Poet Surrogate

by Arshid Malik

Agha Shahid Ali.

It was the first time I was meeting late Aga Shahid Ali, renowned poet whose wonderful collections of poems including the Half-Inch Himalayas, The Country without a Post Office fail to amuse me till this very day.

A friend had got me in touch with Aga Shahid. I talked to him over the phone, briefly introduced myself as a “poet” and received an immediate invitation to meet him in person at his residence in Srinagar. I was supposed to show him my “decent” collection of poems, which comprised of around a hundred and ten poems written in the “surrealistic” free verse method. All poems were in English.

When I landed at Aga Shahid’s house, I was received by a very gentle person, the gardener of the house. He said I was expected and I heaved a sigh of relief as my temples began to stutter a blip-blob nonchalantly around my brow in repugnant anticipation of the fact that I was about to table my life’s work before a person who was known the world over for his literary genius.

Aga Shahid’s father, to whom the gardener introduced me first, displayed keen delight upon seeing me and led me into the house. I was offered a seat and some tea. I was nervously sipping my cup of tea when Aga Shahid entered the room. I had never seen him before but the very sight of him, I must tell you, was very comforting. He was very gentle, down-to-earth and suave at the same time. He greeted me and shook my hand. We started talking without delay about my writings. He was amused by the fact that I had not even “neatly stacked” the very first drafts of my poems for him. He began sifting through the poems and the consistent smile on his face and the dribble of a polite “hmmm” made room enough for me to settle snugly in the sofa which otherwise had been a particular subject of discomfort for me till then.

Aga Shahid was very happy with my work but he told me that I should not go to a publishing house with my poems, after of course getting them typed and organized in the fashion of a manuscript, even though he told me that they were worthy of getting published. “Work some more on these poems; throw in some more hard-work and read classic English poetry. I am sure we will have a much worthier piece of work at hand at the end of the day that will be hard to dispose,” he said. He jotted down a list of some fifteen odd works and advised me to read them and comprehend the methods employed minutely. Aga Shahid’s father offered me some pastry in the meantime which tasted quite exotic. Towards the end of this wonderful meeting, Aga Shahid gave me one of his books, autographed and I perfectly remember, while handing out the book to me he said to me, “Arshid, I love the “I” in your name. It is a lovingly connived version of the common Arshad”. While heading back home I felt exhilarated and liberated. The very next day I purchased a few titles that Aga Shahid had advised me to read and jettisoned in.

I met Aga Shahid a few more times a year later. He was very happy with my new poems and the refurbished versions of my old collection. “You are almost ready to roll out your works,” he told me. A few years passed by while I had stopped writing. I was going through a very depressing phase of my life. One particular night I woke up in the middle of the night, collected my writing, prose and verse, and set them on fire, outside on the verandah. I had stopped writing for good, verse at least. All of it seems to have happened so suddenly that I do not even have faint recollections of that “shameful” night. I do not know why or how it happened, except for one thing – I had buried who I was and garroted who I could be.

Arshid Malik

A decade and more has passed since. I am still capable of writing poems but I do not. Verses from the unknown sometimes immerge and cling to me like tears to the lashes and then disperse into the wilderness that has become me. I never called myself a poet and never can but poetry is carved into my very being. I do not understand why I failed then and continue to do so when it comes to poetry. For all I know, I have always found a certain kind of amusement in hurting myself. I may well be termed a masochist or perhaps something more degenerate because I have choked an art form to death inside me. But believe me I never wanted it this way. I recall the smile on my mentors face while he read my poems when I last met him and the subsequent news of his demise in the year 2001, a very sad moment in time for me and a very rare moment when I wrote a poem dedicated to Aga Shahid and had it published on the cover page of a local news daily. My mentor was gone after having woven his brilliant poetry into time and I had submerged my own into effervescence.

Today, I have decided to abdicate the indolent poet inside me. I have decided to pass on the craft, my limbless craft of poetry, to my progeny – my only child. Me as a poet, I realize might have lived his full. Maybe, flames were all that my works were destined for. Maybe I was only incubating a craft, a poet inside me only to pass it unto my son. He has a way with words, I must tell you and I will teach him what I learnt when I was young. And perhaps some good poetry will make it to those who may eventually savour it.



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