Why Kashmir’s greatest literary export to the West was denied a teaching fellowship at KU?

Wasim Khalid

Srinagar: In 1998, Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali took a four-month leave from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, where he taught creative writing to writers and poets. He planned to teach students at Kashmir University’s department of English during this period. But the poet, Kashmir’s greatest literary export to the West, was snubbed and humiliated.
Shahid had delivered a series of lectures on TS Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, at the department in 1997.
“The students, awed by his genius, naturally wanted more of him. His winsome personality, his expertise in international literature and rootedness in local culture had a profound impact on the students,” said Irfan Hassan, Shahid’s childhood friend and an inspiration behind his famous book, The Country Without a Post Office.
Then head department of English Professor GR Malik had mooted the idea of inviting Shahid to teach a course for four months the next year.
“Shahid was thrilled over the idea. The excitement was writ on his face,” said Hassan, who had accompanied the poet to the university.
Shahid took four months’ leave without salary from the University of Massachusetts and approached the KU officials. But to his utter shock, Hassan said, he was told that the papers authorizing him to teach at the department are yet to be cleared by the vice-chancellor.
“He felt so disgraced. He had prepared his lectures for several months before coming here. He was disappointed and utterly disillusioned with the English department which organised a three-day ‘national’ seminar on him,” he said.
“He returned to the US an unhappy man. He never reconciled with the shock.” Shahid died of brain cancer in 2001.
Fifteen years after his death, the department of English currently headed by Professor Hameedah Nayeem, organised a three-day national-level seminar titled Agha Shahid Ali: Tradition and Modernity from Monday.
Hassan believes that bureaucratic excuses do not explain the snub to the poet. A former faculty member of the English department, who had attended Shahid’s lecture series, said Shahid’s bold portrayal of the situation in the early ‘90s, when no writer dared to speak against the state, was the primary reason behind the denial.
“Another was the inferiority complex of the department’s faculty. No teacher could match his breadth of knowledge and command over multiple idioms. They would have looked very small,” she said.
But Professor Malik said that no teacher of the department objected to the presence of the celebrated poet who had taught at nine American and Indian universities.
“The atmosphere was not favorable towards our intellectual growth. I sent the VC a proposal suggesting that we should have Shahid for four summer months, but it was caught in the red tape,” he said.
“I told Shahid that I wanted him to be a permanent feature of the faculty…maybe, behind the scenes, there were people who did not want him to be part of our department,” Malik said.
He said another factory that might have worked against Shahid was sour relations between his father Agha Ashraf Ali and his varsity colleagues.
“The people who had a grudge against his father might have played their part in scuttling the proposal,” Malik added.
On the inaugural day of the three-day seminar, many speakers said how he wrote about Kashmir in those troubled times when hardly any news of the repression went out.
“At one time, voice of Kashmir had been forced into silence. Shahid ended this embargo on information coming out of Kashmir during the tumultuous period of 1990s,” Professor Hameedah said.
“By writing ‘they make a desolation and call it peace’, Shahid in one stroke of pen demystifies the entire military operation meant to bring peace in the Valley,” she said.