The Ghat of the Only World by Amitav Ghosh gives a deeply touching account of Kashmiri poet who dies of cancer in the US.
The writer had a friend named Agha Shahid. Both the writer and his friend were then living in America. The writer knew that Shahid had brain cancer and had been under treatment for about fourteen months. Shahid knew that he was not going to live long. But the first time he talked to the writer of his approaching death was 25th April 2001. The writer had rung him up to remind him that they had been invited to lunch at a friend’s house while responding to the writer’s call. Shahid said that he could see nothing. He knew that his end was near. He said to the writer, “When if happens I hope you’ll write something for me.” The writer tried to reassure Shahid and said, “Shahid, you will be fine you have to be strong. “The writer could think of nothing to say to a friend on such a topic. But finally he said, “Shahid I’ll do the best I can.”
Agha Shahid Ali was a Kashmiri Muslim settled in US. His brother and sister also lived at Brooklyn. His parents stayed on in Kashmir but his youngest sister Sameetah was a school teacher in Brooklyn. He was a poet and a teacher, very popular and social. His collection of poems had been published in 1997—’The country without a Post-office’. The writer had read some of these poems and was greatly impressed. Till then he knew only this much about Shahid that he was from Srinagar and had studied at Delhi University and their time at the University had briefly over lapped. But the two had never met. Though the writer had never met Shahid till 1998, they had some friends in common. One of them put the writer in touch with Shahid. Between 1998 and 1999, they had several conversations on the phone and even met a couple of times. But they didn’t know much about each other. Between 1999 and 2000, Shahid worked as a teacher in different colleges in America. On 7th May 2000 the writer went to meet Shahid in a college where he has then employed.
There he saw that Shahid was very popular with his students. In Feb, 2000, when he was doing a brief job at New York University, he had his first blackout. After tests, it was found that he had brain cancer. Now, Shahid decided to move to Brooklyn. So that he could be close to his youngest sister. The writer lived a few blocks away from that place. Now they became very thick with each other and met quite often. Though Shahid’s condition was deteriorating, he was still jovial, full of wit.
One afternoon Suketu Mehta, who was also a writer and lived in Brooklyn, joined them for lunch. Together they made a plan for an ‘adda’ a place where they could just meet as friends, talk together and be happy. They began to meet regularly and from time to time other writers also joined them. On one occasion a crew arrived with a television camera and filmed them.
Shahid was a lively person. Not withstanding the fatal disease he was suffering from, he enjoyed every moment of his life. Often there were parties at his house. He said that these parties did not give him anytime to be depressed. His apartment was on the seventh floor of a building. It gave him a good view of the city across the river. To him it looked like a Ghat under the glittering lights of the city. It provided a wonderful view of city skyline across the East River. As one went up and one could smell the fragrance of rogan josh and hear songs and voices coming out of his flat. The gathering consisted of poets, students, writers and relatives. Almost to the very end, he was the centre to a mela of talk, laughter, food and of course, poetry.
Shahid was a great lover of good food. He always kept track of the progress of the meal that was being cooked. From time to time, he would leave his friends and go the kitchen to give directions to the cook. Even when his eyesight too was, failing, he could tell from the smell alone which state the rogan josh had reached. Shahid took personal interest in the preparation of food for a dinner party. He placed great emphasis on the exact method of cooking. He would not tolerate any deviation from traditional methods and recipes. He had a special passion for Kashmiri food in Pandit style. He loved Bengali food also. He was sad to think that all the Pandits had left the valley along with their food. He mentioned this fact also in his poems.
The writer had some common tastes with Shahid. Both of them were fond of rogan josh, Begum Akhtar, Kishore Kumar and old Bombay films. Both of them had a common indifference to cricket. Shahid was specially fond of Begum Akhtar’s music. He had met Begum Akhtar through a friend when he was a teenager. And she had influenced him deeply. Shahid himself was witty and full of humour.
Shahid was first and foremost a poet. He was pained at the steady deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir. It became the central subject of his work. But he was not a political poet. He believed that a poet should have nothing to do with politics. He believed in the unity of different religions. In his childhood he wanted to make a temple in his home. His mother helped him in this. She bought him idols and other things. For a time he even conducted pujas at his temples. Shahid’s heart was always in Kashmir, though he had left it long ago. He was a liberal and open minded secularist. On 5th may 2001, the writer had a telephone conversation with Shahid. The doctors had given up all hope. They gave him a year or less. The last time, the writer saw Shahid was on 27th oct. 2001. Shahid was then at his brother’s house. He was aware of his approaching end, and he had made his peace with it. There was no trace of any anguish on his face. Shahid had once said to the writer, “I love to think that I’ll meet my mother in his after life, if there is an after life.”
Shahid died peacefully in his sleep at 2 A.M. on 8 Dec, 2001. The writer felt a great void after Shahid’s death. He was amazed that so brief a friendship had resulted in so vast a void. The writer says when often when he walks into his living room, he remembers Shahid’s presence there.