Packing for a long trip, I push aside a stack of books and Agha’s words emerge, upside down, from between Manguel’s Dictionary of Imaginary Places and a water-stained, tobacco-stained copy of Government In the Dominions, which is where his Kashmir might have fitted, too.
Some years after he printed this out for me, we moved house yet again and the plain sheets of paper with his expansive, generous signature disappeared. After three house moves, I knew the poem was lost forever, and consoled myself by reading ‘Rooms Are Never Finished’ in cold print instead. Books stay where you put them; paper is restless.
What you think is important, what you place a value on, shifts and changes over time. Enough time, and perhaps memories are more valuable than anything else. Living in Calcutta, living in any monsoon city, is a reminder of the fragility of paper and photographs. Album covers from old records, found in fragments in auction houses; old daguerretypes crisscrossed in pointillist fashion by the tracks of silverfish and bookworms; letters that exploded in miniature clouds of dust as the blue aerogramme envelopes crumbled between your fingers. The rain often got what the dust and the paper insects left behind; we learned early not to put our faith in paper.
If any of the letters, photographs and diaries that I kept and lost, one way or another, over the years was to survive , I’m glad it was this. I was not one of his intimate circle, but as his closest friends will testify, Shahid was in the habit of befriending the world. The handwriting brings back those days, and brings back Shahid’s laugh, the astonished look on the face of the waiter whom he grabbed around the waist in order to demonstrate a tango move down the august corridors of the IIC; it brings back the furrows that grooved his forehead when he explained either Kashmir or canzones; it brings back the instructions for what constituted a pinch of saffron, how far the thumb and forefinger should be held apart, how to grind poppy seeds with green chillies, in the recipes we exchanged.
Shahid shifted between countries; I made far more humble journeys. My family has a history of rapid shifts within the same city, as if the air of a new neighbourhood was the only way to counteract the heavy weight of finally belonging somewhere that was neither Bengal nor Orissa. It felt for a decade or so that I had inherited the same gypsy strain; whatever it was, my husband and I moved with slightly alarming frequency.
I like choosing theoretical homes, but the idea of “settling down” is pleasurable only in the abstract, a little disconcerting in the particular. People in Delhi are always settling down: into jobs, marriages, old orders, new regimes, rented houses, and finally, into the grandeur of “own homes”. The title of Shahid’s poem was comforting, reassuring, and those lines– “A house? A work in progress, always.” — gave me permission to never settle down, or in. These days I have squatter’s rights in that capacious place, the writer’s house, a subtenancy of sorts, and that’s mostly enough.
But when I smoothed out Shahid’s sheets of paper and read them again the other day, different lines held me, words that had nothing to do with houses. They have stayed in my mind, becoming touchstones in a time of sometimes endless and tedious debate: “Well, if you love something, why argue? What we own betters anything of God’s–no?”
Good words to live by.