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Agha Shahid Ali: The poet of dreams

Manan Kapoor | Updated on June 19, 2021

Another place: Agha Shahid Ali was a mystic comparable to the Sufi saints of Kashmir   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Death was knocking on his door, but that did not deter the Kashmiri-American poet from delivering his final poem — a full-blown canzone

* ‘The good news,’ Shahid continued, ‘is that I’m not abandoning our project. I’m going to finish the poem before I die’

* Right after he was told that his time was limited, Shahid had a dream which led him to his final poem

* At times, Shahid’s verses unfolded like a half-remembered dream, while on other occasions, they stemmed from actual dreams which he, like the Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa, magically transformed into narratives

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Soon after the final diagnosis in February 2001, Shahid called [Izhar] Patkin [an Israeli–American artist]: ‘I have a good news and a bad news. What would you like to hear first?’ ‘I said to Shahid let’s get the bad news out of the way,’ Patkin remembers, ‘because he sounded so cheerful on the phone that day.’ The bad news, Shahid informed him, was that he only had some more months left to live. Dazed, Patkin wondered what could possibly follow.

‘The good news,’ Shahid continued, ‘is that I’m not abandoning our project. I’m going to finish the poem before I die.’

‘Shahid,’ Patkin replied, ‘you don’t have to worry about it. It doesn’t matter.’

‘Oh darling, are you crazy?’ Shahid said to him on the phone. ‘This is the only thing that matters.’

Right after he was told that his time was limited, Shahid had a dream which led him to his final poem, one that, according to Daniel Hall, even the rationalists among them found disturbing.

A Map of Longings: Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali / Manan Kapoor / Penguin Random House / Non-fiction / ₹ 499

 

‘[When asked about the initial idea for a poem] there were two sorts of answers that he would give,’ Amitav Ghosh remembers. ‘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”. So much of his work came in this manner.’

At times, Shahid’s verses unfolded like a half-remembered dream, while on other occasions, they stemmed from actual dreams which he, like the Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa, magically transformed into narratives that spoke more of the reality. Even the word ‘dream’ recurs throughout his poetry, and from Shahid’s journals, where he recorded his dreams, it is evident that he tried to take away as much as possible from his subconscious.

In the dream that he had right after his final diagnosis, Shahid lay on his bed as a faceless figure tried to attack him, and Shahid said to himself: ‘Faceless, he could represent only two alternatives: / that he was either a conscious agent of harm, / or that he would unknowingly harm me anyway.’ Those lines ended up as the epigraph to ‘The Veiled Suite’.

Just a few weeks after their conversation, Patkin received a fax from Shahid. ‘He’d sent the poem. It was a full-blown canzone.’ Shahid couldn’t write at the time, so he had dictated the canzone, a sixty-five line poem with a strict rhyme and metre — one of the toughest forms in poetry — to his friend Patricia O’Neill, who read aloud drafts of the stanzas to him and annotated lines so he could rework them later. Speaking about the canzone form, the poet Anthony Hecht once remarked, ‘Having used the form he [Dante] could easily understand why no one had been tempted to write more than one.’ ‘The Veiled Suite’ was Shahid’s third canzone. So, correcting himself, Hecht later remarked that ‘Shahid deserved to be in Guinness Book of Records for having written three canzones — more than any other poet.’

‘No mortal has or will ever lift my veil,’

he says. Strokes my arm. What poison is his eyes?

Make me now your veil then see if you can veil yourself

from me. Where is he not from? Which vale

of tears? Am I awake? There is little sense

of whether I am his — or he is my — veil.

For, after the night is fog, who’ll unveil

whom? Either he knows he is one with the night

or is unaware he’s an agent of night —

nothing else is possible (who is whose veil?)

when he, random assassin sent by the sea,

is putting, and with no sense of urgency,

the final touches on — whose last fantasy?

‘The Veiled Suite’ was conceived at a time when Shahid was facing the unknown. In it, he accumulated all that he had experienced during those months when death began knocking on his door. He transformed the veil not into an object that hides but into that which reveals the persona and defines it. The ambiguous ‘he’ whom Shahid addresses has been variously interpreted as an erotic double, as death and, most importantly, as God. His subject, at times, merges with him when he writes: ‘There is little sense of whether I am his — or he is my — veil’; and other times, he is ‘an agent of harm’. This dichotomy not only adds the complexity to the poem but also defines the ambiguous relationship that ‘he’ shares with Shahid.

In the poem, Shahid summons the Urdu tradition, where the ‘he’ could be read as a God, death or lover. Shahid himself is the beloved. The question that Shahid asks in the poem is not ‘where is he from?’, but ‘where isn’t he from?’, further intoxicating the relationship by turning the other into an omnipresent figure, one who exists across all borders, from Vail, Colorado to the Ganges. ‘I don’t know whether I believe in God or not,’ Shahid once said in an interview, ‘but I do think I believe in many reasons for the belief in God. Even if you don’t believe in God you may as well act as if God exists, because where do you turn in an hour of uncertainty? Then you turn to the realm that goes beyond the rational or undercuts the rational. And that’s when religion does help, can help. Or ritual elements of religion. So in pure rational terms, whether I believe in God I don’t think I can answer. As such I might say no. But I still think, it’s a good idea to believe in God.’

When Shahid wrote, ‘No mortal has or ever will lift my veil’, or ‘When I meet his gaze, there is again the veil’, he evoked the Sufi idea of distance from the other which manifests itself as the veil. According to Ghosh, Shahid’s poetic drive came from ‘something completely different’, which [is] was what made him an authentic figure. Shahid’s contemporaries viewed him in a different light, not as a modern poet. Many, including Ghosh, believe that it is impossible to understand Shahid within the rules and confines of modern rationality; that his work, spirit and his understanding of the world really came from a different place; that fundamentally, Shahid was a mystic comparable only to Sufi saints of Kashmir.

Excerpted with permission from ‘A Map of Longings: Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali’ by Manan Kapoor published by Penguin Random House

Published on June 19, 2021

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