The Phoenix in a Coffin of Light: Agha Shahid Ali (1949–2001)

As I give this essay a final edit, Shahid looms large in my consciousness. He has come alive, far more palpable than in just memory. I hear his voice in my ear, saying to me, too, though he never did say it in life, saying in an urgent voice, as he said to Amitav Ghosh: “You must write something about me! Write something about me!”

These words make me cry. There is no sentimentality here, knowing as I do that Shahid was always aware of his destiny as a poet and its inevitable longevity far beyond his own lifetime. The words make me cry because it makes me think that in the very jaws of death, in the turmoil the prolonged experience must have created, Shahid did not know the extent to which his popularity would only grow in the wake of his early death. 52 is no age to die, but then no age is the age to die. From what I gather from Amitav Ghosh’s relatively detailed portrayal of his last months in his essay, ‘The Ghat of the Only World’: Agha Shahid in Brookly, Shahid died peacefully, having embraced death as he had embraced life before his mother’s death. A parent’s death makes the process of dying real, and Shahid had been deeply affected by his mother’s, to whom he was very attached. Shahid’s words also made me cry because they touched something in my own experience, and doubt. It is the cry of every artist that dies not knowing his or her endurance in time. It speaks to me of Shahid’s longing for his poetry to endure; of his uncertainty whether it would.

The tears and the emotion are welcome. The first or second draft of this essay I had just ripped off in my usual way, as a task I had set myself that I needed to fulfill. A friend on Facebook had excerpted an incident from Amitav Ghosh’s essay on Shahid, and when I mentioned I had known him, she wanted me to share my memories of him. Shahid and his poetry elicits and deserves emotion, and I am grateful to honor my friend with tears eighteen years after his death.

I had just graduated from High School, was 16 or 17, and in the 6-month interim between going to college, my parents encouraged me and my sister to teach in the convent at Srinagar. Dad was there in his last command as an army officer. I don’t remember the name of the convent, though its location is etched in my memory with a chisel. It was across the Jhelum, and we had to ferry across it on a shikhara.

I don’t remember who invited my sister and me, or was it just me, to a ‘mixed’ dance party. The only thing I remember about that party so long ago was Shahid. I don’t remember being introduced to him. Memory sifts things down to the essentials, and sometimes even that threatens to go, now, at almost 71. But O, I do remember dancing with him! I don’t remember dancing like that ever again, except with my husband, Payson, in our own living room, when we first met. Payson and my dance was free form, while my dancing with Shahid was the old, traditional way, the guy guiding, the woman following. But in that dance no one was guiding or following anybody. We were moving together as one body. The dance was us and we were the dance. We talked and chatted through most of it. It must have been an intimate discussion. Shahid was gay in the old, traditional sense — bright, cheerful, lively. The only words I remember saying to him in some context are, ‘I am not a sadist.’ I mispronounced the word, ‘saddist,’ and thought it meant someone who is sad. I was embarrassed when he corrected both my pronunciation and enlightened me on the meaning. Shahid asked me what I wanted to be in life, and I don’t think I quite knew then that I wanted to be a writer, though writing had been my passion even in High School, at Welham’s in Dehra Dun. But Shahid’s answer to my query was unequivocal. “I’m going to be a poet.” He always had a sense of his destiny.

My next memory is of Shahid taking me to meet his family. Their house, near the Convent where I taught, was set back from a garden blooming with flowers. It must have been spring.

Shahid’s mother’s reaction to me was “Why, Shahid, she has lovely eyes!” I suppose it is vanity that has preserved this particular memory.

There wasn’t, as there had never been throughout our long and interrupted friendship, anything sexual about our relationship. It was beyond that, a sort of an instant recognition that we were kindred spirits. When I met him on one of my visits to LA in the last years of the previous century, a reporter asked him: Are you gay?

Shahid’s reply was, “what difference does it make?”

I understand the need for people to stand up for what they are as a political and social act. I admire gay people who come out, thereby giving others the courage and support in their search for freedom and equal rights. I did not know then how I felt about Shahid’s comment, but I do, now. I don’t know whether Shahid was gay. He was never married, but wedded to poetry. He may have been asexual or had any of the many layered sexual preferences revealed and acknowledged during our times. When the long history of persecution of people different from the norm is over — will it ever be, one despairs — at the end, and at the beginning, Shahid’s counter question makes high sense. We make altogether too much of sexuality.

But to keep the thread of the narrative straight: after Srinagar I went away to college in Chandigarh, Shahid stayed in Kashmir, then went to Delhi, but we corresponded. I wish I had those letters still, those letters that got me into so much trouble! I was not supposed to write to a boy! The matron who so self-righteously took it upon herself to read all the letters we put into the post box in front of her quarters, told the principal who summoned me, and then my father all the way from someplace far to take charge of a daughter who was going so terribly astray for writing letters to a male, and a Muslim at that! Expulsion was mentioned. To their pea brains all that mattered was that I was writing to a boy, never mind that the letters were literary, poetic, deep, and thoughtful.

How I got out of that jam, with the help of my own poems — which I discovered had a very practical value, like being let off the hook, or landing a fellowship and a job — is a long story, not to be told here.

The worst part of the matron’s and the principal’s Nazi behavior was that the letters had to stop. This was in 1971 or ’72. Perhaps a year earlier or later. I have never been good with dates, and as I age, memory, what remains of it, takes precedence over chronology. In Shahid’s own image, my memory is in the way of our history.

That was that. I don’t remember thinking much about Shahid much after a while. His memory was submerged in my youthful thrust to know and experience myself.

In the latter part of the twentieth century in the US I began to hear about a poet called Agha Shahid Ali. I had known Shahid as Agha Shahid Ali Khan. Why he took the Khan part out I will never know, just as I have no real explanations — though I do — of why I changed my name from Kamal to Kamla somewhere along the way.

I knew as soon as I heard his name as a poet that it was he. How could it not be? But being preoccupied by my own life, I neither bought a copy of his poems — too engaged with writing my own — teaching, coping with the suicide of a husband. Nor did I attempt to contact him. But the thought stayed with me and somewhere at the close of the century, perhaps 1998, I wrote a letter to him c/o Norton, his publishers, asking for his contact. I began the letter in my usual diffident way, “I don’t know if you remember me but I am . . .”

Within the week I had a letter from him: “Of course I remember you!”

Someone called someone, and we caught up. I told him about my life, he a bit about his, that he was teaching poetry in Utah. We talked frequently about all sorts of things, none of which I remember. He was coming to LA for a reading at the Getty, and Payson and I went to meet him at his hotel.

As soon as he opened the hotel door, there he was, short as always, his Kashmiri white face with the same glow I had been drawn to at the party some thirty-four or thirty five years ago, the same, the very same presence and light of the youthful Shahid, the same, the very same person. Our core remains, like the axis around which our various personas revolve. It was as if no time had elapsed between our last meeting. The warmth and love were palpable. Shahid ordered all sorts of room-service snacks, wine, and we shared memories and laughed a lot. My only memories of our conversations was his telling us his mother had died of a brain tumor, and the shadows that crossed his face every time he mentioned it. I came away from the meeting knowing how much sadness lay in Shahid’s being over that loss.

The auditorium for his reading at the Getty was over packed and several young people climbed onto the stage and sat on it. “I love to have people sitting at my feet,” Shahid spoke into the mike. The laughter that followed was amplified ten times when after a pause he added, “especially white people.” He had got his little colonial dig in.

Later, in some context I don’t remember, he said, “I am for sale, but not on sale.”

I hadn’t really thought about this last line at all till now. The fact that I remembered it is significant enough. Shahid, I can only infer based on his faith in himself as a poet, on his being a thinking, philosophic and feeling man, was very aware of an artist’s need to sell himself along with his work. For most of us writers, the two go hand in hand. The selling of oneself is only in subservience to the larger need to find an audience for work we are — beyond ego reasons — compelled to do. Perhaps it is because we know a work of art is never quite complete without the eye and heart it was meant for. It is resonance with another we seek after completing a piece or a poem for our own delight and happy occupation. It is an act of love, this seeking, this meeting of heart to heart, a sacred communion, union. Shahid is part of the fortunate few who find it in their lifetimes. And beyond.

I only met Shahid twice after that. Once, for another reading for which I drove alone from San Deigo to LA, a feat known only to a driver who doesn’t like to drive to unknown destinations, but I wanted to go. Perhaps I knew our renewed bond was bounded and I wanted every opportunity to connect. Shahid was already ‘singing in his chains, like the sea.’

The image of the sea reminds me of the only metaphor I recall from one of his letters, the ones that were burned after I could write to him no more. Verbatim. “We are but drops in the ocean of mankind. Whether we exist or not, at the universal level, who cares?”

The irony is that Shahid, who was perhaps only embarking on his career as a poet back when he wrote this sentence, has become one of those drops whose existence continues to matter; that we care and are grateful for his endurance at the universal level.

In one of our talks on the phone he told me he had passed out; that he had a malignant brain tumor; I think I was complaining about some minor ailment when he told me this. I know I didn’t say anything for a while. I didn’t know what to say. But our conversation somehow resumed. He sounded calm. There was some panic in my heart. I knew this was not good news. I knew that Shahid’s soul, so torn by his separation from his mother, had begun its journey back to her.

We talked on the phone frequently. We shared our Srinagar memories of each other, snatches of conversations he remembered that I didn’t; our meeting and mutual friends from Srinagar, about poetry.Though his short-term memory was going, his long-term memory was intact. He spoke several times of a memory he had of me in a blue salwar kameez with “a long, black plat;” I marveled at how scattered pieces of events in the past exist and complete themselves through the mutuality of memory.

The next and final time I met him was in New York. His apartment on the ground floor was, if I remember correctly, given to him by NYU when he could no longer teach, was near Washington Square Park. Before entering, I espied a stack of rich, dark red cherries on a fruit stand. I always associate them with Kashmir, where I had frequently climbed the cherry trees in our yard and gorged myself on them. I had to buy them for Shahid, together with some other healthy-looking fruit.

He was sitting, head shaven, on one of the chairs, and the first thing he said was, how did you know I was longing for cherries? He had had several brain surgeries. His bald skull was sutured. He stroked it, lovingly, I thought. He joked about it as Ashraf, his father, made us chai. I think his brother Iqbal Ali, who we called Lala, was there, but I am not sure. Payson and I stayed for several hours, eating cherries, drinking chai and wine, and then left.

I never saw Shahid again, though each time I think of him his face and mannerisms come alive in my mind’s eye. Later I got a group email about his passing. My sadness was mixed with gratitude that we had reconnected; that we had had the opportunity to express our feelings and love for each other.

I have had several dreams about Shahid. In most of them the front door of his house, which is invariably in Srinagar, is a bright, cheerful blue. I hadn’t understood why till I had an insight several years ago. I have always associated blue with inspiration, having written a poem called The Birth of the Blue Cat in my anthology of poetry variously called As a Fountain in a Garden and The Gift of Grief.

Shahid is one of my muses.

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