Why Agha Shahid Ali’s new biography is a loose bag of emotions

Shahid is shown like any other human being who has the zest to perfect his writing and reach the zenith like an ambitious person would want to. He is definitely Icarus but without the fatal flaw.

Anyone who has the temerity to write about Agha Shahid Ali should be aware of the facts, that of all great writers he’s certainly amongst the most complex poet and to catch him in the act of greatness needs more knowledge and critical skills.

It’s in this backdrop that the much-anticipated book, A Map of Longings, turned out to be little less than a hyperbolic remembrance.

The book is a haphazardly put-together work stuffed with repeated details.

This new biography of the bard of Jhelum Bund includes chapters traversing Shahid’s family background and addressing different facets of his life. It shows Shahid—“the witness”, “the beloved”—the one who breathed literature, art, and poetry turning himself into one.

The tale of his development as a poet is interwoven with incidents from his adolescent life, to his college life and then finally settling abroad. How Shahid was a Delhite and later went abroad for his doctoral degree. It includes never-before-seen photos, as well as statements from his brother and friends. It’s chock-full of tales from his life. It also includes passages from his collection of poems.

The book shows Shahid’s vivid poetry, which tracked different traditions and regions and lamented misfortunes and tragedies, grew complicatedly through time, according to Manan Kapoor, his biographer.

Shahid was always conscious of his destiny as a poet, and of the fact that it would last well beyond his own lifetime, as he handed several drafts of his poem ‘The Dacca Gauzes’ to Padmini Mongia and had said to her: “Keep them safe with you. One day, when I become a famous poet, these will be invaluable.”

Building on Amitav Ghosh’s tribute, “The Ghat of the Only World: Agha Shahid in Brooklyn” for his dead friend, gives a very comprehensive account of his final months: Shahid died quietly in Brooklyn, having accepted death as he had embraced life before his mother’s loss. The death of a parent brings the process of dying into focus, and Shahid had been severely impacted by his mother’s death, to whom he was quite close. The tribute has set a premise for Manan’s book.

It has talked about Shahid’s sexuality as well, which for him never mattered as to what category he belonged. As a reporter once asked him whether he was gay, to which Shahid, an ardent fan of T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickens, had beautifully replied: “What difference does it make?”

He never married but he dedicated his life to poetry.

The book shows his relationship with Begum Akhtar and James Merrill — the two figures with whom he has had interactions. Friendships with Eqbal Ahmed, Edward Said, and Saleem Kidwai, letters with Faiz and Salman Rushdie, and encounters with pupils such as Kamila Shamsie have all been skilfully blended all together.

Manan Kapoor, on the other hand, overlooks certain crucial facts.

Muslims, for example, were not disinterested in receiving an education; rather, the Dogras believed in teaching only the elites, who would then ostensibly educate others. In the workplace, the Dogras discriminated against Kashmiri Muslims, preventing them from holding administrative posts.

The biographer’s enterprise of disinterring Shahid’s work from all the mediums: the interviews, archives, conversations and from the poet’s works itself is formulated plainly. Furthermore, in this journey, he complicates it further by putting forward his own interpretation of what the poet actually represented.

The book also goes into great depth about Shahid’s father, Agha Ashraf Ali. But as we read on, we come across a handful of red flags. Beginning with, he hasn’t taken care of the terminology used to describe his association with the ideology he believed in. Thereby, overlooking the linguistic details. It lacks details about the other side of the story – his questionable political affiliations because of which the factual details are diminishing in and of itself.

Today’s internet generation has a lot of access to Shahid’s life and poetry. It fails to impress the readers with something different. No critical thing has been put forth.

Shahid is shown like any other human being who has the zest to perfect his writing and reach the zenith like an ambitious person would want to. He is definitely Icarus but without the fatal flaw. His background has been collected from individuals who knew him and the ones who wrote about him, therefore the biographer’s writing is a little sloppy, leaving us midway. Hence, a memorandum of the poet.


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