Meeting Shahid, With Love

A biography of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali locates his life in his poetry and his many adventures.

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Some students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, had on February 9, 2016, organised an event to mark the third anniversary of the execution of the 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. The event was disrupted by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, and several others were accused of shouting “anti-national” slogans and later faced charges of sedition.

The name of the event was ‘The Country Without a Post Office’, after the seminal poem by Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, prompting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader M. Venkaiah Naidu (then Union minister and current vice-president of India) to ask: “The heading of the poster says: ‘A country without a post office’. Is India without a post office?” A parliamentary debate and a Right to Information application seeking the number of post offices in India followed.

A Map of Longings: The Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali
Manan Kapoor
Penguin (June 2021)

The heated conversations about the JNU event revealed the power of poetry to inspire and provoke that is often dismissed with glib quotes such as. “Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its making”. As the political and social situation in Indian Kashmir has deteriorated since 2016, Ali’s poetry has become more and more poignant and appealing to Kashmiris and others trying to make sense of the violence and disruptions.

Now, a biography of the poet — A Map of Longings: The Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali (Penguin, 2021) — tries to locate Ali’s poetry in his incredible life. The writer of this sleek biography is Manan Kapoor, whose novel The Lamentations of a Sombre Sky was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2017.

In the Introduction to the book under review, Kapoor writes: “Throughout my bachelor’s degree, I was working on a novel set in Srinagar in the ’90s. Although I read numerous accounts of writers and journalists, I fell back, naturally, on Shahid’s collection The Country Without a Post Office, only to realise that no one—absolutely no one—was a match for him.”

This statement sets the tone for the rest of the book. Kapoor is an unrepentant Shahid fan and this shines through. It is perhaps nowhere more evident than his engagement with Ali’s poetry. Take for instance, his interpretation of Ali’s poem ‘After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi’: “In the poem, Shahid makes a conscious choice as he turns from King Lear and looks at Zafar [Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ II, the last Mughal ruler] turning away from fiction towards fact, from the stories of the colonisers to the histories of the colonised. This turn marks an important moment in Shahid’s poetry, and it is from here that his poems and sensibility come to be defined by a certain post-colonial outlook.”

Kapoor goes on to explain how Ali shed the influence of the British and American poets he studied at Hindu College in the 1960s and subscribed to the syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture in India. (Early in the book we learn that Ali’s mother used to dress him as Krishna when he was a child for Janmashtami.) “Shahid often said… that he was able to bring certain flavours to English poetry in India for the first time,” adds Kapoor.

Another instance of this deep engagement with Ali’s poetry is evident in Kapoor’s interpretation of ‘Snow on the Desert’, where the poet combines his singular experience of driving past a fog-covered desert in Tucson, Arizona, and listening to Begum Akhtar sing in New Delhi:

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.

Kapoor writes: “as he [Ali] drove past the fog-covered desert that divided the city very neatly, he realised that he was passing through a unique moment. He tried to find a comparable moment, but there was none. He realised that it was a moment ‘which refers only to itself’… One such unique moment occurred at a Begum Akhtar concert in New Delhi around the time of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, where there was a power cut at the venue.”

Ali’s poem continues:

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, this turning dark
of fog, a moment when only a lost sea
can be heard, a time
to recollect
every shadow, everything the earth was losing.

The density of interpretation is the result of expansive, even tenacious, research. Kapoor reveals how research can face challenges of international politics: “After interviewing more than forty people and taking more than a dozen flights, I finally decided that the only place left to scour was the Agha Shahid Ali archives at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. However, there was a strange turn of events: I was denied a visa by the American embassy. Those were the years of the Trump administration, whose signature issue was immigration policy.”

Also read: The Portrait of a Poet

Kapoor traces the influence of different people in Ali’s life, such as his educationist, secular, cosmopolitan parents, Begum Akhtar, James Merrill, Faiz Ahmad Faiz; he interviews Shahid’s students, colleagues, and friends such as Patricia O’Neill, Amitav Ghosh, Izhar Patkin, or Kamila Shamsie; he traces various aspects of Ali’s growth as a poet and a person from Kashmir to Delhi to the US, while making no excuses for him. Kapoor gives us a glimpse into Ali’s rather practical career decisions by quoting a letter he wrote to his father: “I want to be in America for a few more years, and make some money. As you know, one cannot really make money in India—not as a professor. …the thing is: if I were in India, I would not be able to lead a swanky enough lifestyle… But given the international economy and the importance of the dollar, I could, whenever I visit India, be lavish.”

This desire for a lavish lifestyle might seem contradictory to the persona of a poet, but it shows Ali as a man of the world and makes his portrait in this biography more nuanced. It also relates to Ali’s lifelong attempt to separate his personality (such as his homosexuality) from his poetry, something he might have picked up from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent”, suggests Kapoor.

Kapoor arranges his research in neat, short chapters, each dealing with one aspect of Ali’s life. For instance, his relation to Begum Akhtar (‘Akhtari’), his translations of Faiz and intervention in the English ghazal (‘The Cry of the Gazelle’), his engagement with Kashmiri politics (‘Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere’) or his academic career (‘Shahid, the Teacher’). However, the pleasures of reading this book are somewhat marred by, to borrow a term from tennis, “unforced errors” of fact-checking.

For example, Kapoor writes that India was under colonial rule for “300 years” — whereas British colonial rule in India lasted only 190 years (1757-1947). Similarly, in another place, Kapoor, describing the Battle of Karbala, writes: “he [Ali] elucidates the importance of the battle, and how, years later, at the site of Karbala, Jesus wept.” Jesus, who predates Mohammed and Hussain by a few centuries, could never have wept at Karbala “years later”. This error is stranger because immediately after this, Kapoor quotes the correct historical sequence from Ali’s poem “From Amherst to Kashmir”: “At this site the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) will one day be killed.”

Such errors often make readers start thinking, if this is wrong, what else might be incorrect? Another issue with this book is the lack of a bibliography. While there are detailed endnotes and an index, the absence of a bibliography is intriguing.

Despite these, Kapoor’s book breaks new ground and will be essential reading for Agha Shahid Ali scholars in the future. It is also important for our times, especially for anyone interested in Indian poetry or Kashmir. On August 5, 2019, the government of India revoked Kashmir’s special status and brought it under the direct control of New Delhi. A brutal telecommunications lockdown followed and the Valley did literally turn into a place without any post office (or telephone and internet). Ali’s poetry was evoked repeatedly by Kashmiri — and other — writers protesting this move. Readers of this book will be able to better understand the contexts that inspired Ali. It might also serve as inspiration for a newer generation of poets and researchers.

Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published last year; he teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. Das Gupta writes a fortnightly column on poetry, ‘Verse Affairs’, for The Wire.