Interview: Manan Kapoor, author, A Map of Longings;The Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali
Your first book The Lamentations of a Sombre Sky was set in Kashmir, and your second book A Map of Longings: The Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali is about a Kashmiri poet. How would you describe your relationship with Kashmir?
I think it was simply a matter of what I saw in Kashmir, all that I had heard, and read – books by journalists and writers like Basharat Peer, Mirza Waheed and so many others. To look away and ignore all the acts of injustice never seemed like an option for me. Despite being an outsider, and hence someone who will never truly feel or experience what Kashmiris go through on a daily basis, I felt I must write about it. But my intention has never been to take away anything from the writers, poets and journalists from Kashmir – it is their lived experience, and so their voices will always be more important than mine.
My first book, which deals with loss and grief, was set in Kashmir. I hadn’t planned on writing another book that had a connection to Kashmir. However, I had started reading Shahid’s poems seriously around the same time I was writing my novel – I even included a couplet from his ghazal Of Light as the epigraph. What started as acute fascination with his poetry and works soon transcended into papers and articles. Next thing I knew, I had contacted his family and had started research for the biography.
When did you fall in love with Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry? Was it the political content that drew you in, or the aesthetic qualities?
I must have been around 15 when I first read Shahid’s poems. I instantly fell in love with his poetry. I remember reading poems like A Rehearsal of Loss and The Dacca Gauzes and before I knew it, Shahid had taken a hold of me. There was something ineffable about his language, something indescribable. Although I started recognizing the political content in his poetry only in my late teens, it shaped my understanding of the world in so many ways. I think I responded to his poetry, particularly to The Country Without a Post Office, so viscerally not just because of the politics but the aesthetic beauty and what his language evoked.
Talk about the events that led to your taking on the role of his biographer?
The first time the thought crossed my mind was around 2016 – I had just moved to Delhi for my Master’s degree in English literature at Ambedkar University. That was the period when I started reading beyond Shahid’s poetry because my research papers, my dissertation – all of it was about his poetry. I discovered this witty, interesting, and often irreverent person behind all those poems and in a week, I ended up reading everything there was about him. I soon realised that here you had this world-renowned poet who had lived an extremely interesting life, who had died long ago but apart from some essays and interviews, there wasn’t much about him. It was very strange. The more I discovered about Shahid, the clearer it became to me that along with his poetry his life too deserved to be celebrated. I wanted to know more about Shahid, to understand him better, to explore how his life had shaped his works. This book was a result of curiosity and in a way, I simply wrote a book that I wanted to read all those years ago.
Your book describes Shahid as a tough taskmaster when it came to giving feedback to his students on their writing. What do you think he might have said about your book?
I’m fairly certain I would have received my manuscript from him highlighted all over with bright red marking along with a furious but well-spirited note asking me to rewrite the manuscript, work on the language. Shahid was an incredibly warm person, but he never minced his words or made a compromise when it came to writing.
What are your thoughts on the ethics around writing about the life of a dead person? What kind of curatorial agency did you exercise when you discovered new material?
There’s a line in Shahid’s poem In Memory of Begum Akhtar where he writes, “One cannot cross examine the dead”. Certainly, I didn’t have the luxury of running to Shahid with questions and there were moments when I didn’t have answers, where there were maybe two or more possible reasons for a decision he took. But ultimately, the most important thing was to write as truthfully as I could and to stick to what I knew, all my research. At the end, I think everything became quite clear to me. In my opinion, it’s extremely important that you let the facts of the matter speak for themselves. As far as selecting what went in the book and what didn’t, I feel it wasn’t very difficult. Of course, I had to leave out some information that I came across, mostly because it wasn’t apposite or didn’t contribute anything of significance. It goes without saying that there was absolutely no predilection or bias involved, it was all a matter of what could add to our larger understanding of his life and works, all that was pertinent.
How did you benefit from interactions with Kazim Ali, Amitav Ghosh, and Sadia Khatri, all of whom have written or are in the process of writing about Shahid’s life and work?
I think the most interesting thing was discovering all these different aspects of Shahid’s life and poetry that people have written about or are currently working on. It only made me realise the kaleidoscopic nature of his work, how it continues to inspire people all around the globe. Amitav Ghosh’s essay The Ghat of the Only World was one of the first that I read about Shahid, so that’s really special. Mad Heart be Brave, a book of essays on Shahid’s poetry that Kazim edited helped me understand some facets of Shahid’s life and work, and the conversations I’ve had with Sadia over the last two years have been extremely fruitful. I’ve enjoyed speaking to her so much, and I’m really looking forward to reading her work.
Shahid is usually described as a Kashmiri American poet and not as a gay poet or a Muslim poet. Would it be appropriate to read this as an act of erasure, or is this more in keeping with the identities that Shahid chose to highlight as a writer and public figure?
It certainly wasn’t an act of erasure. Shahid chose to call himself a Kashmiri-American. That’s how he placed himself geographically and culturally. I don’t think he even wanted to highlight this particular identity as a poet. In fact, he once said that all designations were fine because one way or another, they were all true. He had no objections if such designations were “used in larger ways”, but he did say that if they were being used to pigeonhole him, then he wasn’t interested in them.
Your book uses this quote from him: “I had my first full sense of myself as an adult in America. I realized myself as a poet, I realized myself as a lover. Many things became fully conscious for me here.” Were you afraid that you might be prying into his private life if you explored this strand in your biography, and therefore decided not to?
It wasn’t a question of whether I was prying into his private life but if that personal aspect was significant and if it had shaped Shahid’s poetry one way or another. Obviously, his personal life intersected with his works – they weren’t parallel lines – but the question was which aspects of his private life shaped his poetic concerns, his poetic pursuits. We all read journals of dead poets and writers but certainly everything in those texts isn’t relevant to their writing. Other times, it was a question of what was available. It has been two decades since his death now and no one has come forward claiming to be his lover, so speaking to them was out of the picture. I have, of course, asked everyone I interviewed about his sexual life, but have found nothing fruitful. As far as I know, Shahid had no long-term or serious relationships, and none that seemed to have a major impact on his life or poetry. Shahid had also clearly stated that he wasn’t interested in his sexual identity as a poet, so I don’t know if anything of literary significance would have emerged in any case.
What are the challenges faced by biographers in navigating relationships with families, estates and foundations that control access to information about the subject of their book?
I can’t speak for other biographers but there were absolutely no challenges I faced as far Shahid’s family was concerned. They invested so much time in this project – more than I ever expected. Each time his siblings came to India, they would meet me and we’d speak for hours at a stretch. From the beginning, I’ve had the freedom to explore and write what I wanted, how I wanted to. And the fact that his family has donated all of Shahid’s letters and documents they had to The Beloved Witness Project – an archive of Shahid’s materials at Hamilton College – so that there can be more research and study on his life and works in the future, says a lot in itself.
In the book, you write, “Shahid wasn’t a person who would hide his sexual orientation. It was a part of him, one that he treated with nonchalance and simply took for granted, no questions asked.” Did his life in Srinagar and Delhi give him the space to live without prejudice and discrimination? Did he experience homophobia from his literary peers?
I can’t comment with any authority here, but I know things were definitely very different in the Sixties and Seventies, so naturally, it mustn’t have been easy for him when there was so much prejudice. But Shahid was very comfortable with his sexuality and he never took anyone else’s awkwardness or embarrassment upon himself. As far as his literary peers are concerned – at least everyone I’ve spoken to – no way! They all loved him for who he was.
In these times when the term ‘queer’ is being mobilized as a political identity that calls for justice not only for gender and sexual minorities but also for people under occupation, would it be accurate to call Shahid a queer poet? Did he ever identify himself as one?
The fact is that Shahid was gay and so yes, it would be accurate, but over the last five years, I haven’t come across any document or an instance when he referred to himself as a queer poet. But while one can call him a queer poet – whether or not it includes people under occupation – what needs to be understood is that Shahid wasn’t interested in designations or his sexual identity when it came to poetry. He had very clearly stated in an interview that he wanted readers to respond to the “fullness of his poetry”, to its inherent quality and not because he was from a particular background, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. That, he believed, was “a disservice to poetry”.
How did you stumble upon Shahid’s interest in Christ and Krishna?
One finds mentions of Christ and Krishna in so many poems from Bone Sculpture to Rooms are Never Finished. So I was aware of it, but once I started speaking to his family and friends, all of it became much clearer and some really interesting stories and connections emerged. Shahid himself spoke about it in some interviews. He had said that the environment he grew up in full of possibilities and self-expression, that he had the access and the freedom to explore all these different cultures and traditions. I think he was extremely fortunate to have had such a secular and multicultural upbringing.
How did you feel when the American Embassy in India rejected your application for a visa to visit the Agha Shahid Ali archives at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York?
To put it mildly, I was devastated. I was really looking forward to spending two weeks poring over all the material, his letters, all the other documents. The people at the archives were kind enough to send some documents electronically and again, his family shared all that they could – they’ve been extremely helpful throughout – so I always had something to work on. I knew even if I reapplied, it would be rejected again – several people I know personally had their visas rejected on similar grounds at the time because of Trump’s immigration policy. So it was a major blow. You know, I’d even booked tickets to a King Crimson concert in New York to wrap up my visit.
But I couldn’t afford the privilege at the time to just sit around and blame it on the circumstances. So I started working with what I had, looked for different ways to get to know him better, conducted several more interviews and spoke to various other people. At this point, I do feel I’ve managed to capture a lot in my biography – a lot of people have reassured me that I have. But perhaps I would’ve stumbled upon a document, found one more letter to quote from. Who knows?
What got you interested in exploring Shahid’s relationship with the singer Begum Akhtar, the scholar Eqbal Ahmed, and the poet James Merrill? What did you learn?
His friendship with Eqbal Ahmad was certainly important but the impact that the presence of people like Begum Akhtar and James Merrill had was what caught my attention. Shahid absolutely loved Begum Akhtar and he evoked her so many times in his poems. Merrill was a poet Shahid respected and they’d talk incessantly about poetry, language, about poetic forms – I’ve been told that they spent hours discussing a single stanza. Naturally, I wanted to know more about these relationships and experiences. I think the fact that Begum Akhtar, Merrill and even someone like Mohammad Mujeeb were so close to Shahid says a lot about him, about his magnetism.
Who were some of the people – friends, colleagues, students of Shahid – that you met?
That’s a long list, really. Saleem Kidwai was the first person I met after his family. He made me realise a lot of things about Shahid at that early stage. They were both very good friends. Then there’s Vidur Wazir, who was one of Shahid’s childhood friends – I met him in Srinagar and he shared so much. But I think the most exciting for me personally was meeting Amitav Ghosh – I’ve been reading his books since I was maybe 13. We spoke about Shahid, then we played badminton – I must say he’s a really good player, he beat me twice – and wrapped up the evening with dinner, which he had cooked. To say it was a memorable evening might be an understatement. There were so many other people I met who I’ve had to leave out but really, all of them were extremely generous and spent so much time answering my questions, speaking with me.
How did your participation in the Sangam House writers’ residency nurture this book?
It was a very unique experience. I think it was a privilege to be a part of Sangam House and I will carry that experience with me for the rest of my life. To have that space to write, to be surrounded by writers and like-minded people for over a month – I learned a lot from everyone. In fact, most of the manuscript was actually written at Sangam House. Also, they offered us so much exposure at Sangam House. So many writers and poets came over for dinners. They really wanted us to talk with other writers and poets and learn from them. I remember that, one night, Karthika Nair came over for dinner. I really admire her poetry. I think Until the Lions is a brilliant collection. We spoke about Marilyn Hacker, canzones and so much more. Then, after dinner, she read some of her poems. It was such a sublime evening.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect