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Agha Shahid Ali: A poet beyond boundaries

Manan Kapoor’s new biography of Agha Shahid Ali celebrates the complex genius and enduring legacy of the Kashmiri-American poet

Agha Shahid Ali (left) with Begum Akhtar and his close friend, Saleem Kidwai.
Agha Shahid Ali (left) with Begum Akhtar and his close friend, Saleem Kidwai. (Courtesy Saleem Kidwai)

The tombstone that marks the final resting place of poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) in Massachusetts, US, bears an epitaph from one of his well-known lyrics, “In Arabic”: They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: Listen, Listen: / It means “the beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic. The couplet not only beautifully sums up the essence of Ali’s life, but also his enduring afterlife. His legacy, as a pre-eminent English poet of Indian origin, continues to prosper among generations of readers, especially in Kashmir, to whose troubles Ali bore unflinching witness.

In A Map of Longings, his critical biography of the poet, Manan Kapoor heroically rises to the task of capturing Ali’s complex genius, inflected by a wide range of influences: a liberal Muslim upbringing, a voracious appetite for reading, an abiding love for the ghazal, bold embrace of his homosexuality, life as an academic in the US and, above all, his unshaken love for his homeland, Kashmir, riven by decades of conflict and unrest during his lifetime.

For a relatively slim volume, A Map of Longings doesn’t lack in ambition, especially since Kapoor couldn’t travel to the US for a crucial leg of his research after being denied a visa. Plenty of details, vividly recounted by Ali’s numerous friends, family, former students, and colleagues, as well as remote rummaging through archives, cohere to form a richly variegated portrait of the poet, whose reputation remains as tall as the Himalayas, even two decades after his death.

A Map of Longings—Life and Work of Agha Shahid Ali: By Manan Kapoor, Penguin Random House, 232 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499
A Map of Longings—Life and Work of Agha Shahid Ali: By Manan Kapoor, Penguin Random House, 232 pages, 499

Kapoor devotes the opening pages of the book to emphasise the inextricably secular and syncretic traditions Ali soaked up from his Kashmiri father Agha Ashraf Ali and mother Sufia Agha, who was born and grew up in Uttar Pradesh. From being dressed up as Lord Krishna as a toddler during Janmashtami festival to enjoying Persian poetry, Ali acquired a foundation that was, as Kapoor says, “completely South Asian and completely cosmopolitan”. The point may feel stressed several times over, but seems necessary in our current political environment, marked by provincial proclivities.

The cultural cacophony that Ali inherited and cherished extended to music. An ardent admirer of Begum Akhtar, Ali was devastated by her untimely death in 1974, as much as when he lost his mother to brain cancer, which would also kill him a few years later. Although he was not a musician himself, Ali became a spiritual shagrid (disciple) of Akhtar, who inspired some of his most memorable poems. He absorbed her inimitable pathos and tragic gravitas, infusing his poetry with these feelings, especially the ghazal in English (on which Kapoor has an excellent chapter). Ali’s early affinity with Urdu poetry also led him to translate Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a project he threw himself into with characteristic passion.

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For all his daring experiments with the ghazal, which often overshadows the discussions of his protean talent, Ali was deeply influenced by a wide variety of poetic styles and accents. From the delicately calibrated rhymes of T.S. Eliot to the politically charged verses of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (another writer Ali translated), echoes of diverse voices ring through his lines, connecting the two worlds—Kashmir and the US—that he inhabited seamlessly. If his ties with the home he had left informed iconic collections like The Half-Inch Himalayas and The Country Without A Post Office, Ali also internalised the arid landscape of Tucson in Arizona, where he worked for a while, the urbane rhythm of Amherst, where he taught, and the bustle of New York, where he spent his final years.

After his arrival in the US for graduate studies, Ali believed he “grew as a poet, a lover and a reader”. The first and last of these personas were enriched by the many friendships he cultivated, with American poet James Merrill for instance, who was instrumental behind Ali’s turn to formalism, especially his attempts with inelastic forms like the canzone and villanelle. But this disciplined move towards hard-nosed formalist poetry didn’t take away the mystical quality of Ali’s verse. Amitav Ghosh, who became close to him in his later years, recalls Ali giving one of two answers to explain the provenance of his poems. “One was: ‘I was playing with this line of Merrill’s’—the usual poet-speak. Another response was, ‘It came to me in a dream’, or ‘I had a vision’.”

Author Manan Kapoor
Author Manan Kapoor (Satvika Kundu)

As an inveterately gregarious presence, Ali entertained lavishly, cooked for friends and visitors, and was always the soul of a gathering. Kapoor captures his puckish humour and irrepressible derring-do through endearing anecdotes and remembrances—one mentions Ali writing to Jawaharlal Nehru as an adolescent and being invited to Teen Murti Bhavan. These nuances of Ali’s personality are not often apparent from his chiselled verse, and they certainly enriched the “lover” in him too.

Kapoor spends relatively less time delineating Ali’s sexuality and romantic life—partly, as he explains, due to the lack of verifiable trails of Ali’s lovers. Ali, too, didn’t enjoy being pigeon-holed into categories like “gay poet”, though he was not secretive about his inclinations. The one marker of identity he didn’t seem to mind was “Kashmiri-American poet”—a phrase capacious enough to contain the multitudes he carried. In the 21st century, when identity politics, and provocations to wear those on our sleeves, is the buzz, it may seem odd not to link literary production to autobiographical minutiae— after all, we create and carry over (in image, music, and text) traces of who we are. But turning the hypothesis around—that we are the very things we create—isn’t necessarily an act of erasure; rather, it can be an empowering gesture, opening up possibilities, refusing to be circumscribed by autobiography. Ali’s sense of the person he was, the poet he became, and the ideas he believed in are far too interconnected to be explained away by one facet of his personality.

With the academic industry that has proliferated around Ali’s work in the last two decades, seasoned scholars may not be unfamiliar with some of the material Kapoor brings together. But for the common reader, especially for those who continue to find solace in Ali’s poetic universe, A Map of Longings is a valuable introduction to the intricacies of a unique mind, and an invitation to keep returning to the treasures it has left behind.

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