In this write-up, Amitav Ghosh pays glowing tribute to Agha Shahid Ali, a teacher and poet. Shahid was an expatriate from Kashmir. He moved to Pennysylvania in 1975 and after that he lived mainly in America. His brother was already there and they were later joined by their two sisters. Shahid’s parents continued to live in Srinagar and it was his custom to spend the summer months with them every year. He was an intermittent but first hand witness to the mounting violence that seized the region from the late 1980s onwards. Shahid regarded his time at Pennysylvania state as the happiest time of his life. He grew as a reader, a poet and a lover. Later Shahid moved to Arizona to take a degree in creative writing. This, in turn, was followed by a series of jobs in colleges and universities: Hamilton College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and finally, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he was appointed as a professor in 1999. He was on leave from Utah, for a brief stint at New York University, when he had his first blackout in February 2000. The writer, Amitav Ghosh had known Shahid’s work long before he met him. They had several conversations on the phone during 1998 and 1999 and even met a couple of times. He became intimate with Shahid when he moved to Brooklyn in 2000. By this time, Shahid’s condition was already serious, yet his illness did not hamper their friendship or Shahid’s interest—love for music, poetry, good conversation and friends. They had many common friends as well as common likings. Both loved rogan josh, Roshanara Begum and Kishore Kumar. He took great pleasure in the music of Begum Akhtar, the great ghazal singer. They were indifferent to cricket but attached to Bombay films. Shahid was gregarious by nature. There was never an evening when there wasn’t a party in his living room. Shahid had a sorcerer’s ability to transmute the mundane into the magical. He was a poet who had achieved greatness. He knew himself that he was dying. Even the most trivial exchanges with him had a special charge and urgency. Shahid was a lover of good food. He would issue directions to the person in the kitchen regarding the ingredients to be added to rogan josh at various stages. He had a special passion for the food of his region, one variant of it in particular: ‘Kashmiri food in the Pandit Style’. He also loved Bengali food though he had never been to Calcutta. Shahid loved repartee. The author recalls his witty exchanges with a security guard at Barcelona airport. Shahid worked poetry into his answer. Later he composed the poem ‘Barcelona Airport’ recalling this incident. The author had quoted from his collection ‘The Country Without a Post Office’ in 1998 in an article that touched briefly on Kashmir. Shahid had a prophetic vision. He had a recurrent dream that all the Pandits had vanished from the valley of Kashmir and their food had became extinct. This was a nightmare that haunted him.
Shahid spoke to the author about his approaching death for the first time on 25 April 2001. Shahid wanted the author to write something about him after his death. The author recalls an incident of 21 May when he went along with his brother Iqbal and sister Hena to fetch him from the hospital. By that time he had been through several unsuccessful operations. But he had not lost his glee. On 7 May 2000, the author was with Shahid when he taught his last class at Manhattan’s Baruch College. On 5 May, 2001 Shahid had an important scan. The doctors gave him a year or less. They had stopped all medicines and even chemotherapy. Shahid wanted to go back to Kashmir to die, but had to change his mind. He was contented to be laid to rest in Northampton, in Amherst town. The author saw Shahid for the last time on 27 October at his brother’s house in Amherst. He died peacefully, in his sleep, at 2 a.m. on 8 December. The author feels his presence even in his own living room. He feels amazed that so brief a friendship has resulted in so vast a void.