But Shahid never had any doubt about his calling: He was a poet, schooled in the fierce and unforgiving arts of language. He began to laugh and it was then that I realized that he was dead serious. Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet who was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award in Poetry, died on Dec. Heartbroken, Akhtaribai spent her days weeping on her grave. But Kashmir has broken through, says Najeeb, now a journalist with a major Indian newspaper. There is an elegiac feeling of a rich but lost past. After 1975, when he moved to Pennsylvania, Shahid lived mainly in America.
And my memory will be a little out of focus, in it a giant negative, black and white, still undeveloped. His poems exude the saffron of feelings, like the shaded yellow leaves of dusk. Ali's sense of humor is allowed to surface more often, although the metaphor of life in exile as nightmare and death now replaces the earlier symbolic landscape of bones, tombs, and monuments. 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 poems were elegant, meaningful, packed This was fabulous.
News is still difficult in the valley. 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. He was initially hesitant to tell his parents but when he did they responded with an enthusiasm equal to his own. Among my notes is a record of a telephone conversation last May 5. The specificity of his experience and emotions, its acceptance of difference, its feeling of being comfortable yet exiled, of missing something wherever he lives or goes, contributes strongly to the lyrical power of his poetry.
He had met the great ghazal singer when he was in his teens, through a friend, and she had become an abiding presence and influence in his life. Your history gets in the way of my memory. Begum Akhtar—or Akhtaribai Faizabadi, as she was then—accepted, but soon afterward her mother died. Abstract ideas and thoughts are poured into pellucid and unambiguous vessels ensuing in the themes comprehensive to all. 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. I am everything you lost.
How the air raged, desperate, streaming the earth with flames— To help burn down my house, Fire sought even the rain. His collections include A Walk Through the Yellow Pages, The Half-Inch Himalayas, A Nostalgist's Map of America, The Country Without a Post Office, Rooms Are Never Finished, the latter a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001. The glass map of our country, says Shahid. Her condition was so serious that she was operated on two days after her arrival. His poetry about his insecurities has turned into a narrative that itself has become the subject of allegories that elaborate on the story through various metaphors, disguises, and figures. Manan Kapoor is the author of The Lamentations of the Sombre Sky.
I see Argentina and Paraguay under a curfew of glass, their colors breaking, like oil. His sister, Hena, was working on a PhD at the same institution. The poems show increased verse technique and polish, the use of fantasy, and the ability to work within a wider range of reference. And what else will this mirror now reason, filled with water? He began to laugh, and it was then that I realized that he was dead serious. He was born in Kashmir but left in the United States in 1976. When he answered, there were no preambles.
Years ago, I happened to hear one of his poems on the radio while I was driving and was completely blown away. The solstice, but of winter? The singer departs through her chosen mirror, her one diamond cut on her countless necks. On two yards he rowed me into the sunset, past all pain. Agha Shahid Ali, one of the shining lights of Kashmir, left us on this day 16 years ago. Shahid was teaching what turned out to be the last class he ever would. He was widely credited for helping to popularize the ghazal form in America. They are crying, wailing and helpless.
Of what shall I not sing, and sing? In the following couplets, this scheme of rhyme and refrain only occurs in the second line. His last book was Call Me Ishmael Tonight, a collection of English ghazals. Renowned for his platonic love for Kashmir, Ali in his poetry makes us slink into the past years of happiness while holding onto the painfully dreaded rope of occupation at present. The debate now has entered Indian drawing rooms. Now, in his absence, I am amazed that so brief a friendship has resulted in so vast a void.
Although respectful of religion, he remains a firm believer in the separation of politics and religious practice. Nostalgia for the motherland is the central theme of the poem. 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. Those about to die are looking at him, his eyes the ledger of the disappeared. He died of brain cancer in December 2001 and was buried in Northampton, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to his beloved poet Emily Dickinson. Salvation was bought but sin sold in real time.