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 aayiye...jo 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

magar

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.)