By Jyoti Verma
The Ghat of the Only World CBSE Class 11 NCERT English (Snapshots) Lesson 6 – Detailed explanation of the Lesson along with meanings of difficult words. Also, the explanation is followed by a Summary of the Lesson. All the exercises along with Question and Answers given at the back of the lessons have been covered.
Class 11 English (Snapshots book) Chapter 6 The Ghat of the Only World
By Amitav Ghosh
The Ghat of the Only World- Introduction
The Ghat of the Only World written by Amitav Ghosh is a promise fulfilled by a friend. Before Cancer took its toll and consumed Shahid’s life, he made the author promise him to write about him after he died. The lesson revolves around Shahid, what he liked and how he lived his life as if it were a celebration even after he was diagnosed by the malignant disease.
The Ghat of the Only World- Summary
The lesson opens on a note where the author’s friend Shahid who has a malignant tumour wants him to write about him after his last breath and how the author resists it. This is because of his lack of ability to respond in a situation like this. Shahid knew him well and thus, he made him agree on this. The author tells us how he made notes of every encounter and telephone conversation with Shahid after that day to be able to write about him. Now, the author’s fascination with his friend dates back to a time when they were not friends. Amitav knew Shahid for his work in poetry. It was only through a friend that they met but remained only acquaintances. A year later when Shahid moved to Brooklyn, they got closer upon frequent brunches. It was after a sudden temporary lapse of memory, that Shahid moved from Manhattan to live with his sister. The author mentions one such day when he went along with Shahid’s siblings to pick him up from the hospital after a surgery. Shahid refused to take the help of a wheelchair claiming that he is still fit to trust his toes. Upon seeing him lose his balance, they called the escort back with the wheelchair. Shahid, being full of life, got excited upon knowing that the guy knows Spanish as he had always wanted to learn the language. Shahid and the author had a great deal in common. To quote a few, they had common love for Indian dishes like rogan josh and a shared indifference towards cricket. Despite knowing where his disease was going to take him, Shahid always surrounded himself with people which according to him gave him no time to be sad. There used to be a party in his living room almost daily with a person or two in the kitchen cooking his favourite rogan josh while he gave direction amidst his partying. He talked endlessly about his favourite Ghazal singer and her stories of witty replies. Once at Barcelona airport, he too replied wittily to the security guard and made a mention about it in his poetry. The author then talks about how the prevailing situations in Kashmir affected him. He wrote a lot of poetry about Kashmir and thought that politics and religion should act separately. He felt that people must stay united despite religion. He gave the credit of this way of thinking to his upbringing. The author mentions how he wished to be in Kashmir while taking his last breath but could not due to logistical issues. He took his last breath in his sleep leaving a void in the author’s life. The author is left thinking how a bond of such short duration can have such a lasting impact.
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The Ghat of the Only World- Lesson and Explanation
A dying man, an expatriate from Kashmir, asks the author to write something about him after he is gone. The following piece is what Amitav Ghosh wrote to keep his promise.
THE first time that Agha Shahid Ali spoke to me about his approaching death was on 25 April 2001. The conversation began routinely. I had telephoned to remind him that we had been invited to a friend’s house for lunch and that I was going to come by his apartment to pick him up. Although he had been under treatment for cancer for some fourteen months, Shahid was still on his feet and perfectly lucid, except for occasional lapses of memory. I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said: ‘ Oh dear. I can’t see a thing.’ There was a brief pause and then he added: ‘I hope this doesn’t mean that I’m dying…’
The author writes about the first time his friend, Agha Shahid Ali talked about his death openly. It was on 25 April 2001 when the author had called him to tell him that he would be coming by his house to pick him up. Shahid Ali was undergoing cancer treatment since fourteen months but was still very active all the time apart from a few occasions where he would lose his memory. For instance, the conversation that day began normally but the author could hear him saying that he doesn’t recall anything and heard him thumbing through his engagement book. He continued and said that this might mean his death is not far-fetched.
Although Shahid and I had talked a great deal over the last many weeks, I had never before heard him touch on the subject of death. I did not know how to respond: his voice was completely at odds with the content of what he had just said, light to the point of jocularity. I mumbled something innocuous: ‘No Shahid — of course not. You’ll be fine.’ He cut me short. In a tone of voice that was at once quizzical and direct, he said: ‘When it happens I hope you’ll write something about me.’
At odds- in conflict or at variance
Jocularity- said or done as a joke
Quizzical- indicating mild or amused puzzlement
Innocuous- not harmful or offensive
He mentions that this is the first time Shahid mentioned about his death even though they had been in constant contact with each other. Shahid mentioned it in a very light way, not completely believing the possibility of it. The author did not at the moment know what to say but he somehow sympathised with him saying that everything was going to be just fine. To which, Shahid replied by saying in a quite direct tone that he hopes the author will write about him and keep him alive whenever it happens.
I was shocked into silence and a long moment passed before I could bring myself to say the things that people say on such occasions. ‘Shahid you’ll be fine; you have to be strong…’
He was immensely shocked at hearing this and it took him longer than usual to tell Shahid that all was going to be fine and that he ought to have hope.
From the window of my study I could see a corner of the building in which he lived, some eight blocks away. It was just a few months since he moved there: he had been living a few miles away, in Manhattan, when he had a sudden blackout in February 2000. After tests revealed that he had a malignant brain tumour, he decided to move to Brooklyn, to be close to his youngest sister, Sameetah, who teaches at the Pratt Institute—a few blocks away from the street where I live.
Malignant- uncontrollable; dangerous
The author could easily see a part of the building where Shahid lived from his study. Shahid used to live in Manhattan with his sister Sameetah, who taught at the Pratt Institute which is nearby the author’s house, before he moved here It was after a temporary loss of consciousness when he got a few tests done which revealed that he had a brain tumour, Shahid moved to Brooklyn.
Shahid ignored my reassurances. He began to laugh and it was then that I realised that he was dead serious. I understood that he was entrusting me with a quite specific charge: he wanted me to remember him not through the spoken recitatives of memory and friendship, but through the written word. Shahid knew all too well that for those writers for whom things become real only in the process of writing, there is an inbuilt resistance to dealing with loss and bereavement. He knew that my instincts would have led me to search for reasons to avoid writing about his death: I would have told myself that I was not a poet; that our friendship was of recent date; that there were many others who knew him much better and would be writing from greater understanding and knowledge. All this Shahid had guessed and he had decided to shut off those routes while there was still time.
Bereavement- loss; deprivation; grief; sorrow
No matter how much the author consoled him, Shahid ignored it and began laughing which made the author realise that he was not joking. The author realised that he is being bestowed upon the responsibility of keeping Shahid alive through his words and not just spoken reminisces from the past. Shahid was well aware of how it was with writers, that they try to resist accepting any mishappening or avoid dealing with grief until they begin writing about it because that is when they come face-to-face with reality. Shahid also knew that the author would find every possible reason to not write about his death. He even quoted some of the excuses like they have only known each other for a while, others might know him better or that he was no poet. Shahid was aware about all of them and he made sure that they didn’t disturb him while he was still alive.
‘You must write about me.’ Clear though it was that this imperative would have to be acknowledged, I could think of nothing to say: what are the words in which one promises a friend that one will write about him after his death? Finally, I said: ‘Shahid, I will: I’ll do the best I can’.
Imperative- giving an authoritative command
Shahid was firm on his words but our author, on the other hand, was not very sure of what to say at that moment where a friend was talking about his death. He could not find the right permutation and combination of words to assure his friend that he would write about him after his death. On the other hand, he knew this was supposed to be acknowledged. Thus, he promised to do the best of his ability.
By the end of the conversation I knew exactly what I had to do. I picked up my pen, noted the date, and wrote down everything I remembered of that conversation. This I continued to do for the next few months: it is this record that has made it possible for me to fulfil the pledge I made that day.
That day, the author was clear as to what he should do. He noted down the minute details of their conversation and continued doing it for every conversation they had for a few months that followed. He mentions that it is those records that helped him in keeping his promise of writing about Shahid.
I knew Shahid’s work long before I met him. His 1997 collection, The Country Without a Post Office, had made a powerful impression on me. His voice was like none I had ever heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward. Not for him the mock-casual almost-prose of so much contemporary poetry: his was a voice that was not ashamed to speak in a bardic register . I knew of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like: ‘Mad heart, be brave.’
To speak in a bardic register- A poetic style
Conceive- form a plan or idea in the mind
The author now tells how he knew Shahid even before they met. Shahid’s work from the 1997 collection inspired him. The author had not heard him speak like that ever before. Suddenly it would be poetical, or disciplined at another moment involved and deep. Sometimes he would utter so much contemporary poetry. He was not at all shy to speak in a poetic style. The author did not know anyone else who would think of publishing lines like “Mad heart, brave”
In 1998, I quoted a line from The Country Without a Post Office in an article that touched briefly on Kashmir. At the time all I knew about Shahid was that he was from Srinagar and had studied in Delhi. I had been at Delhi University myself, but although our time there had briefly overlapped, we had never met. We had friends in common however, and one of them put me in touch with Shahid. In 1998 and 1999 we had several conversations on the phone and even met a couple of times. But we were no more than acquaintances until he moved to Brooklyn the next year. Once we were in the same neighbourhood, we began to meet for occasional meals and quickly discovered that we had a great deal in common. By this time of course Shahid’s condition was already serious, yet his illness did not impede the progress of our friendship. We found that we had a huge roster of common friends, in India, America, and elsewhere; we discovered a shared love of rogan josh, Roshanara Begum and Kishore Kumar; a mutual indifference to cricket and an equal attachment to old Bombay films. Because of Shahid’s condition even the most trivial exchanges had a special charge and urgency: the inescapable poignance of talking about food and half-forgotten figures from the past with a man who knew himself to be dying, was multiplied, in this instance, by the knowledge that this man was also a poet who had achieved greatness— perhaps the only such that I shall ever know as a friend.
Trivial- of little value or importance
Impede- delay or prevent something by obstructing it; hinder
Poignance- the quality of evoking a keen sense of sadness
He even used a line from Shahid’s The Country Without a Post Office in his work in 1998 on Kashmir. The only thing he knew about Shahid back then was that he was from Srinagar and he studied at the Delhi University at almost the same time the author was there. They even met each other a few times through a common friend of theirs but it was only limited. It was when Shahid moved to Brooklyn next year that they started seeing each other more often and got to know that they have a lot in common. Their love for specific dishes, singers and old Bombay films. Because of Shahid’s condition even the smallest exchanges had been special. Even though there was the inescapable sense of sadness, talking with a man who knew he was dying about different things which he enjoyed such as food and half forgotten stories from the past multiplied the pleasure of talking especially by the knowledge that this man was also a poet who had achieved greatness in his lifetime. The author is in a doubt that he would ever know Shahid further as a friend.
One afternoon, the writer Suketu Mehta, who also lives in Brooklyn, joined us for lunch. Together we hatched a plan for an adda—by definition, a gathering that has no agenda, other than conviviality. Shahid was enthusiastic and we began to meet regularly. From time to time other writers would join us. On one occasion a crew arrived with a television camera. Shahid was not in the least bit put out: ‘I’m so shameless; I just love the camera.’
Conviviality- the quality of being friendly and lively
On one of their afternoon lunches, writer Suketu Mehta joined them. They enjoyed each other and even made new plans to enjoy. Shahid, full of life as he was, met him regularly and other writers would join them too. Once when a crew with camera arrived, Shahid was not embarrassed to say that he loved the camera.
Shahid had a sorcerer’s ability to transmute the mundane into the magical. Once I accompanied Iqbal, his brother, and Hena, his sister, on a trip to fetch him home from hospital. This was on 21 May: by that time he had already been through several unsuccessful operations. Now he was back in hospital to undergo a surgical procedure that was intended to relieve the pressure on his brain. His head was shaved and the shape of the tumour was visible upon his bare scalp, its edges outlined by metal sutures.
Sorcerer- a person who claims or is believed to have magical powers; wizard
Transmute- change in form, nature or substance
Mundane- lacking interest or excitement; dull
Sutures- a stitch or row of stitches holding together the edges of a wound or surgical incision
According to the author, Shahid was no less than a wizard when it came to changing the dull or ordinary into bright and remarkable. On 21 May, when the author accompanied Shahid’s siblings, Iqbal and Hena to bring him home from the hospital, they saw the shape of the tumor on his shaved head along with the stitches. He had gone to the hospital for a surgery to help reduce pressure on his brain. Before that, Shahid has had quite many unsuccessful surgeries.
When it was time to leave the ward a blue-uniformed hospital escort arrived with a wheelchair. Shahid waved him away, declaring that he was strong enough to walk out of the hospital on his own. But he was groggier than he had thought and his knees buckled after no more than a few steps. Iqbal went running off to bring back the wheelchair while the rest of us stood in the corridor, holding him upright. At that moment, leaning against the cheerless hospital wall, a kind of rapture descended on Shahid. When the hospital orderly returned with the wheelchair Shahid gave him a beaming smile and asked where he was from. ‘Ecuador’, the man said, and Shahid clapped his hands gleefully together, ‘Spanish!’ he cried, at the top of his voice. ‘I always wanted to learn Spanish. Just to read Lorca ’
Lorca- Garcia Lorca is Spain’s most deeply appreciated and highly revered poet and dramatist
Groggier- dazed, weak or unsteady, especially from illness, intoxication, sleep or a blow
Buckled- bend and give way under pressure or strain
Rapture- a feeling of intense pleasure or joy; ecstasy; bliss
Shahid sent away the hospital escort that brought him in a wheelchair stating that he is strong and fit enough to walk on his own. But he was weaker than he thought and his knees couldn’t support his walking more than a few steps. The author and Hena helped him stand upright while Iqbal ran away to get the wheelchair. Shahid was leaning towards the hospital wall when suddenly got up with a charge of pleasure and joy. He asked the hospital escort his place of origin when he was given the wheelchair back. The hospital orderly replied that he was from Ecuador. Upon hearing his reply, Shahid joyfully clapped his hands and shouted how he always wanted to learn Spanish to be able to read the work of Gracia Lorca, a renowned poet and dramatist.
Shahid’s gregariousness had no limit: there was never an evening when there wasn’t a party in his living room. ‘I love it that so many people are here,’ he told me once. ‘I love it that people come and there’s always food. I love this spirit of festivity; it means that I don’t have time to be depressed.’
Gregariousness- fond of the company of others; sociable
Shahid was a sociable person which is why there was not a single evening that his living room didn’t have a party. Shahid had told the author that he loved the feeling of being around people, celebrating and always having food for them. He loved the spirit of celebration. He felt that it took away his mind from being sad.
His apartment was a spacious and airy split-level, on the seventh floor of a newly-renovated building. There was a cavernous study on the top floor and a wide terrace that provided a magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline, across the East River. Shahid loved this view of the Brooklyn waterfront slipping, like a ghat, into the East River, under the glittering lights of Manhattan.
Cavernous- vast; huge; large; spacious
Shahid’s apartment was huge and airy. He lived on the seventh floor of a newly redecorated building. It also had a spacious study and a terrace from where the Manhattan skyline which is across the East River was also visible. He was extremely fascinated by the view of Brooklyn seaside that looked just like a Ghat into the East river decorated with the shimmering Manhattan lights.
The journey from the foyer of Shahid’s building to his door was a voyage between continents: on the way up the rich fragrance of rogan josh and haak would invade the dour, grey interior of the elevator; against the background of the songs and voices that were always echoing out of his apartment, even the ringing of the doorbell had an oddly musical sound. Suddenly, Shahid would appear, flinging open the door, releasing a great cloud of heeng into the frosty New York air, ‘Oh, how nice,’ he would cry, clapping his hands, ‘how nice that you’ve come to see your little Mos-lem!’ Invariably, there’d be some halfdozen or more people gathered inside —poets, students, writers, relatives —and in the kitchen someone would always be cooking or making tea. Almost to the very end, even as his life was being consumed by his disease, he was the centre of a perpetual carnival, an endless mela of talk, laughter, food and, of course, poetry.
Foyer- an entrance hall or other open area in a building used by the public
Voyage- a long journey involving travel by sea or in space
Heeng- asafoetida; a staple ingredient used in Indian cooking
Frosty- freezing; very cold
The author explains how the journey from the building hall to his door made them feel as if they were on a “voyage between continents”. This is because of the various fragrances of the food, different types of music that echoed from his apartment, his melodic doorbell and how he greeted his guests with warmth and happiness upon opening the door. Upon reaching, there would always be company in his apartment comprising of poets, writers, students and relatives. Some of them would be enjoying themselves in the living room while others in the kitchen making food and tea. Even as his disease was taking its toll, he was amidst creativity and laughter, enjoying his life to the fullest by being happy in every moment.
No matter how many people there were, Shahid was never so distracted as to lose track of the progress of the evening’s meal. From time to time he would interrupt himself to shout directions to whoever was in the kitchen: ‘yes, now, add the dahi now.’ Even when his eyesight was failing, he could tell from the smell alone, exactly which stage the rogan josh had reached. And when things went exactly as they should, he would sniff the air and cry out loud: ‘Ah! Khana ka kya mehek hai!’
Irrespective of how occupied he was amidst all the partying, he would not fail to check the advancement in the preparation of his favourite rogan josh. He would stop now and then to give directions as to when to add dahi and other ingredients to the person cooking. The disease did not stop him from tracking the progress as well. Even when his eyesight was getting weaker, he could tell by its smell. He would sniffle and take pleasure in the aroma of it.
Shahid was legendary for his prowess in the kitchen, frequently spending days over the planning and preparation of a dinner party. It was through one such party, given while he was in Arizona, that he met James Merrill, the poet who was to radically alter the direction of his poetry: it was after this encounter that he began to experiment with strict, metrical patterns and verse forms. No one had a greater influence on Shahid’s poetry than James Merrill: indeed, in the poem in which he most explicitly prefigured his own death, ‘I Dream I Am At the Ghat of the Only World,’ he awarded the envoy to Merrill: ‘SHAHID, HUSH. THIS IS ME, JAMES. THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES.’
Prowess- skill or expertise in a particular activity or field
Metrical- relating to or composed in poetic metre
Prefigured- be an early indication or version of (something)
Envoy- a messenger or representative, especially one on a diplomatic mission
Shahid was famous for his culinary skills and was looked up to for planning a dinner party. When he planned one such party in Arizona, he met James Merrill, a renowned poet who changed his life and the way he saw or the way in which he wrote poetry. After he met James Merill, he began composing his poetry in a strict poetic metre. He was the only one who could inspire Shahid upto such a great extent especially in the poem in which he wrote about his own approaching death. He even mentioned James in his poem “I Dream I Am At the Ghat of the Only World” through the lines, “‘SHAHID,
HUSH. THIS IS ME, JAMES. THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES.” hereby telling him how it is the most loved ones who leave first.
Shahid placed great store on authenticity and exactitude in cooking and would tolerate no deviation from traditional methods and recipes: for those who took shortcuts, he had only pity. He had a special passion for the food of his region, one variant of it in particular: ‘Kashmiri food in the Pandit style’. I asked him once why this was so important to him and he explained that it was because of a recurrent dream, in which all the Pandits had vanished from the valley of Kashmir and their food had become extinct. This was a nightmare that haunted him and he returned to it again and again, in his conversation and his poetry
Exactitude- the quality of being very accurate and careful
Shahid was accurate and strict to his measures and procedures when it came to cooking. He had a special place for cooking in his heart. He believed in following the traditional methods to maintain its authenticity and to continue its legacy. He only felt sad for people who would resort to simplified modern forms of cooking the age-old delicacies. He was very sensitive towards Kashmiri food prepared in the Pandit style because of one repeated nightmare that continued to haunt him that one day all the Pandits will disappear and the food had become difficult to be found in the valley of Kashmir.He mentioned this nightmare quite frequently in his conversations and poetry.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory . . .
There is nothing to forgive. You won’t forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself.
There is nothing to forgive. You won’t forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine, what would not have
been possible in the world?
Once, in conversation, he told me that he also loved Bengali food. I protested, ‘But Shahid, you’ve never even been to Calcutta ’.
‘No,’ he said. ‘But we had friends who used to bring us that food. When you ate it you could see that there were so many things that you didn’t know about, everywhere in the country…’ What I say is: why can’t you be happy with the cuisines and the clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?’ He paused and added softly, ‘At least here we have been able to make a space where we can all come together because of the good things.’
Once when they were having a chit-chat, Shahid told the author about his fascination for Bengali food. To the author’s surprise, he had never been to Kolkata. Shahid explained that he had friends that bought him amazing food which always left him wondering how vast this country’s culture is. What he liked about it most is how we as a society have come together despite our differences to live with each other in complete harmony, cooperation and peace.
Of the many ‘good things’ in which he took pleasure, none was more dear to him than the music of Begum Akhtar. He had met the great ghazal singer when he was in his teens, through a friend, and she had become an abiding presence and influence in his life. Shahid had a fund of stories about her sharpness in repartee.
Abiding- a memory lasting a long time; enduring
Repartee- conversation or speech characterised by quick witty, comments or replies
Shahid was fascinated by a lot of things but the way he found extreme delight in the music of Begum Akhtar, was like no other. He got the opportunity to meet the legendary ghazal singer through a friend a few years ago and he continued to be influenced by her. He always had a few stories about her presence of mind and witty replies.
Shahid was himself no mean practitioner of repartee. On one famous occasion, at Barcelona airport, he was stopped by a security guard just as he was about to board a plane. The guard, a woman, asked: ‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a poet,’ Shahid answered.
‘What were you doing in Spain?’
No matter what the question, Shahid worked poetry into his answer. Finally, the exasperated woman asked: ‘Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other passengers?’ At this Shahid clapped a hand to his chest and cried: ‘Only my heart.’
Shahid, although quick with his witty replies, was never mean to anyone. He included his poetry in whatever he had to say and to anyone. Once when he was undergoing a security check at the Barcelona Airport, he was asked about his profession to which he replied that he is a poet. The guard further asked him as to what he was doing in Spain to which he immediately said, he was here to write poetry. Upon being asked by her if he were carrying anything harmful for the passengers, he instantly replied,nothing much but his heart.
This was one of his great Wildean moments, and it was to occasion the poem ‘Barcelona Airport’. He treasured these moments: ‘I long for people to give me an opportunity to answer questions’, he told me once. On 7 May I had the good fortune to be with him when one such opportunity presented itself. Shahid was teaching at Manhattan’s Baruch College in the Spring semester of 2000 and this was to be his last class — indeed the last he was ever to teach. The class was to be a short one for he had an appointment at the hospital immediately afterwards. I had heard a great deal about the brilliance of Shahid’s teaching, but this was the first and only time that I was to see him perform in a classroom. It was evident from the moment we walked in that the students adored him: they had printed a magazine and dedicated the issue to him.
Wildean- relating to or characteristic of Oscar Wilde or his works, especially in being witty and epigrammatic
He considered the Airport incident to be one of his great ‘Wildean’ incidents where he replied with just the cleverness of Oscar Wilde and it was now to be a part of his poem “Barcelona Airport”. He loved such moments where people would ask him a question and he could get an opportunity to answer them.
The author calls himself fortunate enough to have encountered such a moment on May 7 where Shahid was teaching at Manhattan’s Baruch College in the Spring semester of 2000. His teaching style was much talked about and it was only during his last class that the author got to witness it himself. The class was of a comparatively shorter duration because he had an appointment at the hospital afterwards. The students loved him which was clear from the moment he entered the room. They had even dedicated a magazine issue to him.
Shahid for his part was not in the least subdued by the sadness of the occasion. From beginning to end, he was a sparkling diva, Akhtar incarnate, brimming with laughter and nakhra. When an Indian student walked in late he greeted her with the cry; ‘Ah my little subcontinental has arrived.’ Clasping his hands, he feigned a swoon. ‘It stirs such a tide of patriotism in me to behold another South Asian.’
Subdued- quiet and rather reflective or depressed
Brimming- be full of a particular quality, feeling, etc
feigned – simulated or pretended; insincere
Swoon- be overcome with admiration, adoration or other strong emotion
Shahid was never seen being sad or consumed by his disease. He had always been a delight for the eyes, someone who could always be seen laughing and smiling. Upon seeing an Indian girl enter his class, he got super excited and clapped his hands exclaiming how good it is to see someone from your own land. He remarked how patriotic he felt at the moment.
His time at Penn State he remembered with unmitigated pleasure: ‘I grew as a reader, I grew as a poet, I grew as a lover.’ He fell in with a vibrant group of graduate students, many of whom were Indian. This was, he often said, the happiest time of his life. Later Shahid moved to Arizona to take a degree in creative writing. This in turn was followed by a series of jobs in colleges and universities: Hamilton College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and finally, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he was appointed professor in 1999. He was on leave from Utah, doing a brief stint at New York University, when he had his first blackout in February 2000.
Unmitigated- absolute; unqualified
He loved his time at Penn State and he remembers each moment spent there. He felt that it was a place that bought him immense growth in all the parameters; as a reader, a poet and a lover. According to him, it was the happiest time of his life where he even met a group of mostly Indian students. Then he went to Arizona to learn creative writing after which he taught in various universities namely, Hamilton College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he was appointed professor in 1999. He experienced his first temporary lapse of memory in 2000 when he was at the New York University for a short duration.
After 1975, when he moved to Pennsylvania, Shahid lived mainly in America. His brother was already there and they were later joined by their two sisters. But Shahid’s parents continued to live in Srinagar and it was his custom to spend the summer months with them there every year: ‘I always move in my heart between sad countries.’ Travelling between the United States and India he was thus an intermittent but first-hand witness (sháhid) to the mounting violence that seized the region from the late 1980s onwards: It was ’89, the stones were not far, signs of change everywhere (Kashmir would soon be in literal flames)…
Sháhid- a Muslim Martyr
After moving to Pennsylvania, succeeding 1975, he lived mostly in America with his brother and was soon joined by his two sisters. His parents were still living in Srinagar and it was a tradition for him to spend his summers in Srinagar with his parents every year. He used to get saddened by the growing violence in the state of Kashmir that was getting worse with each passing day.
The steady deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir —the violence and counter-violence —had a powerful effect on him. In time it became one of the central subjects of his work: indeed, it could be said that it was in writing of Kashmir that he created his finest work. The irony of this is that Shahid was not by inclination a political poet. I heard him say once: ‘If you are from a difficult place and that’s all you have to write about then you should stop writing. You have to respect your art, your form — that is just as important as what you write about.’
The worsening of the political scenario in Kashmir moved him deeply and could be seen in his works. Even his great works are on the subject of Kashmir although he was not a poet who wrote only on political matters. According to him, one must broaden one’s perspective and area of work and not stay limited to the trying place you come from. He felt the art is just as important as its content.
Anguished as he was about Kashmir’s destiny, Shahid resolutely refused to embrace the role of victim that could so easily have been his. Had he done so, he could no doubt have easily become a fixture on talk shows and news programmes. But Shahid never had any doubt about his calling: he was a poet, schooled in the fierce and unforgiving art of language. Although respectful of religion, he remained a firm believer in the separation of politics and religious practice.
Anguished- experiencing or expressing severe mental or physical pain or suffering
Fixture- set firmly in place
No matter how deeply affected he was by the state of Kashmir, he managed to be firm about his opinion that politics and religion should be separate from each other. He respected his religion but he refused to play a victim that could have got his interviews with news channels and other talk shows as well. He stood firm for he had been trained in literature from one of the most renowned institutes.
Shahid’s gaze was not political in the sense of being framed in terms of policy and solutions. In the broadest sense, his vision tended always towards the inclusive and ecumenical , an outlook that he credited to his upbringing. He spoke often of a time in his childhood when he had been seized by the desire to create a small Hindu temple in his room in Srinagar. He was initially hesitant to tell his parents, but when he did they responded with an enthusiasm equal to his own. His mother bought him murtis and other accoutrements and for a while he was assiduous in conducting pujas at this shrine. This was a favourite story. ‘Whenever people talk to me about Muslim fanaticism,’ he said to me once, ‘ I tell them how my mother helped me make a temple in my room.’
Ecumenical- involving or uniting members of different religions
Accoutrements- other things that were needed for the activity
Assiduous- taking great care that everything is done as well as it can be
Fanaticism- the quality of being fanatical; extremism
Shahid always believed in uniting human beings irrespective of their religion which is why his vision is said to be not political because he did not like their solutions to the prevailing problems. He thinks it is because of his upbringing because his family motivated him to let him have a temple in their room in Srinagar. Although a muslim house, his mom helped him with the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses while he enchanted hindi prayers. He very happily told this to everyone who got extreme when it came to being a Muslim.
I once remarked to Shahid that he was the closest that Kashmir had to a national poet. He shot back: ‘A national poet, maybe. But not a nationalist poet; please not that.’
Nationalist- a person who strongly identifies with their own nation and vigorously supports its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.
Minaret- a slender tower, typically part of a mosque, with a balcony from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer
The author once mentioned to Shahid that he was as close to being a poet renowned at the national level to which Shahid immediately replied and corrected that he might be a ‘national’ poet that Kashmir has but not a ‘nationalist’ poet, someone who strongly identifies with their own nation and vigorously supports its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations
In the title poem of The Country Without a Post Office, a poet returns to Kashmir to find the keeper of a fallen minaret:
‘Nothing will remain, everything’s finished,’
I see his voice again: ‘This is a shrine
of words. You’ll find your letters to me. And mine to
you. Come son and tear open these vanished envelopes’…
This is an archive. I’ve found the remains
of his voice, that map of longings with no limit
4 involving or uniting members of different religions
5 other things that were needed for the activity
6 taking great care that everything is done as well as it can be
In this figuring of his homeland, he himself became one of the images that were spinning around the dark point of stillness— both Sháhid and Shahid, witness and martyr — his destiny inextricably linked with Kashmir’s, each prefigured by the other.
Figuring out about his homeland, having seen so much destruction and sadness , he was almost at a point of stillness in his thoughts where various images were spinning in his mind. He had given himself two roles: Shahid the witness of problematic Kashmir and Shahid the martyr who would do anything for his beloved Kashmir. It was in his destiny that he was not able to seperate the two emotions. And it was an indication that it meant something that he was still trying to work on.
Inextricably- in a way that is impossible to separate
Prefigured- be an early indication or version of something
I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain…
Shahid wrote how death would come to him in the state of Kashmir and in the season of autumn. The routine working of his body or the pumping of blood in the veins would no longer be there. It would come to him under the shining sun and while it’s raining.
Among my notes is a record of a telephone conversation on 5 May. The day before he had gone to the hospital for an important test: a scan that was expected to reveal whether or not the course of chemotherapy that he was then undergoing had had the desired effect. All other alternative therapies and courses of treatment had been put off until this report
The author specifies the 5th day of May, when they had a telephonic conversation, the details of which have been recorded in his notes. It was the day when Shahid went to the hospital for a scan that would reveal whether his Chemotherapy sessions had been successful or not. Till date, all previous treatments failed to have an effect. So, all alternate therapies and treatments had been stopped.
The scan was scheduled for 2.30 in the afternoon. I called his number several times in the late afternoon and early evening — there was no response. I called again the next morning and this time he answered. There were no preambles. He said, ‘Listen Amitav, the news is not good at all. Basically they are going to stop all my medicines now —the chemotherapy and so on. They give me a year or less. They’d suspected that I was not responding well because of the way I look. They will give me some radiation a little later. But they said there was not much hope.’
Preambles- a preliminary or preparatory statement; an introduction
The author tried calling Shahid after his scan that was scheduled for 2.30 in the afternoon but Shahid did not respond and it was only the next day when Shahid picked up the call. Upon picking up the phone, without any formalities Shahid immediately told Amitav that none of it has worked and he has very less time left now, maybe a year or even lesser. He added that the doctors feared that he was not responding to the treatment because of his looks. Shahid said this to create humour and did noit really mean it. The doctors had prescribed some radiation but there are very few chances of it to be successful too.
Dazed, staring blankly at my desk, I said: ‘What will you do now Shahid?’ ‘I would like to go back to Kashmir to die.’ His voice was quiet and untroubled. ‘Now I have to get my passport, settle my will and all that. I don’t want to leave a mess for my siblings. But after that I would like to go to Kashmir. It’s still such a feudal system there and there will be so much support— and my father is there too. Anyway, I don’t want my siblings to have to make the journey afterwards, like we had to with my mother.’
Feudal system- Under this system, a peasant or worker received a piece of land in return for serving a lord or king
Unable to think or react properly, the author asks Shahid about his plans to which Shahid replies that he wants to take his last breath in Kashmir close to his family. Although it is still a mess there, he wished to get his passport and prepare his will to make it easier for his siblings so that they don’t have to travel for this once he is gone.
Later, because of logistical and other reasons, he changed his mind about returning to Kashmir: he was content to be laid to rest in Northampton, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to the memory of his beloved Emily Dickinson. But I do not think it was an accident that his mind turned to Kashmir in speaking of death. Already, in his poetic imagery, death, Kashmir, and Sháhid/Shahid had become so closely overlaid as to be inseparable, like old photographs that have melted together in the rain.
Though he had to cancel his plans for Kashmir because of lack of orchestration, he was fine with being laid to rest in Northampton, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to the memory of his beloved Emily Dickinson. The author somehow suspected that Shahid was always inclined towards taking his last breath in Kashmir as he had been portraying in his poetries. He had portrayed Shahid and Sháhid in an inseparable manner which the author compared with photographs that had been distorted because of rain.
Yes, I remember it,
the day I’ll die, I broadcast the crimson,
so long ago of that sky, its spread air,
its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth
bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went
on the day I’ll die, post the guards, and he,
keeper of the world’s last saffron, rowed me
on an island the size of a grave. On
two yards he rowed me into the sunset,
past all pain. On everyone’s lips was news
of my death but only that beloved couplet,
broken, on his: ‘If there is a paradise on earth
It is this, it is this, it is this.’
The last time I saw Shahid was on 27 October, at his brother’s house in Amherst. He was intermittently able to converse and there were moments when we talked just as we had in the past. He was aware, as he had long been, of his approaching end and he had made his peace with it. I saw no trace of anguish or conflict: surrounded by the love of his family and friends, he was calm, contented, at peace. He had said to me once, ‘I love to think that I’ll meet my mother in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife.’ I had the sense that as the end neared, this was his supreme consolation. He died peacefully, in his sleep, at 2 a.m. on 8 December.
The author met him on October 27 for the last time in Amherst. It was his brother’s house. He was talking at irregular intervals and at some point, the author felt they were talking as if it were the old times. HE had finally made peace with his nearing end, thus he had this calm look. He aspired to see his mother if the concept of afterlife was true. His death came to him in his sleep at 2 am on the eighth day of december that year.
Now, in his absence, I am amazed that so brief a friendship has resulted in so vast a void. Often, when I walk into my living room, I remember his presence there, particularly on the night when he read us his farewell to the world: ‘I Dream I Am At the Ghat of the Only World…’
The author ponders how weird it is that a bond of such short duration can have such a lasting impact. His absence left a void in his heart. The author would miss him on entering his own living room where he would generally be at night reciting his lines“I Dream I Am At the Ghat of the Only World…”
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The Ghat of the Only World- NCERT BOOK Question and Answers
1. What impressions of Shahid do you gather from the piece?
A. Shahid was a man full of life and spirit. An excellent poet, he wrote amazing pieces. He was known for his hospitality and everyone loved going to his parties. He was very fond of the company of others. He had the ability to change the dull and ordinary into bright and remarkable. An excellent scholar as he was, he was no less good a teacher. He was also very fond of cooking and appreciated authenticity and precision when it came to food. A few instances imply that he was a man with a good sense of humour. He was sensitive towards the political environment. He was deeply connected to his roots and thus, wanted to take his last few breaths in Kashmir.
2. How do Shahid and the writer react to the knowledge that Shahid is going to die?
A. The fact that Shahid’s malignant tumour was going to consume him, affected both of them quite differently. Shahid was content and calm upon hearing it. The fact that his disease was taking its toll on him did not keep him away from living life like it was a celebration. He was full of life and was joyful. He wanted Amitav to write about him after he died whereas, on the other hand, the author tried to delay the acknowledgement of the fact that his dear friend’s end was near. Nor did he accept to write about him at first because of his lack of ability to respond in such a situation. Shahid knew Amitav would try making all excuses to keep himself away from writing after something tragic and thus, he put them all away while he was alive.
3. Look up the dictionary for the meaning of the word ‘diaspora’. What do you understand of the Indian diaspora from this piece?
A. Diaspora means the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland to another country. The chapter, ‘The Ghat of the Only World’ describes many Indians living in the United States, away from their motherland. Shahid lived in Manhattan and later shifted to Brooklyn. His sister taught at the Pratt Institute in America. Amitav Ghosh lived a few blocks away. Though the narrator and Shahid lived in the United States, they loved Indians and Indian things like Rogan Josh, Begum Akhtar and Kishore Kumar. Shahid had a passionate love for Kashmir, so he wanted to go back to Kashmir to die.