A Map of Longings is a new biography of Agha Shahid Ali, with chapters spanning the poet’s family history, and covering various aspects of Shahid’s life as an adolescent, as a Hindu College student in Delhi, and as a poet and professor in India and the US. The story of his growth as a poet is interspersed with anecdotes from his experiences that led to particular lines in certain poems and sometimes an entire collection.

When it gets to the US, the biography further explores his life as a doctoral student, a professor, a poet adamant on getting published in every journal possible, a friend, a translator and much more. It is supplemented with many never-seen-before images from the archives and personal collections of those who knew Shahid. It is filled with material gathered over conversations with family, friends, students, and colleagues, and Shahid’s unpublished essays.

For most of us who grew up studying the CBSE curriculum in India, the introduction to Agha Shahid Ali’s work and life was through Amitav Ghosh’s famous essay written after Shahid’s passing, titled “The Ghat of the Only World: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn”. Reading this essay in school, I was intrigued by this Kashmiri figure who knew poetry, literature and the recipe for the perfect rogan josh. Years later, here is a book, not the first on Agha Shahid Ali’s work, but seemingly a first on the man behind the poems.

What came before

This is a book that claims Shahid as a “modern-day Kashmiri mystic”. Shahid was, Ghosh believed, “an embodiment of his poetic vision”, an heir to “Rumi and Kabir”. It is an exploration that paints a portrait of Shahid the poet and the man, and connects the dots between his personal and creative life. Shahid’s verses have, of course found their way through college libraries, friends, fellow readers and the internet, and have become a rite of passage for poetry lovers.

When I read Amitav Ghosh’s essay on him, it drew a portrait similar to the one in my head for myself – of a person far away from their beloved Kashmir, keeping it alive through the way they lived, in the food they cooked – rogan josh, for instance. This description left a lasting impression on me as a schoolchild.

I wondered whether anyone in my class understood what it meant in the essay when Shahid filled his apartment with the rich aromas of Kashmiri spices – an olfactory transportation for a nostalgist, for an immigrant, for one in exile. I didn’t make much distinction between him and me back then.

There are, understandably, many books and essays about Shahid. While literary scholarship like Huzaifa Pandit’s theoretical work and his unpublished thesis on Kashmiri poets begs us to examine Shahid’s poetry as a product of an elite life, Nishat Zaidi critically examines the poetic legacy of the teacher, of the translator who translated Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry, and of the scholar who wrote his dissertation on TS Eliot, Kamila Shamsie remembers her sharp mentor, and Ghosh draws a portrait of a dear friend, Kapoor asks you to examine the poet as a product of his cultural upbringing.

Undoubtedly, a single book, a single perspective is not enough to fully grasp Shahid’s life. One must read them all, for each biographical account captures the poet from different perspectives.

Again and again

Kapoor’s biography of Shahid, even it is a love letter to a beloved poet, leaves something to be desired – in the writing and, occasionally, in the way it perceives the poet. The biographer’s love for and worship of his subject, and his fascination with many – though not all – minute aspects of Shahid’s life, gathered from interviews, archives, conversations, observations and personal encounters with the poet’s work, are expressed clearly. But sometimes, in an eagerness to untangle aspects of Shahid’s life, Kapoor entangles them further.

In certain places in the first half, the writing is repetitive – twice it forces the reader to acknowledge Shahid’s widely-known status as a “secular Kashmiri”. It also draws greatly from previously written works on Shahid, and if you have read the works mentioned above, besides Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali edited by Kazim Ali, the repetition gets to you.

Midway through the book, Shahid is still a cosmopolitan Kashmiri who belonged to the English language, drawing from his cultural upbringing for his poetry. There is an absence of a critical reading of his work, and rather simplistic and naïve derivations in certain portions. A sentence like “Shahid not only wanted to become a poet, he wanted to become a good poet.” prompts the reader to question, well, what is a “good poet”? Is that what Shahid’s legacy eventually became – that of a “good poet”?

The language in this book lacks critical examination of certain quotes from Shahid found in the text, and sometimes they even appear to be out of context. Phrases such as “subcontinental flavours” jump out at a reader who expected the language to be nuanced in its appreciation or critical examination of a poet’s life and work. An anecdote about Shahid’s collaboration with Masood Hussain, the Kashmiri painter, is repeated twice verbatim instead of carefully being edited to connect the dots between the first and second mention of the encounter.

‘Pledge your love’

From chapter 8 onwards, the book gets richer as it delves into several aspects of Shahid’s life as a poet and his personal and creative relationships with figures like Begum Akhtar and James Merrill. His friendships with Eqbal Ahmed, Edward Said, and Saleem Kidwai, his correspondence with Faiz, and Salman Rushdie, his interactions with students like Kamila Shamsie, have all been woven together skilfully.

Faiz and Begum Akhtar stayed in his family home at different points of time, which alone makes Shahid’s life anything but ordinary. One gets to know Shahid – the translator, the poet, the professor, the son, the friend – through the letters, interviews and conversations that also spill over into various unique aspects of his life as an expatriate. Kapoor talks about Shahid’s writing process, the rejection letters and his resilience as a poet.

Shahid’s writing, sometimes inspired by phrases that stayed with him after a phone call, went through several rounds of editing and he would spend hours and days lamenting over a single poem and discussing it with stalwarts like James Merrill. Information like this makes the book stand out.

Shahid’s answering machine in 2001 would announce: “Pledge to me your undying love”. With this book, Kapoor has done exactly that – cementing an undying love for the poet, for his poetry – turning the reading experience into a need-to-know-the-story of how each beloved line was conceived.

In the process, Shahid emerges both as a human being with flaws and a genius who worked on his craft as long as his mental and physical health allowed him. “Shahid wrote out of experience, not about it,” says Kapoor. The trouble with this book is that it is written about Shahid’s experiences, heavily borrowed from those who knew him and wrote of him, with the result that the biographer’s own writing, however dedicated, fails to leave an impression on the reader.

This book was written as a testament to Shahid, but I doubt if it was written for Shahid’s readers, for whom abundant and seminal work on Shahid’s life and poetry already exists. The book goes one step further as a love letter and ends not where Shahid’s life does, but on the note where Shahid’s legacy begins – with testaments from poets and academics who admire his work – and leaves us at the moment where Shahid’s poetry spun itself into the fabric of Kashmir and contemporary India.

A Map of Longings: The Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali

A Map of Longings: The Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali, Manan Kapoor, Vintage.