Letter about ‘The Ghat of the Only World’.
My essay on Agha Shahid Ali has been on the curriculum of India’s Central Board of Secondary Education for quite a while, which means that it is read every year by millions of schoolchildren. Every now and then I get beautiful letters from young people who have read the essay as a part of their schoolwork: this is one of the best of them. It is posted here with the writer’s permission.
April 2, 2022
Dear Mr. Ghosh,
My name is Ayana. I’m writing this to share with you the impact a piece of your writing has had on me; one that is ongoing and immensely present.
As I’m sure you’re aware, the CBSE curriculum currently has a version of ‘The Ghat of the Only World’ as a part of its English syllabus. On 11 November, 2019, my English class started reading this chapter. I remember it very clearly; I have to confess that during my schooling, I would allow myself to drift off during English class, because it came easily to me. Not that day, though. That day, I was engrossed, palms flat on my desk as I listened to a classmate read the words out.
You might wonder how I know the exact date. I keep a journal, to keep track of my tasks and the like, and it’s a habit I’ve had for a few years now. At the end of that English class, I remember sitting still in the bustle of it all, and scrawling out “Mad heart, be brave!”, in pen and highlighter, starry eyed and breathless. Here’s a photo of my journal that day:
I was 16 then. The way you wrote about your friend, someone you clearly loved, whose work you respected, the promise you delivered on… it made me feel like I was growing kinship with the memory of someone who left the world before I was born.
This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered this particular chapter, though. That happened roughly a year before this, in a different city. My best friend, who lives faraway now that I’ve moved to a different home, is a year older than me, so when I was in tenth, they were in eleventh. They had an English test, and they were reading this chapter on the bus where we sat together every day (which is how we became so close), and I snuck a peek. I talked to them about it, and we shared our love for poetry, which was a big factor in us eventually becoming best friends.
And so even before I get to the present day, you can see the impact this piece of writing of yours has had on my life. I adored it immensely for all this before, and now I adore it even more.
A few months ago, I picked up a copy of The Veiled Suite, Agha Shahid Ali’s collected works.
When I started reading it… oh, how do I explain? Have you ever read something that sends a chill down your spine? That you know will change you forever? Something that you hold dear to yourself already, that you’re plastering up on the walls of your heart, that drives the urge to make something of your own?
That’s what it felt like. What it feels like, every time I flip a page, every time I scribble a note in the margins, every time sit cross legged on the floor to make art based on a couplet from a new poem.
I’ve found something that I think I will love for a long, long time. I feel love and respect and admiration and so much fondness for someone I know only through the pages of his writing. That’s how all poetry goes, I suppose, but it feels special.
I’m writing this to you because none of this could’ve happened without your wonderful tribute to your friend. I have intense respect for you as an author already, and the fact that something you wrote has led me to a love so profound… I wanted you to know.
I know it’s been years, but I still want to say that I’m sorry for your loss. But I need you to know that your memory and love has led to so much more being present in the world. The book will be my paperback accompaniment, cracked spine and dog-eared pages, and I’ll tell everyone who listens how much I love it and why. I’m so, so glad you kept your promise and wrote about him.
If I come off as too earnest, forgive me. But I hope you read this somehow. If you can, I’d love to hear back from you. If you have anything to share about this, I’ll take it all willingly.
Thank you. Always.