'The Ghat of the Only World': Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn
The first time that Agha Shahid Ali, the great Kashmiri poet, spoke to me about his approaching death was in April of last year. The conversation began routinely. I had telephoned to remind him that we had been invited to a friend's house for lunch and that I was going to come by his apartment to pick him up. Although he had been under treatment for brain cancer for some fourteen months, Shahid was still on his feet and perfectly lucid, except for occasional lapses of memory. I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said: "Oh dear. I can't see a thing." There was a brief pause and then he added: "I hope this doesn't mean that I'm dying..."
Although Shahid and I had talked a great deal over the past many weeks, I had never before heard him touch on the subject of death. His voice was completely at odds with the content of what he had just said, light to the point of jocularity. I mumbled something innocuous: "No, Shahid--of course not. You'll be fine." He cut me short. In a tone of voice that was at once quizzical and direct, he said: "When it happens I hope you'll write something about me."
I was shocked into silence, and a long moment passed before I could bring myself to say the things that people say on such occasions: "Shahid, you'll be fine; you have to be strong..." From the window of my study I could see a corner of the building in which he lived, some eight blocks away, where he'd moved to be near his sister, Sameetah, after learning of his tumor. Shahid ignored my reassurances. He began to laugh, and it was then that I realized that he was dead serious.
"You must write about me," he said.
By the end of the conversation I knew exactly what I had to do. I picked up my pen, noted the date and wrote down everything I remembered of that conversation. This I continued to do for the next few months: It is the record that has made it possible for me to fulfill the pledge I made that day.
I knew Shahid's work long before I met him. His 1997 collection, The Country Without a Post Office, made a powerful impression on me. His voice was like none I had heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward. Not for him the mock-casual almost-prose of so much contemporary poetry: His was a voice that was not ashamed to speak in a bardic register. I could think of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like: "Mad heart, be brave."
In 1998 I quoted a line from The Country Without a Post Office in an article that touched briefly on Kashmir. At the time all I knew about Shahid was that he was from Srinagar and had studied in Delhi. We had friends in common, however, and one of them put me in touch with Shahid. But we were little more than acquaintances when he moved to Brooklyn. Once we were in the same neighborhood, we began to meet for occasional meals and quickly discovered that we had a great deal in common. By this time, of course, Shahid's condition was already serious, yet his illness did not impede the progress of our friendship. And because of Shahid's condition even the most trivial exchanges had a special charge and urgency: The inescapable poignance of talking about food and half-forgotten figures from the past with a man who knew himself to be dying was multiplied in this instance by the knowledge that this man was also a poet who had achieved greatness--perhaps the only such that I shall ever know as a friend. He had a sorcerer's ability to transmute the mundane into the magical.
Shahid was legendary for his gregariousness and his prowess in the kitchen, frequently spending days over the planning and preparation of a dinner party. It was through one such party, given while he was in Arizona, that he met James Merrill, the poet who was to radically alter the direction of his poetry: It was after this encounter that he began to experiment with strict metrical patterns and verse forms such as the canzone and the sestina. No one had a greater influence on Shahid's poetry than James Merrill: Indeed, in the poem in which he most explicitly prefigured his own death, "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World," he awarded the envoy to Merrill: "SHAHID, HUSH. THIS IS ME, JAMES. THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES." Merrill loved Shahid's cooking, and on learning that Shahid was moving to upstate New York, he gave him his telephone number and asked Shahid to call. On the occasion of Shahid's first reading at the Academy of American Poets, Merrill was present: a signal honor considering that he is one of America's best-known poets. "Afterwards," Shahid liked to recall, "everybody rushed up and said, 'Did you know that Jim Merrill was here?' My stock in New York went up a thousandfold that evening."
Shahid placed great store on authenticity and exactitude in cooking and would tolerate no deviation from traditional methods and recipes. He had a special passion for "Kashmiri food in the Pandit style." I asked him once why this was so important to him and he explained that it was because of a recurrent dream, in which all the Hindus had vanished from the valley of Kashmir and their food had become extinct. This was a nightmare that haunted him, and he returned to it again and again, in his conversation and his poetry.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory...
There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to
There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?
This was at a time when his illness had forced him into spending long periods in bed. He was on his back, shielding his eyes with his fingers. Suddenly he sat up. "I wish all this had not happened," he said. "This dividing of the country, the divisions between people--Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu--you can't imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick. What I say is: Why can't you be happy with the cuisines and the clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?" He paused and added softly, "At least here we have been able to make a space where we can all come together because of the good things."
Of the many "good things" in which he took pleasure, none was more dear to him than the music of Begum Akhtar. He met the great ghazal singer when he was in his teens, through a friend, and she became an abiding presence and influence in his life. In his apartment there were several shrinelike niches that were filled with pictures of the people he worshiped: Begum Akhtar was one of these, along with his father, his mother and James Merrill. "I loved Begum Akhtar," he told me once. "In other circumstances you could have said that it was a sexual kind of love--but I don't know what it was. I loved to listen to her, I loved to be with her, I couldn't bear to be away from her. You can imagine what it was like. Here I was in my mid-teens--just 16--and I couldn't bear to be away from her." It was probably this relationship with Begum Akhtar that engendered his passion for the ghazal as a verse form. Always the disciplinarian in such matters, he believed that the ghazal would never flourish if its structure were not given due respect: "Some rules of the ghazal are clear and classically stringent. The opening couplet (called matla) sets up a scheme (of rhyme--called qafia; and refrain--called radif) by having it occur in both lines--the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain--and then this scheme occurs only in the second line of each succeeding couplet. That is, once a poet establishes the scheme--with total freedom, I might add--she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master." Over a period of several years he took it upon himself to solicit ghazals from poets writing in English. The resulting collection, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, was published in 2000. In establishing a benchmark for the form it has already begun to exert a powerful influence: The formalization of the ghazal may well prove to be Shahid's most important scholarly contribution to the canon of English poetry. His own summation of the project was this: "If one writes in free verse--and one should--to subvert Western civilization, surely one should write in forms to save oneself from Western civilization?"
For Shahid, Begum Akhtar was the embodiment of one such form, not just in her music but in many other aspects of her being. An aspect of the ghazal that he greatly prized was the latitude it provided for wordplay, wit and nakhra (affectation). Begum Akhtar was a consummate master of all these, and Shahid had a fund of stories about her sharpness in repartee. He was himself no mean practitioner of that art. On one occasion, at the Barcelona airport, he was stopped by a security guard just as he was about to board a plane. The guard, a woman, asked: "What do you do?"
"I'm a poet," Shahid answered.
"What were you doing in Spain?"
No matter the question, Shahid worked poetry into his answer. Finally, the exasperated woman asked: "Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other passengers?" At this Shahid clapped a hand to his chest and cried: "Only my heart."
This was one of his great Wildean moments, and it was to occasion the poem "Barcelona Airport." He treasured these moments, and last May I had the good fortune to be with him when one such opportunity presented itself. Shahid was teaching what turned out to be the last class he ever would. I had heard a great deal about the brilliance of his teaching, and it was evident from the moment we walked in that the students adored him: They had printed a magazine and dedicated the issue to him. Shahid, for his part, was not in the least subdued by the sadness of the occasion. From beginning to end, he was a sparkling diva, Akhtar incarnate, brimming with laughter and nakhra.
Toward the end of the class, a student asked a complicated question about the difference between plausibility and inevitability in a poem. Shahid's eyebrows arched higher and higher as he listened. At last, unable to contain himself, he broke in. "Oh you're such a naughty boy," he cried, tapping the table with his fingertips. "You always turn everything into an abstraction."
But Begum Akhtar was not all wit and nakhra: Indeed, the strongest bond between Shahid and her was, I suspect, the idea that sorrow has no finer mask than a studied lightness of manner. Shahid often told a story about Begum Akhtar's marriage: Although her family's origins were dubious, her fame as a beauty was such that she received a proposal from the scion of a prominent Muslim family of Lucknow. The proposal came with the condition that the talented young singer would give up singing: The man's family was deeply conservative and could not conceive of one of its members performing onstage. Begum Akhtar--or Akhtaribai Faizabadi, as she was then--accepted, but soon afterward her mother died. Heartbroken, Akhtaribai spent her days weeping on her grave. Her condition became such that a doctor had to be brought in to examine her. He said that if she were not allowed to sing she would lose her mind: It was only then that her husband's family relented and allowed her to sing again.
Shahid was haunted by this image of Begum Akhtar as a bereaved and inconsolable daughter, weeping on her mother's grave; it is in this grief-stricken aspect that she is evoked again and again in his poems. The poem that was his farewell to the world, "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World," opens with an evocation of Begum Akhtar:
A night of ghazals comes to an end. The singer
departs through her chosen mirror, her one diamond
cut on her countless necks. I, as ever, linger
Shahid's father's family was from Srinagar and they were Shia, a minority among the Muslims of Kashmir. When Shahid was 12, the family moved to Indiana (his father was getting a PhD), and for three years he attended school in Muncie. After that they moved back to Srinagar, which is where Shahid completed his schooling; it was that early experience, I suspect, that allowed Shahid to take America so completely in his stride when he arrived as a graduate student years later. The idea of a cultural divide or conflict had no purchase in his mind: America and India were the two poles of his life, and he was at home in both in a way that was utterly easeful and unproblematic.
After 1975, when he moved to Pennsylvania, Shahid lived mainly in America. His brother was already here, and they were later joined by their two sisters. But Shahid's parents continued to live in Srinagar, and it was his custom to spend the summer months with them: "I always move in my heart between sad countries." Traveling between the United States and India he was thus an intermittent but firsthand witness to the mounting violence that seized the region from the late 1980s onward:
It was '89, the stones were not far, signs of change
everywhere (Kashmir would soon be in literal
The steady deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir--the violence and counterviolence--had a powerful effect on him. In time it became one of the central subjects of his work: Indeed, it could be said that it was in writing of Kashmir that he created his finest work. The irony of this is that Shahid was not by inclination a political poet. I heard him say once: "If you are from a difficult place and that's all you have to write about then you should stop writing. You have to respect your art, your form--that is just as important as what you write about." Another time, I was present at Shahid's apartment when his longtime friend Patricia O'Neill showed him a couple of sonnets written by a Victorian poet. The poems were political, trenchant in their criticism of Britain for its failure to prevent the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey. Shahid glanced at them and tossed them offhandedly aside: "These are terrible poems." Patricia asked why, and he said: "Look, I already know where I stand on the massacre of the Armenians. Of course I am against it. But this poem tells me nothing of the massacre; it makes nothing of it formally. I might as well just read a news report."
Anguished as he was about Kashmir's destiny, Shahid resolutely refused to embrace the role of victim that could so easily have been his. Had he done so, he could no doubt have easily become a fixture on talk shows, news programs and Op-Ed pages. But Shahid never had any doubt about his calling: He was a poet, schooled in the fierce and unforgiving arts of language. He had no taste for political punditry.
Such as they were, Shahid's political views were inherited largely from his father, whose beliefs were akin to those of most secular, left-leaning Muslim intellectuals of the Nehruvian era. Although respectful of religion, he remained a firm believer in the separation of politics and religious practice.
Once, when Shahid was at dinner with my family, I asked him bluntly: "What do you think is the solution for Kashmir?" His answer was: "I think ideally the best solution would be absolute autonomy within the Indian Union in the broadest sense." But this led almost immediately to the enumeration of a long list of caveats and reservations: Quite possibly, he said, such a solution was no longer possible, given the actions of the Indian state in Kashmir; the extremist groups would never accept the autonomy solution in any case, and so many other complications had entered the situation that it was almost impossible to think of a solution.
The truth is that Shahid's gaze was not political in the sense of being framed in terms of policy and solutions. In the broadest sense, his vision tended always toward the inclusive and ecumenical, an outlook that he credited to his upbringing. He spoke often of a time in his childhood when he had been seized by the desire to create a small Hindu temple in his room in Srinagar. He was initially hesitant to tell his parents, but when he did they responded with an enthusiasm equal to his own. His mother bought him murtis and other accoutrements, and for a while he was assiduous in conducting pujas at this shrine. This was a favorite story. "Whenever people talk to me about Muslim fanaticism," he said to me once, "I tell them how my mother helped me make a temple in my room. What do you make of that? I ask them." There is a touching evocation of this in his poem, "Lenox Hill": "and I, one festival, crowned Krishna by you, Kashmir/listening to my flute."
I once remarked to Shahid that he was the closest that Kashmir had to a national poet. He shot back: "A national poet, maybe. But not a nationalist poet; please not that." If anything, Kashmir's current plight represented for him the failure of the emancipatory promise of nationhood. In the title poem of The Country Without a Post Office, a poet returns to Kashmir to find the keeper of a fallen minaret:
"Nothing will remain, everything's finished,"
I see his voice again: "This is a shrine
of words. You'll find your letters to me. And mine
to you. Come soon and tear open these vanished
This is an archive. I've found the remains
of his voice, that map of longings with no limit.
The pessimism engendered by the loss of these ideals--that map of longings with no limit--resulted in a vision in which, increasingly, Kashmir became a vortex of images circling around a single point of stillness: the idea of death. In this figuring of his homeland, he himself became one of the images that were spinning around the dark point of stillness--both Sháhid and Shahíd, witness and martyr--his destiny inextricably linked with Kashmir's, each prefigured by the other.
I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain....
Among my notes is a record of a telephone conversation last May 5. He'd had a brain scan the day before that would determine the future course of treatment. When he answered, there were no preambles. He said: "Listen Amitav, the news is not good at all. Basically they are going to stop all my medicines now--the chemotherapy and so on. They give me a year or less."
Dazed, staring blankly at my desk, I said: "What will you do now, Shahid?"
"I would like to go back to Kashmir to die." His voice was quiet and untroubled. "It's still such a feudal system there, and there will be so much support--and my father is there, too. Anyway, I don't want my siblings to have to make the journey afterwards, like we had to with my mother."
Later, for logistical and other reasons, he changed his mind about returning to Kashmir: He was content to be laid to rest in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to the memory of his beloved Emily Dickinson. But I do not think it was an accident that his mind turned to Kashmir in speaking of death. Already, in his poetic imagery, death, Kashmir and Sháhid/Shahíd had become so closely overlaid as to be inseparable, like old photographs that have melted together in the rain.
Yes, I remember it,
the day I'll die, I broadcast the crimson,
so long ago of that sky, its spread air,
its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth
bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went
on the day I'll die, past the guards, and he,
keeper of the world's last saffron, rowed me
on an island the size of a grave. On
two yards he rowed me into the sunset,
past all pain. On everyone's lips was news
of my death but only that beloved couplet,
broken, on his:
"If there is a paradise on earth
It is this, it is this, it is this."
Shahid's mother, Sufia Nomani, was from Rudauli in Uttar Pradesh. She was descended from a family that was well-known for its Sufi heritage. Shahid believed that this connection influenced her life in many intangible ways. "She had the grandeur of a Sufi," he liked to say.
Although Shahid's parents lived in Srinagar, they usually spent the winter months in their flat in New Delhi. It was there that his mother had her first seizure--from what would prove to be a malignant brain tumor. The family brought her to New York, where an operation resulted in her partial paralysis. Shahid and his siblings moved her to Massachusetts, where they were living. When she died two years later, in keeping with her wishes, the family took her body back to Kashmir for burial. This long and traumatic journey forms the subject of a cycle of poems, "From Amherst to Kashmir," that was later included in Shahid's 2001 collection, Rooms Are Never Finished.
During the last phase of his mother's illness and for several months afterward, Shahid was unable to write. The dry spell was broken in 1998, with "Lenox Hill," possibly his greatest poem. The poem was a canzone, a form of unusual rigor and difficulty (the poet Anthony Hecht once remarked that Shahid deserved to be in Guinness Book of World Records for having written three canzones--more than any other poet). In "Lenox Hill," the architectonics of the form creates a soaring superstructure, an immense domed enclosure, like that of the great mosque of Isfahan or the mausoleum of Sayyida Zainab in Cairo: a space that seems all the more vast because of the austerity of its proportions. The rhymes and half-rhymes are the honeycombed arches that thrust the dome toward the heavens, and the meter is the mosaic that holds the whole in place. Within the immensity of this bounded space, every line throws open a window that beams a shaft of light across continents, from Amherst to Kashmir, from the hospital of Lenox Hill to the Pir Panjal Pass. Entombed at the center of this soaring edifice lies his mother:
they asked me, So how's the writing? I answered My mother
is my poem. What did they expect? For no verse
sufficed except the promise, fading, of Kashmir
and the cries that reached you from the cliffs of Kashmir
(across fifteen centuries) in the hospital. Kashmir,
she's dying! How her breathing drowns out the universe
as she sleeps in Amherst.
The poem is packed with the devices that he perfected over a lifetime: rhetorical questions, imperative commands, lines broken or punctuated to create resonant and unresolvable ambiguities. It ends, characteristically, with a turn that is at once disingenuous and wrenchingly direct.
For compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,
and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe
when I remember you--beyond all accounting--O my mother?
For Shahid, the passage of time produced no cushioning from the shock of the loss of his mother: He relived it over and over again until the end. The week before his death, on waking one morning, he asked his family where his mother was and whether it was true that she was dead. On being told that she was, he wept as though he were living afresh through the event.
In the penultimate stanza of "Lenox Hill," in a heart-stopping inversion, Shahid figures himself as his mother's mother:
"As you sit here by me, you're just like my mother,"
she tells me. I imagine her: a bride in Kashmir,
she's watching, at the Regal, her first film with Father.
If only I could gather you in my arms, Mother,
I'd save you--now my daughter--from God. The universe
opens its ledger. I write: How helpless was God's mother!
I remember clearly the evening when Shahid read this poem in the living room of my house. I remember it because I could not keep myself from wondering whether it was possible that Shahid's identification with his mother was so powerful as to spill beyond the spirit and into the body. Brain cancer is not, so far as I know, a hereditary disease, yet his body had, as it were, elected to reproduce the conditions of his mother's death. But how could this be possible? Even the thought appears preposterous in the bleak light of the Aristotelian distinction between mind and body, and the notions of cause and effect that flow from it. Yet there are traditions in which poetry is a world of causality entire unto itself, where metaphor extends beyond the mere linking of words, into the conjugation of a distinctive reality.
Shahid thought of his work as being placed squarely within a modern Western tradition. Yet the mechanics of his imagination--dreams, visions, an overpowering sense of identity with those he loved--as well as his life, and perhaps even his death, were fashioned by a will that owed more perhaps to the Sufis and the Bhakti poets than to the Modernists. In his determination to be not just a writer of poetry but an embodiment of his poetic vision, he was, I think, more the heir of Rumi and Kabir than Eliot and Merrill.
The last time I saw Shahid was at the end of October, at his brother's house in Amherst. He was intermittently able to converse, and there were moments when we talked just as we had in the past. He was aware, as he had long been, of his approaching end, and he had made his peace with it. I saw no trace of anguish or conflict: Surrounded by the love of his family and friends, he was calm, contented, at peace. He had said to me once, "I love to think that I'll meet my mother in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife." I had the sense that as the end neared, this was his supreme consolation. He died peacefully, in his sleep, at 2 AM on December 8.
Now, in his absence, I am amazed that so brief a friendship has resulted in so vast a void. Often, when I walk into my living room, I remember his presence there, particularly on the night when he read us his farewell to the world: "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World." I remember how he created a vision of an evening of ghazals, drawing to its end; of the be-diamonded singer vanishing through a mirror; I remember him evoking the voices he loved--of Begum Akhtar, Eqbal Ahmad and James Merrill--urging him on as he journeys toward his mother: "Love doesn't help anyone finally survive." Shahid knew exactly how it would end, and he was meticulous in saying his farewells, careful in crafting the envoy to the last verses of his own life.