Author Manan Kapoor tells Saimi Sattar that A Map of Longings: The Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali attempts to bring out different facets of the poet and the person, while reminding all of us why his work continues to be relevant 20 years after his death
Author Manan Kapoor started reading the poetry of Agha Shahid when he was in his late teens but it was only when he embarked on his latest book, A Map of Longings: The Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali, that he read the works in earnest. What made Kapoor fall in love with Shahid was because his poems “mapped all the languages, cultures and worlds,” that he believed he himself belonged to. Considered to be the first definitive biography of Agha Shahid Ali, the book creates the fabric that shaped the poet even before he was born, gives a ringside view of the world he inhabited and influenced him. What makes it even more relevant is that the ravages to his homeland, Kashmir, which Shahid (which means witness) saw and grieved over in his most popular work, The Country without a Post Office continue to this day, almost 20 years after his death. For many, Shahid — widely regarded as one of the finest poets from the Indian subcontinent — is a symbol of hope in a violent world.
Kapoor travelled to various cities — Sringar, Lucknow, Goa —to interview 40 of Shahid’s friends and family but his search was halted at the doors of the land of the free. He was denied a visa to the US where he wanted to access the Agha Shahid Ali archives at the Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He charts his friendships, the evolution of Shahid’s verses and how he taught the world to live.
This is Kapoor’s second book following his debut novel The Lamentations of a Sombre Sky which was shortlisted for Sahitya Akademi’s Yuva Puruskar 2017. In 2019, he was a writer-in-residence at Sangam House Writers’ Residency. His writings have appeared in several national and international publications.
What do you attribute the growing popularity of Agha Shahid, more than it was when his works were actually being published? Does it have to do with the focus on Kashmir?
I think popularity is something that takes time to manifest. Today, when one looks at the platforms available, it is much easier to access and be exposed to so many different works of art, across various mediums and languages. Over the past few years, there has been an increase of readers in the English language, which certainly made Shahid accessible to more people in the Indian subcontinent.
The Country Without a Post Office has inarguably led to Shahid’s posthumous popularity in the subcontinent. His finesse and the beauty of his poetry lend a unique, evocative perspective on the turmoil in Kashmir. On the other hand, Shahid’s audience in American tends to focus on an entirely different aspect of his poetry — his ghazals. So while Shahid has definitely become more popular today, I think different readers from different parts of the world respond to different aspects of his poetry, which I think is beautiful.
The narrative in the book focusses on different facets of his personality. Was that intentional from the beginning or did it evolve as you explored and interviewed people around Shahid?
It was clear to me from the beginning that Shahid’s work is very kaleidoscopic and variegated and, so, naturally his life too would be the same. But it is true that as I conducted more interviews, it became clear to me that there were so many different facets that had to be explored, and that each was equally important. That’s really what made him a special subject.
Your first book was set in Kashmir and the focus is a Kashmiri-American poet. What defines your relationship with the place?
This is a question that often comes my way, and I can see why. This certainly wasn’t something I had planned. I’d started exploring Shahid’s poetry when I was in my late teens. However, it wasn’t until I started writing my novel — which deals with loss and grief, and is set in Kashmir — that I began to read his poetry earnestly, and with maturity. Once that happened, I got so consumed by his work that I ended up writing my master’s thesis about Shahid’s works, which ultimately led to the biography. So while there may be a connection between the two, both projects are completely independent of each other.
And while I have written about Kashmir in both these books, my intention has never been to take away anything from writers, poets and journalists from Kashmir, whose voices will always be more important than mine.
How were you first drawn to the poetry of Shahid? Have subsequent readings changed your perception of him and his works?
I first read Shahid’s poems when I was perhaps 15 or 16. I instantly fell in love with his language. I remember reading Stationery and A Rehearsal of Loss — poems which Shahid called ‘crowd-pleasers’ which were meant to reel the audience in. They had the same effect on me.
Naturally, over the last decade, my understanding of his poems, and poetry in general, has evolved and grown. With time, I moved on from an aesthetic appreciation of his language and began to recognise his politics, his use of various poetic forms. And there’s so much that I’ve learned about him reading and re-reading his poems all these years. The best example would be his canzone The Veiled Suite. I still find myself reading it and each time I realise something new about him, or his style, all that he did with that poem. It’s incredible!
Writing the biography of a person who is no longer around, you need to rely on secondary sources. Does it make the work more difficult or easier, given you have the advantage of viewing him from a distance and not being influenced by Shahid’s own perceptions?
As a biographer one is expected to look at the subject, their lives, the decisions they took as objectively as possible — whether or not the person one is writing about is alive or not. This is the first biography I’ve ever written and, as it happens, my subject is no more. So I can’t really give a definitive answer here. Since Shahid is no longer alive, I did have some distance from him, but I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not. Perhaps things might have been easier had Shahid been alive. I know I definitely would have loved to spend time with him and get to know him personally. But perhaps having to rely on his loved ones and the people who knew him to frame his life, gave me entirely different perspectives on Shahid, offering me a more complex and complete portrait. I guess I’ll never know.
On the other hand, families do not like private lives being pried into. Did you face any such issues? How did you navigate those?
Not at all. Shahid’s family was extremely helpful throughout the process and I had the freedom to write about what I wanted, how I wanted. They were always very open to the idea of the biography and understood all that it entails. They have, in fact, 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. That really says it all.
You not being granted a visa to the US to study this material...did it impact the book?
Yes, it was really a massive blow. I had been eagerly looking forward to spending time at the archives and meeting Shahid’s friends. I’d already booked my flights, taken leave from my job, and had planned to spend the chunk of my trip diligently exploring every nook and cranny of the archives at Hamilton College. I was devastated when my visa was rejected, however, the kind folks at the archives and Shahid’s family helped me get access to some material. It was a big help, but I’m certain I would have found a lot more — letters, documents, journal entries, and whatnot — that I could have used in the book to frame an even clearer, more intricate portrait of Shahid.
I’ve been told by people who knew him, who’ve studied his poetry and life for years, that I’ve managed to capture a well-rounded portrait of who he was and of his relationship with his work, but I fear I’ll never get closure, no matter what anyone says.
You crisscrossed the country and spoke to several people, how did your perception of Shahid, the person and the poet, evolve from the time you started?
There’s a lot I can say here because there’s just so much that I’ve learned about him over the last five years. Now that I look back, when I decided to write the biography, I didn’t really know much about Shahid (although at the time, I felt I knew so much). Over the years — his decisions, actions and who he was — I’ve come to realise that all those things were much more complex than I could have ever imagined.
If I had to pick one thing, though, it would be the discovery of Shahid’s effusive personality. I remember when I began reading Shahid’s poetry, the image that I had of him was that of an extremely serious person given the nature of his poetry. But I was surprised (delighted, really) to find this uproariously witty, irreverent person behind the words, who had a dark sense of humour and the uncanny ability to charm every person around him.
Shahid was extremely brave as he faced imminent death. Would you say you draw inspiration from the way he lived his life?
Yes, definitely. There’s so much I’ve come to realise while researching his life and how he lived. I think everyone who reads the biography will realise that Shahid was someone who was really alive. His friend, Rukun Advani, had once said that only those who knew Shahid knew what being “preternaturally alive means as an everyday, ordinary practice”. It is true and is a sentiment almost everyone else I’ve spoken to has echoed as well.
He wanted to be identified as a Kashmiri-American rather than a gay or Muslim one. You have maintained the tenor in the book. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen because of the way he lived his life?
Shahid was extremely clear that he wanted the readers to respond to the fullness of his poetry. He’d said almost all these designations were right because one way or another they were all true. However, these designations weren’t something he was interested in. Kashmiri-American was how he placed himself geographically and culturally and he was very clear about that.
Begum Akhtar and James Merrill, two absolutely diverse people, influenced him. What do you make of the connection?
There’s no denying that they’re both diverse, as was their influence on Shahid’s work and life. Begum Akhtar brought him closer to ghazals and Shahid evoked her in all of his collections barring A Walk Through the Yellow Pages. James Merrill, on the other hand, was more of a formal spirit who pushed him towards formal poetry. A serious reader can see Merrill’s presence in The Country Without a Post Office in a poem like The Correspondent.
So they both had very different relationships with Shahid, which manifested in different ways. But if you look at it, there’s also a world of similarity between Akhtar and Merrill, in that they were both artistes who were completely consumed by and dedicated to their craft and passionate about what they did (just like Shahid). And I think that’s what Shahid saw in them, that’s why he appreciated them.
Ghazals in English is something that we find inconceivable but he made it seem like a breeze... What do you make of that?
When we read Shahid’s ghazals today, it feels as if they’re effortlessly written but, in reality, it took him years to master the form. It was difficult to work with all the formal demands in a new language and to really imbue the essence of an Urdu or Persian ghazal. That’s the case with almost all of his poems. He spent so much time trying to perfect his ghazals. If you compare the two versions of his ghazal — In Arabic, the first version that appears in Country and the final version in Call Me Ishmael Tonight — you can see how his understanding of the form developed over time, all that he changed and altered to bring it closer to what Shahid called a ‘real’ ghazal. The fact that his ghazals seem so effortlessly written is a testament to all the work that he put in.