Last weekend, a Kashmiri friend here in Boston invited me over to dinner where he had few more Kashmiri friends from other US states. The next morning, we decided to pay a visit to Agha Shahid Ali's grave. 'Agha Shahid Ali? Who's he?' asked one of us. A Kashmiri-American poet who has written excellent novels on Kashmir and his poetry reflects Kashmir's human rights situation and political aspirations, the other person quipped. We looked it up online and it was about 2 hours drive. We were five and we picked up the sixth on our way who also wanted to join. On reaching the cemetery, which is not a Muslim cemetery but a mix of Christian-Muslim, one as is usual in the US, we saw thousands of graves with no idea where his grave could be. It was Maghrib time and about to be dark, which further worsened the predicament. One of us pulled up a photograph of his grave online. That's when I could identify the possible side of cemetery given its background. Just moments before it would've been pitch dark, I ran towards the grave and signalled to others enthusiastically that I have found it. It was a hope against the hope which turned out to be true or else we had to go back without achieving the purpose.
Agha Shahid Ali was a Kashmiri from Srinagar, born in 1949 to a famous educationist Agha Ashraf Ali. It's said that his grandmother was the first woman matriculate of Kashmir. He went to Burn Hall School, then the University of Kashmir, followed by the Hindu College in Delhi. He earned his Ph.D.- on T.S Elliot- from Pennsylvania State University and M.F.A from the University of Arizona. He became a Professor and taught at the M.F.A program for poets and writers at Amherst, University of Massachusetts, University of Utah, New York University and few other Colleges. His novel- Country without the post office(1997)- is a widely read novel, which has Kashmir conflict as its backdrop. He has also been the Urdu translator of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His other notable works include Rooms are Never Finished (2001), The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems (1992), Call Me Ishmael Tonight (2003). The walk through the Yellow Pages, The Half-Inch Himalayas, A Nostalgist's Map of America are some other quality collections.
The irony, however, is that only a minuscule number of Kashmiris even know about him, let alone appreciate and celebrate his work. One of my friends in New York was asked by an old lady on the train as to where he's from, and when he replied 'Kashmir', the lady said 'Oh, the land of my favorite poet, Agha Shahid Ali' and my friend hadn't even heard of his name, even though he was a well-traveled Kashmiri himself. Agha Shahid highlighted Kashmir's misery internationally while Kashmir never remembers this genius it produced. We don't celebrate his legacy. This must be news to most of you but the University of Utah awards an 'Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize' annually in what they refer to as 'in memory of a celebrated poet and beloved teacher'. I can say this with a fair amount of confidence that he is more popular in the US than in Kashmir, even though he was a Kashmiri and did all his work on Kashmir, and that is a shame. His alma mater- University of Kashmir- shouldn't have done this to one of its own celebrated alumni. It was only after Prof. Hameedah Nayeem took over as the Head of Department-English that some seminars were conducted on Agha Shahid but the University needs to step up to highlight this son of the soil and his work. I don't think there is even a photograph of his in the department of English, which would be surprising for many of his American readers.
Coming back to him, he would annually visit Kashmir. It's said that he had a very close bond with his mother who died of a brain tumor in the late 1990s. Coincidentally, almost a year or two later, he was also diagnosed with the same disease-brain tumor and died of brain cancer in 2001. He was just 52.
On our way back, we were all sad. On a positive note, we started researching his works and began reading him. The same guy who asked: 'Agha Shahid? Who's he?' has turned to be an avid reader of his and is very emotional about Agha now. Let's celebrate and value the heroes we produce.
Mehboob Makhdoomi is a Harvardian & an MBA from Pennsylvania University (IUP) -the United States with a Research degree from Cardiff University, United Kingdom.