Sensitive Thoughts, Sensitive Words: Agha Shahid Ali

I was barely twenty four years old in 1995 and I had gone looking to meet a poet who had impressed me a lot. I went to the flat his father had. This was Zakir Bagh, right opposite Surya Hotel, New Delhi. The poet: Agha Shahid Ali. But I was unfortunate. Sometimes, we are. Shahid was in the United States. I missed him. I knew him from his poems, from what he translated, from what he wrote—words in different registers, all imbued with magic. Each word of his was drenched with sensitivity.

Agha Shahid Ali
Agha Shahid Ali

I also knew Shahid from a couple of people I knew who were so fortunate to have met him. Abir Bashir Bazaz was my student in 1995. Abir now teaches at the University of Minnesota. He had Shahid’s books endearingly autographed by the great poet.

Amitav Ghosh has written an endearing essay on Shahid and of his impending death:

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…”

Only Shahid could transform the mundane into the sublime. I have always been excited by the moments of sublimity which we experience. As I read and re-read Shahid, I do get insights into the world around me, while being transported into another realm too.

My first exposure to Shahid was through his enchanting book of poems, The Half-Inch Himalayas. “Postcard from Kashmir” passed through my eyes and into my heart:

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.

I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

But as if this wasn’t enough and yes, with Shahid, if you read as many of his poems, you would find more poems that enchanted you, that transported you into another world, that left such an imprint on you all your life. In the same book, I discovered a love that has stayed with me all these years. “Stationery”, such a short poem, the worlds so deceptively simple and yet so powerful:

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.

Write to me.

And in his book of poems, A Nostalgist’s Map of America, there’s another beautiful love poem “A Rehearsal of Loss”.

Shahid made a number of contributions but perhaps, his greatest should be his ghazals in English. He also got a number of poets to write ghazals in English and got them into a fascinating book, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. He has received unmitigated praise for everything in the poetic realm. Years ago, at a Katha Workshop, Shahid had read a paper, where he spoke about the ‘biryanization of English’. In one of his ghazals, Shahid says:

The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic.
These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.

Ancestors–you’ve left me a plot in the family graveyard–
Why must I look, in your eyes, for prayers in Arabic?


From exile Mahmoud Darwish writes to the world:
You’ll all pass between the fleeting words of Arabic.
….
I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women
And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means–
Listen: it means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

Agha Shahid Ali was exceptionally proficient in the craft of poetry. He has written villanelles, sestinas and canzones, which are exceptionally tough to write. Shahid has written three canzones, more than any other poet.

Once Shahid wrote:

I wish all this had not happened. 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?

The message that Agha Shahid Ali gives me is that of nostalgia, of love, of loss, of living with it and of celebrating one’s own self.