A Beloved Witness

    By Irfan Hassan

The Final Collections: Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals and Rooms Are Never Finished: Poems

On a hot summer evening of 1988, I spotted Aga Shahid Ali on the Residency Road buying Paans at Mir Paan House (his favourite Paan shop). At the first glance he did not recognise me, but welcomed me with a big smile, as he would welcome any friend or stranger. I had last seen Shahid in my childhood. When I introduced myself he gave me a warm hug and introduced me to his companion Rouf Rathore telling him about the family friendship between Agha Sahib and my father since the 30s.

The very next day as I was going to pick up the newspaper, on the same place, I saw Shahid again. This time standing alone with a couple of books in his hand. As usual he met me warmly and told me he was waiting for a friend who hadn’t come turned up, and asked me if I was free and if I could join him for a walk. We walked along the Bund, which he liked very much and after the walk he asked me if I could join him to have his favourite Kashmiri Kababs. We went to the La Belle Restaurant around the Polo View and chatted till late in the evening. Before we parted he presented me the two books he was carrying for the friend who hadn’t showed up and inscribed on The Half Inch Himalayas: “For Irfan Hassan who has become a wayfarer and friend, quite unexpectedly and delightfully”.

Thus started a long friendship between two of us which grew as the times went by.

He had come to Kashmir after a long gap, we planned a trip to Pahalgam where we spent two days and slowly I started to realise that inspite of being famous in America (The Half Inch Himalayas had already appeared in America by then) how simple, gentle and soft spoken he was. As I started to spend more and more time with him I got to know his poetry, which for me was tough to understand, but he would explain the poems to me as if I were his student.

During the summers of 1989 he was again here to spend his holidays. By this time he was deep into translating Faiz into English. We would spend long evenings at his place with Sufia aunty and Ashraf uncle discussing the poetry of Faiz and Shahid explaining to me the nuances of choosing the right word even when there would be so many to choose from. He would always love to sing aloud Faiz’s poems as sung by Begum Akhtar with whom he was very close and had spent a long time with her when he was teaching in Delhi’s Hindu College.

When the uprising against the Indian rule here began in the later half of 1989 Shahid got worried about the situation here and would often call me from America to find out if I was alright. He couldn’t come here in the summer of 1990 as the situation didn’t allow him to be here, but he kept himself abreast of the events here.

Next summer he came to Kashmir again. This time briefly and stayed with me. After sometime his mother also joined him. He was greatly disturbed by the events here. I would tell him all the details that I knew and told him how once when I had gone to Post Office, because the letters would not be delivered and one had to go himself to collect those, I found heaps of letters and parcels scattered all around. I collected my letters and those of my friends. Little did I realise that the title of one of his great works The Country Without a Post Office was born. Much later he narrated the same incident to his friends to say how he had got the title of his book on Kashmir.

He again visited his beloved Kashmir. This time it was June 1992. Two of his books had appeared in the meanwhile. One The Rebel’s Silhouette (translation of Faiz’s selected poems) and A Nostalgist’s Map of America. He was by now deeply involved in creating his masterpiece The Country Without a Post Office. I particularly remember the poem, I see Kashmir From New Delhi At Midnight. Throughout the “making” of this great poem I was there. He would explain to me in great detail every time he would create a line and discard it to choose another and discard again and so on. I then realised that how tough it was to write good poetry. So many sheets of paper over a long period of time, even months, would go by in creating a poem. And one must see how relaxed the poet would feel once he was satisfied with the end product. In Shahid’s words he would feel as if he would be “freed from the clutches”.

Next came The Beloved Witness a collection of selected poems which was published in India by Viking.

When The Country Without a Post Office was near completion Sufia aunty suddenly got ill. She was taken to America where she was diagnosed with brain tumor, the dreaded disease that one day consumed Shahid too. Everyone loves his mother. So did Shahid. But the love for his mother was so deep that it won’t be possible for me to describe it here. He nursed her and was always there by her side as if she was “his own daughter” (Lenox Hill). Sufia aunty’s death was something Shahid couldn’t expect and it greatly disturbed him, he couldn’t come to Kashmir because of it. But he again came to his beloved land alongwith Sufia aunty. But this time only to bury her.

By this time The Country Without a Post Office had created ripples and through his poems Shahid had created an awareness among the Western intelligentsia about the atrocities committed on Kashmiris. He dedicated the book to his mother. It was a personal gift for me too as the first poem of the book was dedicated to me and it gave me immense pleasure to have a poem dedicated to me by such a renowned poet and friend.

Agha Shahid AliShahid was delighted with success of the book. Here in Kashmir too it was received well by literary elite. When Greater Kashmir introduced the weekly magazine Sensor (something first time in Kashmir) Shahid was the first person they did a feature on. Here I recall an incident after the Sensor carried the feature on Shahid. Greater Kashmir received a letter from a well-known writer/journalist reminding the Editor that he (the writer himself) should have been the first choice of the Sensor. By choosing Shahid, “a nobody”, they had erred, he wrote. Most of his friends wanted Shahid to react but he, to our surprise, defended the said author/journalist saying he hasn’t come across my work and he has every right to propagate himself. This was something new to us. He even wanted to meet the author/journalist for being so bold and honest to be the first person on the Sensor cover

Sufia aunty’s death had greatly pained Shahid and in all his thoughts there was his mother, as a result of which she became the theme of his new book Rooms Are Never Finished. It was a labour of love and pain. His love for his mother was there to be seen everywhere.

He kept on coming to Kashmir regularly for he loved the place and the people alike. It was in August 1999 he was here last. He told me that he hadn’t spent the winter in Kashmir for a long time and planned to come in the year 2000 for one full year. We planned to visit the various cities in South India to come back to Kashmir when there would be snow to “enjoy Kangri and Harisa”. But fate had other plans in offing.

In February 2000 Shahid collapsed in the bathroom. Ashraf uncle was there with him in Amhesrt. He was taken to hospital and was diagnosed with brain tumor, toeing his mother. He was treated and he fought bravely. He kept on working on his normal schedule through the summer of 2001. He last spoke to me when Rafiq Kathwari, who was staying with him, then called me up.

Shahid told me he had lost his hair as a result of Chemotherapy. Though I had already known about it, I got emotional. But Shahid laughed and said: “Irfan cheer up. I look like Yul Bryner and American’s fine me sexy”. Such was his sense of humour that even in his last days he knew how to cheer up a friend. This was the last time we spoke.

Although his condition was deteriorating, he kept on fighting and remained alert by Rooms Are Never Finished which was an instant hit and took the American literary elite by storm. Anthony Hecht, the great author, wrote while reviewing Rooms Are Never Finished: “From the stately, yet anguished, sequence concerning his mother’s death in Massachusetts, and his return with her body to his childhood home in Kashmir, to the final visionary reconciliation with death, through the agency of James Merrill’s Dantean Epic, Agha Shahid Ali commands a range of feelings available to very few, if to any other, poets now writing in English. This is an incomparable work and unmatched achievement.”

The book was shortlisted for the National Book Award, America’s highest literary honour. This was the greatest honour for Shahid for this had come out of his love for his mother. At last he left us all but not before this great son of Kashmir had brought such a great honour to his homeland.

Shahid has not died, I told Ashraf uncle when he informed me about his death, but for us he is alive and shall remain so through his powerful and evocative poems.

Shahid loved Kashmir and its people. He was greatly concerned about it, loved the river Jehlum and would love to cross it by Shikara.

He liked the Kashmiri Kabab and would entertain all of us at Ahdoo’s, which was his favourite. As he would recall that as a young boy he alongwith his sister would go to Ahdoo’s to buy bread at its bakery and order tea in the restaurant and quietly eat the bread and sip the tea.

Shahid also loved to eat Paan and his favourite was Mir Paan House and he also liked zero Bridge. Residency Road which find a mention in his poems. Shahid loved to cook and he was a great cook. He would throw big parties in America, as he would tell me, invite his friends and students and would cook Kashmiri dishes— mostly Pandit delicacies in which he was a master.

Another of his favourite was Pheran, the dress we Kashmiris wear in winter. Once Shahid was invited by India International Centre, Delhi for poetry recitation. It was winter and Shahid wore his long Pheran. For a moment I was surprised for no Kashmiri generally goes to attend the function wearing a Pheran, but Shahid loved it and he wanted people to take note of it. I too hurriedly changed my coat and wore another of his Pherans.

A funny incident took place at India International Centre. As the two of us, alongwith Sufia aunty, entered a former Governor of J&K State was eating pastry— those days militancy was at its peak in Kashmir. The moment he saw two Kashmiris in Pherans he thought we were militants and within no time he left his pastry half-eaten, Shahid couldn’t control himself and laughed. For no fault of ours the Governor had left but, as he later said, “the Pheran had done its trick”.

Agha Shahid AliShahid loved to teach. Once he was invited by the Kashmir University’s English Department to deliver some lectures. It was over in 3-4 days but Shahid always wanted to teach in Kashmir over a longer period of time. On his own he proposed to the English Department his desire to teach over a longer period of time, may be a month. The proposal was accepted for which he felt very happy and he planned his holidays next year so that it would match with that of English Department’s schedule.

When he arrived next year the English Department was informed so that the necessary arrangements could be made but to everyone’s surprise the programme was scuttled. Shahid felt very dejected and told me how he had planned everything to teach and how the entire affair was handled. But he never complained about it to any of the concerned.

With this attitude I fail to understand what are we trying to prove to the world, when shall we get out of personal prejudices that takes us back instead of forward, when shall we wake up, when shall we learn to applaud and appreciate.

The author is a Srinagar based businessman.

Also published in February 2002 issue of Sensor, Greater Kashmir.

Photo: (From T to B) indiabookmart.com, umass.edu, anthropology.as.nyu.edu.

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