Catch the full story here: The Ghat of the Only Word

A dying man, an expatriate from Kashmir, asks the author to write something about him after he is gone. The following piece is what Amitav Ghosh wrote to keep his promise.

Amitav Ghosh talks about his good friend, Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri poet touching the world of poetry. Shahid was a man of great stature and he lived like there is no tomorrow. A man once filled with great optimism, but what happens when he is informed that he has a deadly disease of cancer that will bite his back for life? His usual thoughts and attitude stray away from normalcy, when the subject of death comes into picture.

A day comes when Shahid pours out all of the bad news to the author, and requests the author to write about him when he is gone. The author tries to reassure Shahid that everything would be fine, but the once optimistic man was skeptical to listen to anything that he had to say. Hence, he decides to fulfill the pledge he made that day to Shahid. Shahid was residing in Manhattan in when he had a sudden blackout in February 2000. After tests revealed that he had a malignant brain tumour, he decided to move to Brooklyn a few blocks away from the street where the author lived.

Of all the work that Shahid contributed as a poet, his most significant work in a 1997 collection labelled The Country Without a Post Office is highlighted, which touched briefly on Kashmir. Shahid was from Kashmir, but studied in Delhi University where Ghosh studied as well, but they were no more than acquaintances at that time. It was only when both of them happened to be in Brooklyn that their friendship somehow clicked after several meetings and both of them realized that they had a great deal in common. From the love of cuisines they shared, to Kishore Kumar songs to the mutual indifference to cricket and a profound attachment to old Bombay films; it looked like a long list. That was exactly the time when Shahid’s health was already in serious condition which although did not impede their friendship. Those multiple visits that were made to the hospital and through several unsuccessful operations, he saw Shahid going through it all. His head being shaved, the shape of his tumour visible through his bare scalp; none of it mattered when he saw a smile on Shahid’s face and a profound strength and willingness to live again.

Shahid’s authentic love for gastronomy is also highlighted. The journey from the foyer of Shahid’s building to his door was a voyage between continents: on the way up the rich fragrance of rogan josh and haak would invade the dour, grey interior of the elevator; against the background of the songs and voices that were always echoing out of his apartment. He was a legendary for his prowess in the kitchen and spent hours and days in the kitchen over planning and preparation in event of organizing dinner parties for his friends and loved ones. In one of the events, he meets a poet James Merrill who was greatly influenced by Shahid’s poetry. One of the poems is where he most explicitly prefigured his own death, ‘I Dream I Am At the Ghat of the Only World’.

Ghosh also briefs some instances where Shahid taught at Manhattan’s Baruch college and heard a great deal of his brilliant teachings. He would often juggle between short classes and hospital appointments. His students adored him for his work, sincerity and passion. Shahid was a reader, writer and a literature enthusiast. He took a degree in creative writing in Penn State University and juggled between several different jobs in US before he got his first blackout in February 2000. He also had a custom of visiting his homeland, Kashmir where his parents lived. His sense patriotism towards his country and his home was another feature that explained his worth.

The steady deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir— the violence and counter-violence— had a powerful effect on him. In time it became one of the central subjects of his work. Anguished as he was about Kashmir’s destiny, Shahid resolutely refused to embrace the role of victim that could so easily have been his. Conveying all this in his work, he refused to be inclined as a political poet. He also takes a memory from his childhood where he expresses to his mother the desire of building a Hindu shrine in his room, he being a religious Muslim in his blood and by his beliefs.

Shortly before his death, Shahid expresses his final wish of being laid to rest in Kashmir, though due to logistical and other reasons, he was content to live his last days in the town of Northampton. In the author’s most notable writing, Ghosh writes his final thoughts about Agam Shahid Ali, emphasizing on the meaning of his name, which actually had two implications: Sháhid/Shahid, witness/martyr, the most important roles that Shahid completely justified his name for the short-lived but well worth life that he earned.