A Tribute to Agha Shahid Ali

This is a tribute by Amitav Ghosh penned in the memory of his close friend and famous Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali. Both were teaching in New York and met a year before Shahid learned about his brain tumour. Before his demise, he had requested Ghosh to write about him and immortalize him through his words.

Amitav started to keep a note of his conversations with Shahid to be able to do justice to him once he departed this world.

Even though they had not known each other for long, they had struck a strong bond and had numerous meetings and conversations in New York together. Amitav had first used a line for Shahid’s collection called ‘The Country without a Post Office’ and then contacted him through a common acquaintance.

They talked over the phone and began g=frequenting each other’s place when Shahid moved to New York after a fit of blindness, the first sign of his illness.

Likes & Dislikes of Shahid

Ghosh writes about Shahid’s love for food. He was a great cook and loved Kashmiri and Bengali food. He was fond of convivial meetings and gatherings with friends and family. His brother and sisters all lived in New York but his parents lived in Srinagar, Kashmir. He used to visit them in summers every year.

As Kashmir became an arena of violence and bloodshed in the late 80s, Shahid focused on the topic of martyrdom, struggle and freedom in his poetry. He was greatly influenced by James Merrill who brought a sense of discipline, structure, meter and versification in his work.

He loved Kishore Kumar’s songs and Begum Akhtar’s ghazals. He was also fond of watching old Bollywood movies. He loved the art of repartee and clamoured people to ask him questions as he shows in his poem “Barcelona Airport”.

Secular Shahid

Shahid was brought up in a Muslim family but was not religious. He was more secular in his makeup with a temple in his room (blasphemy in Islam) while he was in Srinagar. He did wish to meet his mother in afterlife, an Islamic fate. This might suggest his confusion when it comes to faith.

Even though he was fond of Kashmir, he never considered himself a nationalist or political poet. The fact that he lived a rather privileged life in America may suggest he considered himself removed from the ground realities of the place.

He did have a soft the people of Kashmir including the Kashmiri pundits. All in all, Ghosh has tried to do justice to a friend and fellow litterateur through intimate knowledge and real-life events.

He uses the title that Shahid himself used to f=presage his own death with words, “The Ghat of the Only World” as he looked across his roof at the Manhattan riverfront.

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