In August 1981, after short stops in New York and Pittsburgh visiting old high-school friends, I arrived at Penn State from New Delhi to begin a PhD in English. Once settled in my graduate dorm, I visited the English Department to register my arrival and asked Margie, the warm and affectionate administrative assistant, whether I could have the names and phone numbers of the other Indian students in the programme. I could.
Those days, giving out residential phone numbers was not forbidden as it is now. There were two graduate students from India. A third, who had just graduated, I had already met in Delhi. The recent graduate’s cousin was the boyfriend of my close friend, a fine example of the way that two degrees of separation rather than six marks the connections between many Indians. I called both the numbers Margie gave me and left messages, introducing myself and suggesting a meeting.
One never called me back, but Agha Shahid Ali called back immediately. He lived in an efficiency apartment in the same dorm as mine. I offered to come over, but he insisted he would and within minutes he did.
I cannot now recall of what we spoke, but immediately we were inseparable. I soon learnt that to know Shahid was to love him. Everybody loved Shahid; the only variance in people’s responses lay in how much they loved him. Shahid and I became and remained closely attached through the years we overlapped in State College and for the years that came after.
We spent holidays together, visiting each other’s friends in New York, in Pittsburgh, in Delhi, in Srinagar. We drove halfway across the USA together in a friend’s station wagon. We cooked together, attended readings, dinners, and concerts. For hours we played Ms Pacman in the newly opened video arcade on College Avenue, so addicted to the game that we had to limit the amount of cash we allowed ourselves to take in.
Shahid did not let me come to his apartment for some weeks, even though we were loitering together all over campus. He always came to my room, a double to which a roommate had not shown, and from there we stepped out to wherever we were going. A friend was staying with him, he said, a friend who was not very friendly to strangers.
But one day, probably a month or so after I knew him, Shahid came out to me, and told me his friend was really his lover. Not knowing how I would react, Shahid had not wanted to say anything. Now that he knew me, he thought the time was right for him to come out.
“I know,” I responded and Shahid was genuinely surprised. “How?” he asked but I had no answer. I just did. I had known Shahid was gay from the minute I had met him. I don’t believe I had known an openly gay person before. But I had read a book on Oscar Wilde, a coffee-table book complete with moody pictures of Wilde and Bosie and the whole sad story of their doomed love affair and Wilde’s imprisonment.
In my girls’ hostels, both in school and in college, stories periodically flared about various girls’ love for each other, but the stories died out and the heterosexual pressures on girls/women of my age and generation continued unabated.
Shahid took his time coming out to me not because he mistrusted how I would react, but because he feared I would share information about his sexuality with my community of family and friends from India. Surprisingly, given what a small community Kashmiri Pandits comprise, I was close friends with two people from this community, whose families Shahid and his family knew well in Srinagar.
Both of my friends were in the US, one of them the boyfriend of my school friend in Pittsburgh. I went there often to visit my friends, and on one occasion, I invited Shahid to come along. He was both tempted and afraid, keen to meet my friends but also anxious that by doing so he shrank the distance between his private world in Pennsylvania and the world of his family and parents back in Srinagar. Eventually, he decided he would come.
My friends loved Shahid and vice versa, and the friendships that were seeded then continued until Shahid passed away, the circle of friends only growing larger as time passed from this initial meeting in Pittsburgh. In the many trips which later led us to Pittsburgh or brought my friends down to State College, or on the many occasions after when we met in NYC, that feeling of being home with these friends was so deep and so certain that our meetings were the meetings of a family.
Our parents and siblings seeped into the mix, whether they were in India or visiting the US, and Indian style, the family expanded and expanded, just as, to my continued amazement to this day, food in an Indian household of the sort from which I come never seems to run out. No matter how many people arrive unexpectedly for dinner, there is food, always freshly prepared and generously served.
The poet in the world
Shahid was effortlessly smart and also effortlessly silly. One of my most vivid memories is his receiving a rejection letter for a poem he’d sent out. His lips were tight for a minute, but the next thing he did was sit down and type up the cover letter for the next journal. Shahid kept a list of the journals to which he planned to submit, and he merely moved down the list as soon as he was rejected. Not a day passed between a rejection and a re-submission.
If he was revising a poem, that was different, because the revision was ongoing even while a poem was circulating. He wanted to publish in journals named for each letter of the alphabet, an ambition that seemed so peculiarly silly for this vivid, bright, sparkling poet. But without any hint of irony, he stated clearly that he wanted to be able to say that he’d published in journals with titles that covered the entire alphabet.
Shahid and I overlapped at Penn State only for two years, but looking back, those years seem momentous ones. Much changed for me personally, but much changed in the world as well. Carolyn Forche’s collection, The Country Between Us, came out in 1981. Shahid loved the collection, read and re-read her poem, “The Colonel,” about a brutal El-Salvadoran warlord, and for many readings of his own for years after, he would share this poem with his audience.
Costa-Gavras’s Missing came out in 1982, and that, along with Forche’s book, gave Shahid hope that Americans were taking some responsibility for their meddling actions in South America. Reagan, though, who had just become President in 1981, was meddling beyond what anyone could imagine, but that was only revealed years later with the Iran-Contra affair. Nancy Reagan was surreptitiously consulting an astrologer to help her husband make policy decisions, but in those early ’80s, we could laugh at Reagan, believing he was an aberration in a long list of mostly worthy Presidents.
Every evening, graduate students from Romania, Argentina, China, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Lebanon, Britain, France and other countries watched the news in the TV Room in Atherton Hall. Nobody tried to change the channel during the evening news on one of the three networks. If you missed the news, you’d missed it. Although CNN was broadcasting already, nobody took the channel seriously. Thatcher invaded the Falklands and we watched the massacre at Sabra and Shatila in slow horror. We were the world housed in a graduate dorm at an American college campus.
Shahid taught Business Writing, and although enrolled in a PhD programme, he spent his time writing poetry and taking courses in the craft of writing. He started corresponding with Mahmoud Darwish and with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whom he wanted to translate. He wrote “The Dacca Gauzes,” during this time, drafts of which he gathered and stapled together neatly by date. “Keep these carefully,” he said. “Someday I’ll be famous and these will be valuable.”
He sent a copy of the poem to Salman Rushdie, whose Midnight’s Children we had read with open-mouthed wonder. A big fan of Edward Said’s, whose Orientalism and The Question of Palestine were making waves through the academy at this time, Shahid sent his poem to Said as well.
When Shahid smoked, he smoked. He did nothing else. Numerous times, I recall visiting him only to find him sitting on his couch smoking. When I’d ask, “What are you doing?” pat would come the answer: “Smoking.”
“It’s not an occupation,” I would say, but for Shahid, it was. He would laugh his full laugh at my comment and continue to spend time smoking: not smoking and reading, not smoking and watching TV, just smoking. We all smoked those days, but Shahid had also started running. He made me join his runs so we could cancel out the negative effects of smoking.
To an Indian freshly arrived on American shores in 1981, nothing was more peculiar than running. Still, I did it to please Shahid, and promptly stopped as soon as he moved away.
No beauty in India, I became one when I arrived in the US. Quite tiresomely, the list of keen suitors behind me was long and ever longer. Not used to such attention, I had little sense of what to do with it, how to negotiate whom to go out with and for how long. I did a poor job, but Shahid loved partaking of it. He loved to know of my suitors in detail, and he shamelessly lusted after them.
Of one, he longingly said, “He walks with a drawl,” and perhaps Shahid was right. A tall basketball-player now graduate student, this North Carolinian walked as he spoke: unhurriedly, gracefully. His speech rolled off his tongue as lightly as his feet carried his tall frame. Like other gay friends of mine, Shahid was never daunted by a person’s “straight” preferences. Experience had taught him that the sexual life one officially lived was only one small part of a life.
For weeks on end, Shahid wandered about in a pair of denim overalls over a bright blue or yellow T-shirt. They were his preferred clothes, and he loved that his outfit made him look like a young boy. But he transformed himself for his dinner parties, elaborate affairs where the rice and kheer were perfumed with saffron.
Shahid’s preferred cuisine was Kashmiri Pandit food, and he served rajma and rogan josh and haak. He wore embroidered shalwar kurtas for these dinners and loved playing the role, as he saw it, of an Indian prince. He hammed up the part, of course, and it’s hard to know just how his charmed American audience reacted to that role.
And every week, soon after we became fast friends, we danced on Monday nights at Mr C’s, when the local disco became a gay club for an evening. Shahid loved to dance, a blend of ’70s Delhi rock and Helen, part-displaying and part-reigning in the moves he’d studied from the vampy cabaret dancer of Bollywood film. The Pointer Sisters had just released Slow Hand, and that song was one of Shahid’s favourites. He wanted to seduce through this dance, but he would stop just short of shocking his adoring audience.
Sooner or later, when Shahid danced, there was an audience. He loved it. He wanted that audience. He danced for it. Time and again, he’d expressed his sadness that he wasn’t a Bollywood heroine, either a Meena Kumari or a Helen, and perhaps both, shifting between their iconic stances. Periodically, in the course of an ordinary day, Shahid would lean his head against a raised arm, slowly lift his lowered eyelids, and half-sob, “Tumhi batao, ab main kya karun?” wanting to be admired both for his delivery of the lines and his version of the impossibly-beautiful-but-tragic-woman of Bombay cinema. But if he wasn’t the tragic heroine, he was dancing raunchily at Mr C’s, gyrating his hips suggestively, loving the bemused pleasure his slightly embarrassed viewers showed.
Unlike Mr C’s on every other night of the week, Mr C’s on Mondays welcomed any arrangement of dancers with any changes to groups and couples that dancers wished to make. The dance was the thing. I was not Shahid’s most compatible partner, but it didn’t matter.
On Monday nights, you started dancing with one person and shifted off to another or many others and nobody minded. Men danced with men, women with women, and sometimes men and women with each other, too. People wandered off and returned. Thanks to Shahid, half the English Department was there on Mondays, people straight and gay, with assorted boyfriends and girlfriends from Engineering, Computer Science, and other departments.
Because of Shahid, many straight people who would never have thought of going to Mr C’s on Monday nights, did. We went as a group, so none of the tensions of being on an official “date” accompanied us to the club. You did not need to dance with a partner. You danced when you felt like it, when the music moved you to the dance floor. You danced with one person or many. You danced alone because there were always various combinations of people on the floor. If you weren’t dancing, you lounged at the long bar that lay along the length of the dance floor and yelled your way through a conversation as best you could.
Many of the people at the club were gay and were on dates. But in 1981, it was no simple thing to be out. Many of my close friends weren’t, either because they hadn’t yet decided they were gay or because they weren’t comfortable announcing their sexual preferences so publicly.
That a whole group of men and women, straight and gay, came to the club and danced together was liberating for both the straight people there but also the gay ones, those who were out and those who weren’t, but who could dance with their lovers and partners without as much self-consciousness as they might have had otherwise.
‘It’s raining men’
Although AIDS was already creeping its way through the gay population in 1981, it was not yet the scourge it was about to become, at least not in State College. That was still a year and slightly more away. In that little window of freedom before AIDS changed the way people had sex, Shahid explained to me that the last call at Mr C’s before the bars closed at 2:00 am was not just a call for your last drinks from the bar. The last call was also a call to decide with whom you were going home that night or if you were going home alone. Had I not read Eliot’s Prufrock, with its recurring line “Hurry up please, it’s time”?
I had, of course, read Prufrock many times. But it took Shahid to explain to me what closing time really meant, in poetry and in life. It was your last chance to make a choice: “all routes to death / will open up, again, / as the bars close all over / Pennsylvania.” ( Philadelphia, 2:00 AM)
In the world from which I came at 21 years to Penn State and met Shahid, there had been no occasion to understand closing time at bars, not for us students at Delhi University and perhaps not for the teachers who taught us. At any rate, that’s not what our teachers taught us in the late ’70s. None of them had explained the lines in Prufrock the way Shahid did.
He taught me, too, that the stolen “dupatta,” in Pakeezah, referred not to her chunni, but her virginity. Really? How was I supposed to know that? In my world, every effort had been made to keep sex and sexuality hidden. In Shahid’s world, it was the opposite. Not only in Penn State in the ’80s but in the years Shahid had spent as a young adult in Delhi, Shahid’s world was rife with sexual exploits. Based on his stories, every young married man in Delhi had a secret male lover, and that lover was Shahid.
Soon after he came out, Shahid invited me to his apartment where I met his lover who remained, long after the two broke up, after he married, and many years passed, Shahid’s biggest love. He and I remained friends for years, our affection deep and unshaken although we had little to say to each other when we met.
Even now, although we have not spoken for years, were I to call him in need of any kind of help, he would be there for me. He did not come dancing to Mr C’s, since his public persona required small speedy cars and beautiful girls. And he managed somehow, for a long time, to juggle all his lives, and then he and Shahid moved away from each other but their connection and love remained.
Flashdance came out in 1983, and Mr C’s played the film’s song, What a Feeling, repeatedly. Everybody was buoyed by that song, which had a particular resonance in a Pennsylvania town affected by the crash of the steel industry, though that industry lay west of us. Also in 1983, The Police released their enormously popular Every Breath You Take while lovers sang along with what seemed to be lyrics of undying love, Shahid wondered if the song was really a loves song or a song of threat, a stalker expressing his disturbing claim on his beloved?
Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to do With It?, Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, or Boy George’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? were more up Shahid’s alley, as was The Weather Girls’ song, It’s Raining Men. That repeated line, “It’s raining men,” was followed by a heartfelt “Hallelujah.” It was one of Shahid’s favourites. How could it not be with that title?
In that brief period in the early ’80s, it may or may not have been raining men, but the song suggested such a thing was possible, and every so often, I suppose it was. It rained men, and women, and disco, and Kashmiri food, and loud laughter, and more often than not, the certainty of hope.