Shahid’s Half Inch Himalayas

I asked him why the book was titled as such


It was the summer of 1988. I had just finished my vacations and left home for Jaipur where I was studying in the University of Rajasthan. Those days The Times of India carried The Sunday Review supplement, which was a pleasure to read on account of its impeccable reportage on several art forms, of which poetry was my passion. I was at the far end of my teenage, but had been indulging in English poetry writing since the beginning of it.
One Sunday Review carried full feature on Agha Shahid Ali and mentioned him as a Kashmiri-American poet, currently on visit to his home. Most part of the feature carried review of his recently published book of poems, The Half-Inch Himalayas, while touching on his other works. When I read the review, I couldn’t resist the temptation to meet him. It was primarily for two reasons: one, he was a fellow Kashmiri; and two, by what the review carried about him; he attracted you as a word-weaver.
I wrote a postcard to daddy which read, “Daddy, I will have to return back to home again as I want to meet Agha Shahid Ali”. Since that was not the age of emails and internet, I actually had not to worry about any counter-question. Armed with two clues to where Shahid could be found, I started my journey back to home. One was that he is the son of an educationist called Agha Ashraf Ali and another, since he is on a trip to India, he would, in all probability, be in Kashmir.
When daddy saw me back barely two weeks after I had left Kashmir, he was taken by surprise. Apparently I had raced ahead of the postcard. I asked daddy if he knew of Agha Ashraf Ali’s residence. “Che kya chu karun”, he asked. “Me chu melun Agha Sahidus, temsenzis nechvis, su chu angreez shayir”, I explained. Daddy being a teacher, he said he would ask his headmaster. Headmaster said, “Rajbagh”. I appreciated headmaster’s help since he had added a lifeline to my quest for Shahid.
I set out for Rajbagh the next morning and started asking for Agha Ashraf Ali’s residence. Known by the stature he has had, there were many people who provided directions and the last one in the line even asked a young boy, Gulzar, to drop me outside of his residence. All along, as I was introspecting, for me at that point of time Shahid was a celebrity and I was attempting to meet him without an appointment. I knocked at the door fervently to ensure that I was heard; someone came out and asking me about why I was there, and I explained that I was willing to meet Agha Shahid Ali.
The person went in, there was a considerable pause, but when he came out, “waliv haz aachiv”, was the response. I waited in the drawing room for some time and then Shahid emerged from somewhere. As we were exchanging greetings, my mind was racing somewhere towards Salman Rushdie for his characteristic appearance. Shahid looked artsy, little bleary-eyed, and persistently contemplative – commonest features of well-read writers. To typify that image, I soon expected he would pick up and wear one of those tortoiseshell, round-rimmed glasses. While nothing of that sort happened, the conversation started with the whole narrative of why and how I was there.
He leaned forward a little, held his hand to his chin, looked intently at the beautiful hand-woven carpet embellishing the exquisitely-done drawing room, thought for a while and then reached out to The Half-Inch Himalayas, kept somewhere around, and started scribbling something on it. While doing so, he held the book closer to his face. “One day,” I thought to myself, “I might hold books the same way”. A small-time writer of poetry and prose was attempting to self-assure himself in front of a subcontinent’s poet of repute whom I still do, and will always admire. I still laugh at that childish thought when I can’t recognize my own face in the mirror without wearing my glasses.
When the tea was being served, Shahid soon handed over to me The Half-Inch Himalayas. Since the book was not available in Indian bookstores at that time, I developed a great sense of achievement. I looked at the cover page for a while, and after I flipped it over, came across his inscription that read:
for Sanjay Parva
who honours me by his  tenacity in searching for this book, which I am
happy to give him –
Best –
Agha Shahid Ali
3 August ‘88
I kept the book on my lap for the next around 15 minutes during which I asked him questions, mainly about America and American way of life, and what was the general perception of native Americans about Asians living there. He was very candid during the whole conversation and came across as a very patient, considerate and a noble human being.
Before leaving, I asked him why the book was titled as such, since it conveyed a misnomer about something which, in reality, was mighty and majestic. With a wink in his eyes, he smiled and said, “When you read it, you will know”. I bid a farewell to him, and was feeling really overwhelmed.
A little away from his home, when it became out of sight, I rested against a street wall, opened the book and read the first poem, A Postcard from Kashmir. I can’t resist reproducing it here.
Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.

I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

This is home. And this the closest
I'll ever be to home. When I return,
the colors won't be so brilliant,
the Jhelum's waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed.

And my memory will be a little
out of focus, it in
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped.

My question had been answered. This poem started getting registering on my mind, and post-migration it attained greater relevance and meaning to my homelessness. Even today, when I recall home, I turn to it.
Back in Jaipur I shared Shahid with some of my friends who have had literary tastes; through numerous photocopies and small-group recitations. One of them, who hailed from Nasik and wrote both in English and Hindi, demanded I must gift him the book in original. “I can gift you a Ghalib, but don’t ask for The Mir”. I said.
Thirteen years later, on a cold December morning, as I was probing The Times of India again, the encapsulated news item which read that he was no more shocked me. It was a sad day and a difficult one to cope up with. It was difficult to accept that the bard, now, was never to return to The Half-Inch Himalayas. May his soul rest in peace.
Shahid, you are being missed…

Dr Sanjay Parva

Lastupdate on : Wed, 19 Dec 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Wed, 19 Dec 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Thu, 20 Dec 2012 00:00:00 IST

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