"The Ghat Of The Only World"
I knew Shahid’s work long before I met him. His 1997 Collection, The Country Without a Post Office, had made a powerful impression on me. His voice was like none I had ever heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward. Not for him, the mock-casual almost-prose of so much contemporary poetry: his was a voice that was not ashamed to speak in a bardic register. I knew of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like: ‘Mad heart, be brave.’
Shahid had a sorcerer’s ability to transmute the mundane into the magical. Once I accompanied Iqbal, his brother, and Hena, his sister, on a trip to fetch him home from hospital. This was on May 21st: by that time he had already been through several unsuccessful operations. Now he was back in hospital to undergo a surgical procedure that was intended to relieve the pressure on his brain. His head was shaved and the shape of the tumour was visible upon his bare scalp, its edges outlined by metal sutures. When it was time to leave the ward a blue-uniformed hospital escort arrived with a wheelchair. Shahid waved him away, declaring that he was strong enough to walk out of the hospital on his own. But he was groggier than he had thought and his knees buckled after no more than a few steps. Iqbal went running off to bring back the wheelchair while the rest of us stood in the corridor, holding him upright. At that moment, leaning against the cheerless hospital wall, a kind of rapture descended on Shahid. When the hospital orderly returned with the wheelchair Shahid gave him a beaming smile and asked where he was from. Ecuador, the man said and Shahid clapped his hands gleefully together. “Spanish!” he cried, at the top of his voice. “I always wanted to learn Spanish. Just to read Lorca.”
At this the tired, slack-shouldered orderly came suddenly to life. “Lorca? Did you say Lorca?” He quoted a few lines, to Shahid’s great delight. “Ah! ‘La Cinque de la Tarde’,” Shahid cried, rolling the syllables gleefully around his tongue. “How I love those words. ‘La Cinque de la Tarde’!” That was how we made our way through the hospital’s crowded lobby: with Shahid and the orderly in the vanguard, one quoting snatches of Spanish poetry and the other breaking in from time to time with exultant cries of, "La Cinque de la Tarde, La Cinque de la Tarde…”
Shahid’s gregariousness had no limit: there was never an evening when there wasn’t a party in his living room. ... against the background of the songs and voices and that were always echoing out of his apartment, even the ringing of the doorbell had an oddly musical sound. Suddenly, Shahid would appear, flinging open the door, releasing a great cloud of heeng into the frosty New York air. The journey from the foyer of Shahid’s building’s to his door was a voyage between continents: on the way up the rich fragrance of rogan josh and haak would invade the dour, grey interior of the elevator; against the background of the songs and voices and that were always echoing out of his apartment, even the ringing of the doorbell had an oddly musical sound. Suddenly, Shahid would appear, flinging open the door, releasing a great cloud of heeng into the frosty New York air. “Oh, how nice,” he would cry, clapping his hands, “how nice that you’ve come to see your little Moslem!”
Invariably, there’d be some half-dozen or more people gathered inside – poets, students, writers, relatives – and in the kitchen someone would always be cooking or making tea. Almost to the very end, even as his life was being consumed by his disease, he was the centre of a perpetual carnival, an endless mela of talk, laughter, food and of course, poetry.
The epicure Shahid
No matter how many people there were, Shahid was never so distracted as to lose track of the progress of the evening’s meal. From time to time he would interrupt himself to shout directions to whoever was in the kitchen: “yes, now, add the dahi now.” Even when his eyesight was failing, he could tell, from the smell alone, exactly which stage the rogan josh had reached. And when things went exactly as they should, he would sniff the air and cry out loud: “Ah! Khana ka kya mehek hai!”
Shahid was legendary for his prowess in the kitchen, frequently spending days over the planning and preparation of a dinner party. It was through one such party, given while he was in Arizona, that he met James Merrill, the poet who was to radically alter the direction of his poetry.
Shahid placed great store on authenticity and exactitude in cooking and would tolerate no deviation from traditional methods and recipes: for those who took short cuts, he had only pity. He had a special passion for the food of his region, one variant of it in particular: ‘Kashmiri food in the Pandit style’. I asked him once why this was so important to him and he explained that it was because of a recurrent dream, in which all the Pandits had vanished from the valley of Kashmir and their food had become extinct. This was a nightmare that haunted him and he returned to it again and again, in his conversation and his poetry.
[Agha's family] were Shia, who are a minority amongst the Muslims of Kashmir. Shahid liked to tell a story about the origins of his family: the line was founded, he used to say, by two brothers who came to Kashmir from Central Asia. The brothers had been trained as hakims, specializing in Yunani medicine, and they arrived in Kashmir with nothing but their knowledge of medical lore: they were so poor that they had to share a single cloak between them. But it so happened that the then Maharajah of Kashmir was suffering from terrible stomach pains, ‘some kind of colic’. Learning that all the kingdom’s doctors had failed to cure the ailing ruler, the two brothers decided to try their hand. They gave the Maharajah a concoction that went through the royal intestines like a plunger through a tube, bringing sudden and explosive relief. Delighted with his cure, the grateful potentate appointed the brothers his court physicians: thus began the family’s prosperity.
“So you see,” Shahid would comment, in bringing the story to its conclusion. “My family’s fortunes were founded on a fart.”
By Shahid’s account, his great-grandfather was the first Kashmiri Muslim to matriculate. The story went that to sit for the examination, he had had to travel all the way from Srinagar to Rawalpindi in a tonga. Later, he too became an official at the court of the Maharajah of Kashmir. He had special charge of education, and took the initiative to educate his daughter. Shahid’s grandmother was thus one of the first educated women in Kashmir. She passed the matriculation examination, took several other degrees, and in time became the Inspector of Women’s School’s. She could quote poetry in four languages: English, Urdu, Farsi and Kashmiri. Shahid’s father, Agha Ashraf Ali, continued the family tradition of public service in education. He taught at Jamia Millia University in New Delhi and went on to become the principal of the Teacher’s College in Srinagar. In 1961, he enrolled at Ball State Teacher’s College, in Muncie, Indiana, to do a PhD in Comparative Education. Shahid was twelve when the family moved to the US and for the next three years he attended school in Muncie. Later the family moved back to Srinagar and that was where Shahid completed his schooling. But it was because of his early experience, I suspect, that Shahid was able to take America so completely in his stride when he arrived in Pennsylvania as a graduate student.
Kashmir and the political situation
The steady deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir – the violence and counter-violence - had a powerful effect on him. In time it became one of the central subjects of his work: indeed it could be said that it was in writing of Kashmir that he created his finest work. The irony of this is that Shahid was not by inclination a political poet. I heard him say once: “If you are from a difficult place and that’s all you have to write about then you should stop writing. You have to respect your art, your form – that is just as important as what you write about.”
Another time, I was present at Shahid’s apartment when his long-time friend, Patricia O’Neill, showed him a couple of sonnets written by a Victorian poet. The poems were political, trenchant in their criticism of the British Government for its failure to prevent the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey. Shahid glanced at them and tossed them off-handedly 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.”
Rooms are never finished
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 in December 1995. The attack was initially misdiagnosed and it was not till the family brought her to New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, in January 1996, that it was confirmed that she had a malignant brain tumour. Her condition was so serious that she was operated on two days after her arrival. The operation did not have the desired effect and resulted instead in a partial paralysis. At the time Shahid and his younger brother Iqbal were both teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. His sister, Hena, was working on a PhD at the same institution. The siblings decided to move their mother to Amherst and it was there that she died on April 24, 1997. 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 afterwards, 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 rigour and difficulty (the poet Anthony Hecht once remarked that Shahid deserved to be in Guiness Book of 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 towards the heavens, and the metre 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 centre 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 had 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 disingenous 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 re-lived it over and over again until the end. Often he would interrupt himself in mid-conversation: “I can’t believe she’s gone; I still can’t believe it.” 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 breathtaking, 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. He had said to me once, “I love to think that I'll meet my mother in the after-life, if there is an after-life.” I had the sense that as the end neared, this was his supreme consolation. He died peacefully, in his sleep, at 2 a.m. on December 8.
Amitav Ghosh, Brooklyn December 15, 2001