'The Ghat of the Only World': Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn

Article excerpt

The first time that Agha Shahid Ali, the great Kashmiri poet, spoke to me about his approaching death was in April of last year. The conversation began routinely. I had telephoned to remind him that we had been invited to a friend's house for lunch and that I was going to come by his apartment to pick him up. Although he had been under treatment for brain cancer for some fourteen months, Shahid was still on his feet and perfectly lucid, except for occasional lapses of memory. I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said: "Oh dear. I can't see a thing." There was a brief pause and then he added: "I hope this doesn't mean that I'm dying..."

Although Shahid and I had talked a great deal over the past many weeks, I had never before heard him touch on the subject of death. His voice was completely at odds with the content of what he had just said, light to the point of jocularity. I mumbled something innocuous: "No, Shahid--of course not. You'll be fine." He cut me short. In a tone of voice that was at once quizzical and direct, he said: "When it happens I hope you'll write something about me."

I was shocked into silence, and a long moment passed before I could bring myself to say the things that people say on such occasions: "Shahid, you'll be fine; you have to be strong..." From the window of my study I could see a corner of the building in which he lived, some eight blocks away, where he'd moved to be near his sister, Sameetah, after learning of his tumor. Shahid ignored my reassurances. He began to laugh, and it was then that I realized that he was dead serious.

"You must write about me," he said.

By the end of the conversation I knew exactly what I had to do. I picked up my pen, noted the date and wrote down everything I remembered of that conversation. This I continued to do for the next few months: It is the record that has made it possible for me to fulfill the pledge I made that day.

I knew Shahid's work long before I met him. His 1997 collection, The Country Without a Post Office, made a powerful impression on me. His voice was like none I had 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 could think of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like: "Mad heart, be brave."

In 1998 I quoted a line from The Country Without a Post Office in an article that touched briefly on Kashmir. At the time all I knew about Shahid was that he was from Srinagar and had studied in Delhi. We had friends in common, however, and one of them put me in touch with Shahid. But we were little more than acquaintances when he moved to Brooklyn. Once we were in the same neighborhood, we began to meet for occasional meals and quickly discovered that we had a great deal in common. By this time, of course, Shahid's condition was already serious, yet his illness did not impede the progress of our friendship. And because of Shahid's condition even the most trivial exchanges had a special charge and urgency: The inescapable poignance of talking about food and half-forgotten figures from the past with a man who knew himself to be dying was multiplied in this instance by the knowledge that this man was also a poet who had achieved greatness--perhaps the only such that I shall ever know as a friend. He had a sorcerer's ability to transmute the mundane into the magical.

Shahid was legendary for his gregariousness and 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: It was after this encounter that he began to experiment with strict metrical patterns and verse forms such as the canzone and the sestina. …