Lots of incomplete houses. I used to live in 83, Tagore Park, not very far from Shahid. There were lots of dhabas and tea-stalls to group around and eat in. That’s where we met often and talked endlessly about poetry, and about how to teach literature to our students. There was this mama’s dhaba, we used to call its owner mama [‘uncle’], he was so Falstaffian, you know, big paunch, dark fellow, always laughing and smiling. Those discussions at the dhaba were so animated. I remember he used to hang around with his friends, Saleem was there, Sunil was there. Sometimes we met on our way to the university, in this large grassy square. One night, when he was coming back late, he told me the next day, he had been mugged by two guys, his watch had been stolen from him. He recounted it like an adventure.’

‘We went everywhere together,’ Saleem remembered those campus days with Shahid, ‘as soon as the classes were done, we were off to the theatres, Mughle-Azam, Sahab Bibi aur Ghulam, in the near by Golcha theatre and others. Also, he was such a foodie you know, always cooking in his one room, for himself and others [In ‘A Note on Spices’ published in his second collection, Shahid asks him who he offers his food ‘Does / hunger still melt on your tongue?’]. But when he had no food at home, he always had his immense network to fall back on. He used to land up at his friends houses, I remember Masooma Ali’s house in Model Town where she lived with her husband Rafakat, she used to teach English at Miranda and was his close friend, he went there often, regaled everyone with his company and was asked to stay on for dinner. That’s how it worked. You could not let him go. He knew so many at the University. Sometimes we went to Rhythm Corner, this shop in Connought Place run by Manga Advani. Shahid and I were good friends of his and his wife Kanta. It was right opposite Scindia House and was one of those rare places in Delhi then where you could go into cubicles and listen to music records’. 

Student culture has always thrived in the dhabas and tea-stalls of Delhi University. They have become the nodal points of memory for so many teachers and students who recall their days on campus. Amitav Ghosh, who was to befriend Shahid only in his last years in New York, called the Delhi university area Maurice Nagar ‘my own, private Montparnasse’. He remembers the walks in the area with his friend, writer and publisher Rukun Advani, when they were both students at St. Stephens in the early 70’s. ‘Chaiwallahs lined the Maurice Nagar bus stop at that time. Some even provided benches. Rukun and I sat talking for hours, while buses roared past…our walks to Maurice Nagar became a night-time ritual; something to look forward to through the day. They continued for years. As I remember them, the two staples of our conversations were literature and music.’ 

Saleem remembers a night in Shahid’s Tagore Park flat. ‘There was no electricity. We were smoking near the window, very late at night. There was only one cigarette left so we were sharing it. Suddenly Shahid, this is what he used to do so often, came up with a line – ‘we light a common cigarette, we smoke a common destiny’. He always came up with stuff like this, gems, and as soon as he had said it, he wanted to write it, he was like ‘light jalao, yeh to poem ban jayegi’ [‘switch on the light, this will surely become a poem’] and he started looking for pen and paper in the dark, with no light’.

There was another episode in Shahid’s life during this time that involved Delhi, power failure and one of his greatest loves, the ghazal and thumri singer Begum Akhtar (who, later in his life, he thought he bore a resemblance to, ‘[i]t’s something about the teeth and mouth’ he had told his friend Amitav Ghosh in Brooklyn). 

In the early seventies, Shahid used to listen to and meet Begum Akhtar very often. Saleem was his main point of access to the Begum. ‘I used to take him to meet the Begum in Delhi. In fact, the only time Shahid ever visited Lucknow,’ Saleem told me, ‘was for the Begum’s funeral after she had passed away in 1974.’ 

Rupen told me that the name that he remembers the most from all his conversations with Shahid was that of the Begum. ‘She was the one who inspired him the most. He used to freak out on her. That name stands out when I remember our conversations even after all these years.’ 

Years later in 1998, Shahid recalled that episode from his Delhi years to his friend Rehan Ansari – ‘Long ago in Delhi, I heard Begum Akhtar very often. In one particular case there was a power failure. The lights went out and there was absolute silence. The microphone was also dead. It was an outdoor concert and for a minute or two the voice was coming from very far away, an echo. And in that echo I heard, with such clarity, something amazing that she used to do with her voice. Just haunting.’ Saleem was also in the audience with Shahid for this particular concert. It had happened in the Hamsadhwani open air theatre in Pragati Maidan and he told me that it was ‘a magical performance’. Shahid was to recall this Delhi moment in his ‘Snow on the Desert’ years later in ‘A Nostalgist’s Map of America’ (1991) -
in New Delhi one night
as Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out.

It was perhaps during the Bangladesh War,
perhaps there were sirens,
air-raid warnings.

But the audience, hushed, did not stir.
The microphone was dead, but she went on
singing, and her voice
was coming from far
away, as if she had already died.

And just before the lights did flood her
again, melting the frost
of her diamond
into rays, it was, like this turning dark
of fog, a moment when only a lost sea
can be heard…
Shahid (centre, white shirt) at a Begum Akhtar concert in Delhi. Saleem is partially visible behind Begum Akhtar's head. (Thanks to Dwaipayan Bannerjee for sharing this photograph)

It had taken Shahid more than ten years to introduce this moment into the poem. It hibernated till one day it was set off by the sight of snow in Tucson in Arizona, where he was a graduate assistant at the university, the intense feeling of that morning and the departure of his sister Sameetah from the local airport. That is how cities live on in the memory and works of writers. It takes unpredictable moments to trigger an entire array of memories, a whole urban landscape and its events and people. Delhi had surprising cues in Shahid’s head.

One of them was rain itself. ‘…the sky opens its hands above’ he wrote in ‘Desert Landscape’ years later, ‘a city being brought to memory by rain.’ Having spent most of his young life in Kashmir, where the four seasons used to last the same time, and came about quite predictably at their appointed hour, it was only in Delhi, that Shahid first understood the very feeling of rain, what it has to do with longing and grief. He had heard all the classical ragas that revolve around the monsoons, recounted by his mother who grew up in the gangetic plains which is fed by the monsoons, and he had heard the season in the very voice of Begum Akhtar. 

But it was in Delhi that he first came to know why rain, by itself, elicits entire genres of music, poetry and painting. In Kashmir, ‘it does not have quite the same feeling as rain in Delhi has. When I went to Delhi for the first time in summer, in July, and I saw these rains, I [saw] a very romantic season and could see why you would want to be in the arms of your lover…At a personal level the rain brings so much memory back to me, especially of some very important love relationships I have had.’ 

What he first learned in Delhi, among them the very meaning of rain, Shahid was to replay in his life and works for years to come. In one of his most popular ghazals, he recalled his loves and laid claim to another city where he was to spend his last years, through this abiding figure of rain -

What will suffice for a true love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief’s lottery, bought even the rain.
‘’our glosses / wanting in this world’’ ‘’Can you remember?’’
Anyone! when we thought the lovers taught even the rain?
Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you’d poured – what? – even the rain.
New York belongs at daybreak to only me, just me
to make this claim Memory’s brought even the rain.

Long way for a poet, who had written in his first collection in Delhi, when he was 23, ‘call me a poet…i swear / dear editor / i have my hopes / hopes which assume shapes in / alien territories.’

(Thanks to Saleem Kidwai, Rupendra Guha Majumdar, Leela Gandhi, Lalita Subbu, Brinda Bose, Teja Verma, Vaibhav Iype Parel, Kartik Nair, Tapan Basu, Dwaipayan Bannerjee and Vasavi Vishen.)
Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) was a Kashmiri-American poet and taught in several creative writing departments across the United States. Ali was awarded Guggenheim and Ingram-Merril Fellowships and a Pushcart Prize, and his collection Rooms are Never Finished was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001. The collected poems of Shahid Ali have appeared as ‘The Veiled Suite’ brought out by Norton in 2009.
Akhil Katyal is a writer from Delhi. He also blogs at