‘i swear…i have my hopes’: Agha Shahid Ali’s Delhi Years: Akhil Katyal
This is a guest post by AKHIL KATYAL
Born on 4th February, 1949, Agha Shahid Ali would have been 62 next month. The Kashmiri-American poet who spent the last half of his life in the States (he migrated to Pennsylvania in the mid 70s) died in the winter of 2001 due to brain tumour. The next year had begun with papers and journals in the States, and in Kashmir and India, remembering Shahid. ‘Your death in every paper,’ Shahid had written for his own idol the singer Begum Akhtar after she passed away in 1974, ‘boxed in the black and white / of photographs, obituaries.’ In his new absence, he similarly reappeared in the words of his friends as an insurmountably beautiful poet, a gregarious Brooklyner, a near perfect cook, an impossibly good teacher and a lasting friend. Apocrypha started building around him very soon after his death. One could say this was the final proof that Shahid’s name would abide – that stories began to be spun around him as soon as he was not around. The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, Shahid’s creative writing student at Hamilton College in New York and then at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the 90’s, and someone who always recounts his indelible influence on her writings (he coloured her drafts red), was one of the first to add to the stories that have multiplied since in this decade after Shahid’s death. Kamila’s friend, also a student of Shahid, had told her that some months after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, Shahid was riding the subway going to teach his class at NYU when he started to feel faint and began to black out. ‘For a moment,’ her friend told her, ‘he thought, “I’m dying,” and then he told himself, “No. First I’ll teach my class, then I’ll die.”’
It was in the summer of last year that the Indian historian and biographer Saleem Kidwai, Shahid’s close friend since the early 70s, had told me how reading the apocryphal is an art by itself. It is like embroidery (one of Shahid’s favorite poetic images), he said, like all the wonderful literature we read about those times that have left no definite historical documents. It is a form of prying open our idea of the archives, entering a time or a personality not only through the definiteness of the records and reports but also through the layers of memories and hearsay. For nineteenth century Delhi, one reads what the Urdu poet Ghalib said to so and so on the streets of Shahjahanabad recounted in his ghazals. For ancient Greece, we hear the conversations between Socrates and his disciples recounted by Plato. I had this conversation with Saleem last summer in one of his hometown Lucknow’s oldest and most cherished bookshops – Ram Advani Booksellers in Hazratganj. That afternoon Saleem himself, half-trusting me with some of his most sheltered memories, contributed to the trove of stories about his friend. ‘Shahid had told me a very funny story about the [Palestinian-American writer] Edward Said, who was his friend (he had got to know him through Eqbal Ahmed, the Pakistani writer and anti-war activist in the States). So one day Said rang up Shahid and told him that he has one good news and one bad news and asked him what he wants to hear first. Shahid asked for the bad news. Said told him that Aijaz Ahmad [the Marxist literary theorist whose book ‘In Theory’ was as popular as it was reviled] had had a heart-attack. The good news, Said added, was that it had happened in England where the health services are really bad.’ Shahid used to tell many such stories, Saleem remembered, he loved telling them and weaved in all those people he knew within them. After a point, he told me, it did not matter whether they were true (in all likelihood they were) but that they were so complete in their own universe and went so well with the shaksiyat (the personality) of Shahid. That is what apocrypha does, it builds personalities while facts can only make up the biodata. Everyone by now knows the story about the Barcelona airport where the security guard had asked Shahid “Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other passengers?” Shahid had lightly held his hand to his chest and said ‘Only my heart’.
In 1968, after completing his Bachelors in English Literature at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar, Shahid began studying for the two year Masters in the same subject in Hindu College at Delhi University. He passed with a distinction and became a lecturer in the same college where he taught till he migrated to the States for his PhD at the Penn State University. It seemed odd to me how Shahid, whose name virtually indexes the keywords ‘Kashmir’ and ‘America’ when he is remembered in memoirs and profile sketches, was never to be recalled in any close association with Delhi, a place where he spent about seven of his formative years as a poet, a place where he published his first collection ‘Bone-Sculpture’ when he was 23, and a place where, importantly enough, he was born. In ‘A Lost Memory of Delhi’ which he published in the late 80s in America, he takes the poetic leap and remembers the night of his birth -
I am not born
it is 1948 and the bus turns
onto a road without name
There on his bicycle
He is younger than I
At Okhla where I get off
I pass my parents
strolling by the Jamuna river
…this the night of my being
They don’t they won’t
hear me they won’t hear
my knocking drowning out
the tongues of stars.
I first heard of Shahid Ali in Delhi. It was about seven years back, through a small article posted on the wall magazine in Hindu College where I was to study for my bachelors in the same department about thirty years after Shahid. It had been pointed out to me by Leela Gandhi who used to teach in the same department and was now visiting for a lecture during the first year of my college in 2004. I had not read any of Shahid then but his name had stuck in my head because Gandhi, who otherwise has a very soft, measured way of speaking (I don’t know if her being the great-grand daughter of Mahatma Gandhi has anything to do with it) was unusually excited when she spoke of him. She told me that he used to teach ‘here’, familiarizing a young student with someone who she thought was remarkable, someone who she thought should be known, and someone who had died tragically young. It had been only three years since Shahid’s death then.
When I go back to Shahid’s years in Delhi it is to tell his story as part of the story of this city. When his friends started talking about Shahid, as they knew him in the early 70s, they were sharing with me not only the memories of their friend, but also of a city where these friendships had begun and matured. We can scarcely underestimate that part of our lives where we step outside our families for the first time and are on our own, where we try out things we could not back home and where we face, perhaps like never before, our lives as lived in more than one world, now irreparably split between places. For Shahid, that part of his life was spent in Delhi. The years in this city see Shahid, in his own words, ‘stumbling through my twenties’. Shahid was 19 when he first moved to Delhi to start studying English literature in Hindu College. In the late 60s it was the ‘old syllabus’ for those studying literature at DU, a syllabus that was to remain more or less intact till the turn of the millennium, when it was replaced by what was sheepishly called the ‘new’ curriculum, that I got to study and which fortunately included more of those writers that were not dead, Anglo-Saxon or men. The first syllabus had been an unequivocal nod towards the English canon, populated by Hardy (someone who had put the writer Amitav Ghosh, a contemporary of Shahid in DU, off his literature classes and sent him running into history for his bachelors at St. Stephens), Dickens, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and the Romantics. For literary sleuths who try and trace where the writers first found their inspirations, where some abiding ‘themes’, as critics call it, find their beginning, Shahid’s years in Delhi University are an unmissable clue. In the first poem ‘Bones’ of his first collection ‘Bone-Sculpture’ published two years after his Masters in 1972, and while he was teaching, he wrote unsparingly in the vein of Eliot – ‘The years are dead. I’m / twenty, a mourner in the Mohorrum / Procession, mixing blood with / mud, memory with memory. I’m / still alone.’ Eliot’s lines, penned in 1922 for ‘The Wasteland’, were ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire’. Shahid was overdosed on Shelley and Keats till he had found Eliot who was to be cited in his style and content for years after, before the American poet James I. Merrill took over by the 90’s. In his second collection published while he was finishing his own PhD on T.S. Eliot as an editor, he recounted his Delhi classrooms at the Faculty of Arts, ‘A Ph.D. from Leeds / mentioned discipline, casually / brought the waste-land.’ In the first review of ‘Bone-Sculpture’ that came out in 1972, the reviewer Sumi Sridharan, who used to teach in I.P. College not very far from Shahid’s college, had noted this strain in Shahid – ‘[t]he weakeness of Shahid’s writing,’ she had written, ‘is the abstractness of some of the experience and the echoes from Eliot that mar even a good poem like ‘’Bones’’’. She had relented in the end, however, and said that Shahid’s collection ‘reaches for the stars’ and that the intensity of his poetic vision is unequalled by the contemporary new poets of the seventies.
Shahid’s mother, Sufia Nomani, who was from Rudauli and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, and who had brought with her a love of Sufi poetry and ghazals to Kashmir, and his father, Agha Ashraf Ali, who was fed on Martin Buber, Marx, Zakir Hussain and Freud, both gave Shahid a childhood that mixed and matched different influences, Urdu, Hindi and Anglo-Saxon, from the beginning, so much so that they were quite inseparable in Shahid’s head. Years later, he was to tell his friend Rehan Ansari and Rajinderpal S. Pal that the ‘point is you are a universe, you are the product of immense historical forces. There is the Muslim in me, there is the Hindu in me, there is the Western in me. It is there because I have grown up in three cultures and various permutations of those cultures.’ When Shahid started finding his feet as a poet (he had found poetry easy when fifteen) he was mixing these various influences in his early Delhi verse. In Kashmir, his teachers had taught him poetry sitting under the Chinar trees and while their eyes had been misty with the odes to autumn, they had also recited the old game of moths and flames that are staple in the history of Urdu verse. ‘Shahid used to quote at the drop of a hat,’ his friend from the DU years, poet, painter and teacher Rupendra Guha Majumdar told me, ‘always Faiz, Ghalib and Mir.’ Last summer, sitting in his study in his campus house in Delhi University where he now teaches English at the main department, Rupen recalled to me the early 70s when he had first met Shahid, as I quickly typed every word he said. Shahid and Rupen’s first collections of poems, ‘Bone-Sculpture’ and ‘Blunderbuss’ respectively, had come out in the same year under the aegis of ‘Writers Workshop’ run by the patron-saint of Indian English poetry P. Lal (d. 2010) who edited and printed these collections out of his Lake Gardens house in Calcutta. ‘We were just starting to write those days,’ Rupen recounted, ‘I had just finished my masters and Shahid had started teaching. You know, the poetry scene was just starting then at the university, we organized small readings in Delhi colleges. That was the time we began seeing ourselves as poets in some tangible way. Shahid and I used to meet very often then. I remember, it was around this time that I organized this big poetry reading in Miranda House in the north campus. I had requested Mrs. Krishna at MH to let us use their large chemistry lecture theatre for this. There were almost a dozen resident poets of Delhi who came and read, Rakshat Puri, Keshav Malik, Keki Daruwala, Chitra Prasad from Miranda House, Lalita Venkateswaran, Aman Nath, Shahid, I and some others whose name I have forgotten now. The theatre was packed, I can remember.’ Saleem, who was two years younger than his friend Shahid and was studying History across the road from him at St. Stephens in 1972, recalls that ‘he was a brilliant performer at poetry readings. It was at a reading in Daulat Ram College that I first saw him saw him. His family and mine were both closely connected to Jamia Milia University in Delhi (Shahid’s father Ashraf sahab had taught there and was deeply influenced by the founders of Jamia, among whom was my brother-in-law’s father). They used to come to my brother-in-law’s house quite often, Shahid’s mother’s family had come to live in Jamia in Delhi, you know. But about that reading where I first saw him. I had gone with my friend Aman Nath, and Shahid, he read that Bone Sculpture poem, bones that refused to burn when they set fire to your flesh, something like that, oh everyone was very impressed, it was a clever poem, that poem was meant for taalis [applause].’ Saleem was referring to ‘Cremation’, Shahid’s four line poem published in his first collection: ‘your bones refused to burn / when we set fire to your flesh / who would have guessed / you’d be stubborn in your death.’
Agha Shahid Ali, 1973, Delhi, in the photograph he gifted to his friend Rupendra Guha Majumdar.
Behind the photograph, Shahid’s inscription, From ‘The Poet’ to ‘The Poet’, 11th March, 1973.
Delhi University was young around this time (Delhi itself was young as a capital). Set up by the Viceroy’s council in 1922, it was only about fifty years old when Saleem, Shahid, Rupen, Amitav and others coincided in their years of study and teaching at the university. Their colleges, Hindu and St. Stephens, predated the university by a couple of decades. Set up on a pauper’s purse of 40,000 rupees, the University had had a difficult start and was housed out of few colleges and buildings. By the 1970s the institutions within the university had grown but it never had enough hostels (which is true even today) to house all its students. This meant that the areas around the university swarmed with student flats, with girls and boys hostels and lots of daily tiffin services. The largely Punjabi refugees, fall out of the 1947 partition of the sub-continent, opened their houses to students at modest rents. Shahid had a small room in a flat in Tagore Park, which is about two kilometers from Hindu College where he taught. Later, while he was teaching, he had shifted to Model Town which is also a residence area for students and young teachers at the University. These were areas – Model Town, Kingsway Camp, Tagore Park, Dhakka Village, Indra Vihar – that enveloped the university and grew haphazardly in the late 60s and early 70s. They were in little control of the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s unwieldy urban Masters plans by which he wanted to bring a planned modernist aesthetic to the capital of independent India. The story of those Master plans are as popular for their ambition as for their failure. In the early 70s, residence areas around Delhi University, Rupen told me, had ‘open grassy areas and lots of kachha roads [‘mud roads’]. Lots of incomplete houses. I used to live in 83, Tagore Park, not very far from Shahid. There were lots of dhabas and tea-stalls to group around and eat in. That’s where we met often and talked endlessly about poetry, and about how to teach literature to our students. There was this mama’s dhaba, we used to call its owner mama [‘uncle’], he was so Falstaffian, you know, big paunch, dark fellow, always laughing and smiling. Those discussions at the dhaba were so animated. I remember he used to hang around with his friends, Saleem was there, Sunil was there. Sometimes we met on our way to the university, in this large grassy square. One night, when he was coming back late, he told me the next day, he had been mugged by two guys, his watch had been stolen from him. He recounted it like an adventure.’
‘We went everywhere together,’ Saleem remembered those campus days with Shahid, ‘as soon as the classes were done, we were off to the theatres, Mughle-Azam, Sahab Bibi aur Ghulam, in the near by Golcha theatre and others. Also, he was such a foodie you know, always cooking in his one room, for himself and others [In ‘A Note on Spices’ published in his second collection, Shahid asks him who he offers his food ‘Does / hunger still melt on your tongue?’]. But when he had no food at home, he always had his immense network to fall back on. He used to land up at his friends houses, I remember Masooma Ali’s house in Model Town where she lived with her husband Rafakat, she used to teach English at Miranda and was his close friend, he went there often, regaled everyone with his company and was asked to stay on for dinner. That’s how it worked. You could not let him go. He knew so many at the University. Sometimes we went to Rhythm Corner, this shop in Connought Place run by Manga Advani. Shahid and I were good friends of his and his wife Kanta. It was right opposite Scindia House and was one of those rare places in Delhi then where you could go into cubicles and listen to music records’. Student culture has always thrived in the dhabas and tea-stalls of Delhi University. They have become the nodal points of memory for so many teachers and students who recall their days on campus. Amitav Ghosh, who was to befriend Shahid only in his last years in New York, called the Delhi university area Maurice Nagar ‘my own, private Montparnasse’. He remembers the walks in the area with his friend, writer and publisher Rukun Advani, when they were both students at St. Stephens in the early 70’s. ‘Chaiwallahs lined the Maurice Nagar bus stop at that time. Some even provided benches. Rukun and I sat talking for hours, while buses roared past…our walks to Maurice Nagar became a night-time ritual; something to look forward to through the day. They continued for years. As I remember them, the two staples of our coanversations were literature and music.’ Saleem remembers a night in Shahid’s Tagore Park flat. ‘There was no electricity. We were smoking near the window, very late at night. There was only one cigarette left so we were sharing it. Suddenly Shahid, this is what he used to do so often, came up with a line – ‘we light a common cigarette, we smoke a common destiny’. He always came up with stuff like this, gems, and as soon as he had said it, he wanted to write it, he was like ‘light jalao, yeh to poem ban jayegi’ [‘switch on the light, this will surely become a poem’] and he started looking for pen and paper in the dark, with no light’.
There was another episode in Shahid’s life during this time that involved Delhi, power failure and one of his greatest loves, the ghazal and thumri singer Begum Akhtar (who, later in his life, he thought he bore a resemblance to, ‘[i]t’s something about the teeth and mouth’ he had told his friend Amitav Ghosh in Brooklyn). In the early seventies, Shahid used to listen to and meet Begum Akhtar very often. Saleem was his main point of access to the Begum. ‘I used to take him to meet the Begum in Delhi. In fact, the only time Shahid ever visited Lucknow,’ Saleem told me, ‘was for the Begum’s funeral after she had passed away in 1974.’ Rupen told me that the name that he remembers the most from all his conversations with Shahid was that of the Begum. ‘She was the one who inspired him the most. He used to freak out on her. That name stands out when I remember our conversations even after all these years.’ Years later in 1998, Shahid recalled that episode from his Delhi years to his friend Rehan Ansari – ‘Long ago in Delhi, I heard Begum Akhtar very often. In one particular case there was a power failure. The lights went out and there was absolute silence. The microphone was also dead. It was an outdoor concert and for a minute or two the voice was coming from very far away, an echo. And in that echo I heard, with such clarity, something amazing that she used to do with her voice. Just haunting.’ Saleem was also in the audience with Shahid for this particular concert. It had happened in the Hamsadhwani open air theatre in Pragati Maidan and he told me that it was ‘a magical performance’. Shahid was to recall this Delhi moment in his ‘Snow on the Desert’ years later in ‘A Nostalgist’s Map of America’ (1991) -
in New Delhi one night
as Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out.
It was perhaps during the Bangladesh War,
perhaps there were sirens,
But the audience, hushed, did not stir.
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, like this turning dark
of fog, a moment when only a lost sea
can be heard…
It had taken Shahid more than ten years to introduce this moment into the poem. It hibernated till one day it was set off by the sight of snow in Tucson in Arizona, where he was a graduate assistant at the university, the intense feeling of that morning and the departure of his sister Sameetah from the local airport. That is how cities live on in the memory and works of writers. It takes unpredictable moments to trigger an entire array of memories, a whole urban landscape and its events and people. Delhi had surprising cues in Shahid’s head. One of them was rain itself. ‘…the sky opens its hands above’ he wrote in ‘Desert Landscape’ years later, ‘a city being brought to memory by rain.’ Having spent most of his young life in Kashmir, where the four seasons used to last the same time, and came about quite predictably at their appointed hour, it was only in Delhi, that Shahid first understood the very feeling of rain, what it has to do with longing and grief. He had heard all the classical ragas that revolve around the monsoons, recounted by his mother who grew up in the gangetic plains which is fed by the monsoons, and he had heard the season in the very voice of Begum Akhtar. But it was in Delhi that he first came to know why rain, by itself, elicits entire genres of music, poetry and painting. In Kashmir, ‘it does not have quite the same feeling as rain in Delhi has. When I went to Delhi for the first time in summer, in July, and I saw these rains, I [saw] a very romantic season and could see why you would want to be in the arms of your lover…At a personal level the rain brings so much memory back to me, especially of some very important love relationships I have had.’ What he first learned in Delhi, among them the very meaning of rain, Shahid was to replay in his life and works for years to come. In one of his most popular ghazals, he recalled his loves and laid claim to another city where he was to spend his last years, through this abiding figure of rain -
What will suffice for a true love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief’s lottery, bought even the rain.
‘’our glosses / wanting in this world’’ ‘’Can you remember?’’
Anyone! when we thought the lovers taught even the rain?
Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you’d poured – what? – even the rain.
New York belongs at daybreak to only me, just me
to make this claim Memory’s brought even the rain.
Long way for a poet, who had written in his first collection in Delhi, when he was 23, ‘call me a poet…i swear / dear editor / i have my hopes / hopes which assume shapes in / alien territories.’
(Thanks to Saleem Kidwai, Rupendra Guha Majumdar, Leela Gandhi, Lalita Subbu, Brinda Bose, Teja Verma, Vaibhav Iype Parel, Kartik Nair, Tapan Basu and Vasavi Vishen.)
Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) was a Kashmiri-American poet and taught in several creative writing departments across the United States. Ali was awarded Guggenheim and Ingram-Merril Fellowships and a Pushcart Prize, and his collection Rooms are Never Finished was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001. The collected poems of Shahid Ali have appeared as ‘The Veiled Suite’ brought out by Norton in 2009.
Akhil Katyal is a writer from Delhi currently based in London where he is finishing his doctoral studies at SOAS. He blogs at akhilkatyalpoetry.blogspot.com.