The Ghat of The Only World

by Amitav Ghosh

About the writer

 

Writer Name:  Amitav Ghosh

Born:              11 July 1956 (age 63 years), Kolkata

Education:      Delhi School of Economics, University of Oxford

Awards:          Jnanpith Award, Sahitya Akademi Award, Ananda Puraskar, Dan David Prize, Padma Shri

Nominations: Booker Prize, International Booker Prize

Theme

This chapter is written by the narrator in memory of his friend, Shahid. They become friends when they stay in the same neighbourhood in the United States. Both of them have a lot in common and love to spend time together. Shahid is a cancer patient and urges the narrator to write about him when he dies. The narrator keeps his promise and pays a tribute to his friend by writing this piece about him after his death.

The Characters

The Narrator:

The Narrator (Amitav Ghosh) is a well-known author. He comes in contact with Shahid (a poet from Srinagar) and they became good friends. He writes this piece on Shahid, after his death as he had promised him to write about him.

Shahid:

Shahid is a poet and a close friend of the narrator. He teaches at colleges and universities in the United States and is a lively and sociable person. He is diagnosed with cancer but is not demoralised by his impending.

 

About the Lesson

The lesson opens on a note where the author’s friend Shahid who has a malignant tumour wants him to write about him after his last breath and how the author resists it. This is because of his lack of ability to respond in a situation like this. Shahid knew him well and thus, he made him agree on this. The author tells us how he made notes of every encounter and telephone conversation with Shahid after that day to be able to write about him. Now, the author’s fascination with his friend dates back to a time when they were not friends. Amitav knew Shahid for his work in poetry. It was only through a friend that they met but remained only acquaintances. A year later when Shahid moved to Brooklyn, they got closer upon frequent brunches.  It was after a sudden temporary lapse of memory, that Shahid moved from Manhattan to live with his sister. The author mentions one such day when he went along with Shahid’s siblings to pick him up from the hospital after a surgery. Shahid refused to take the help of a wheelchair claiming that he is still fit to trust his toes. Upon seeing him lose his balance, they called the escort back with the wheelchair. Shahid, being full of life, got excited upon knowing that the guy knows Spanish as he had always wanted to learn the language. Shahid and the author had a great deal in common. To quote a few, they had common love for Indian dishes like Rogan josh and a shared indifference towards cricket. Despite knowing where his disease was going to take him, Shahid always surrounded himself with people which according to him gave him no time to be sad. There used to be a party in his living room almost daily with a person or two in the kitchen cooking his favourite Rogan josh while he gave direction amidst his partying. He talked endlessly about his favourite Ghazal singer and her stories of witty replies. Once at Barcelona airport, he too replied wittily to the security guard and made a mention about it in his poetry.  The author then talks about how the prevailing situations in Kashmir affected him. He wrote a lot of poetry about Kashmir and thought that politics and religion should act separately. He felt that people must stay united despite religion. He gave the credit of this way of thinking to his upbringing. The author mentions how he wished to be in Kashmir while taking his last breath but could not due to logistical issues. He took his last breath in his sleep leaving a void in the author’s life. The author is left thinking how a bond of such short duration can have such a lasting impact.

 

Word Meanings


expatriate – a person who lives outside their native country
lucid – able to speak clearly
lapses – a brief or temporary failure of concentration, memory or judgement
thumbing – turn over pages with or as if with one’s thumb
Jocularity – in a funny manner
mumbled – to speak quietly or in an under way so that the words are difficult to understand
innocuous – completely harmless
quizzical – seeming to ask a question without saying something
blackout – a short period when someone suddenly becomes unconscious
malignant – likely to get worse and lead to death
entrusting – to give someone a thing or a duty for which they are responsible
recitative – in music, words that are sung as if they are being spoken
bereavement – the death of a close relation or friend
imperative – something that is extremely important or urgent
fiercely – extremely
conceive – to invent a plan or an idea
acquaintance – a person that you have met but do not know well
impede – to slow something down or prevent an activity from making progress at its previous rate
trivial – having little value or importance
poignance – the quality of causing or having a very sharp feeling of sadness
hatched – to make a plan
conviviality – friendly and making you feel happy and welcome
transmute – to change something completely, especially into something different and better
scalp – the skin on the top of a person’s head where hair usually grows
suture – a stitch used to sew up a cut in a person’s body
groggier – weak and unable to walk correctly, usually because of tiredness or illness
buckled – to become bent often as a result of weakness
beaming – used to describe a smile that is very wide and happy
gleefully – in a happy or excited manner
gregariousness – the quality of liking to be with other people
split-level – having floors on slightly different levels with a few stairs connecting them
cavernous – having a very large open space inside it
waterfront – a part of a town or city that is next to an area of water such as a river or the sea
Ghat – a set of steps leading down to a river or lake
foyer – a room in a house or apartment that leads from the front door to other rooms
flinging – to throw something suddenly and with a lot of force
dour – gloomy in appearance
invariably – always
perpetual – continuing forever in the same way
carnival – a lively festival
sniffed – to smell something
legendary – very famous and admired or spoken about
prowess – great ability or skill
radically – completely
explicitly – directly and in a clear and exact way
prefigured – to show or suggest that something will happen in the future
exactitude – the quality or an instance of being exact
recurrent – happening again many times
extinct – not now existing
haunted – to cause repeated suffering or anxiety
cuisine – a style of cooking
abiding – A memory or feeling that you have had for a long time and that is not likely to change
repartee – conversation that is full of clever and funny comments
exasperated – extremely annoyed and impatient because things are not happening in the way you want or people are not doing what you want them to do
Wildean – relating to or characteristic of Oscar Wilde or his works, especially in being witty
evident – obvious
adored – to love and respect someone deeply
subdued – quiet and slightly sad or worried
sparkling – very lively and interesting
incarnate – in human form used for emphasising that someone is very similar to what has just been mentioned
brimming – to be full of something
clasping – to hold your hands together with fingers of one hand in between the fingers of the other
feigned – to pretend to have a particular feeling
behold – to see or look at someone or something
unmitigated – complete
vibrant – lively and exciting
intermittent – happening sometimes but not regularly or often
mounting – increasing, especially in a way that makes a situation worse
irony – something that has a different or opposite result from what is expected
anguished – having or showing extreme pain or suffering
resolutely – to be determined in character, action or ideas
embrace – to accept something enthusiastically
fixture – an event that happens at a regular time and place
ecumenical – involving or uniting members of different religions
accoutrements – other things that are needed for an activity
assiduous – taking great care that everything is done as well as it can be
fanaticism – very strong religious or political beliefs that make someone behave in an unreasonable way
shrine – a religious place built to remember a particular holy person or event
minaret – a tall, thin tower on or near a mosque from which Muslims are called to pray
archive – a collection of historical records relating to a place, organisation or family
martyr – someone who suffers or is killed because of their religious or political beliefs
inextricably – unable to be separated
Chemotherapy – the treatment of disease using chemicals
put off – to delay or move an activity to a later time
preambles – an introduction to a speech or piece of writing
dazed – very confused and unable to think clearly
logistical – relating to the process of planning and organising to make sure that resources are in the places where they are needed, so that an activity or process happens effectively
vicinity – the area around a place
overlaid – If a sound, taste, smell or feeling is overlaid with another one, enough of the other one is added to be noticeable
afterlife – the life, for example in heaven, that some people believe begins after death
consolation – something that makes someone who is sad or disappointed feel better
void – a feeling of unhappiness because someone or something is missing.

 

Summary

Shahid Talks about his Approaching Death
 

The narrator had called Agha Shahid Ali on 25th April 2001 to remind him that they had been invited by a friend at his house for lunch. Shahid was undergoing treatment for cancer at that time but was able to speak and move around. He had occasional lapses of memory. As the narrator was talking to Shahid, Shahid had a blackout and feared that he might die. Shahid was fine after some time and told the narrator that he was suffering from cancer and would die in a few months. The narrator tried to reassure Shahid that he would be fine. However, Shahid ignored his reassurances and urged him to write about him when he died. The narrator wanted to avoid writing about his friend’s death but finally agreed to do so.

First Meeting of the Narrator and Shahid
 

The narrator and Shahid lived a few blocks away in Brooklyn, USA. The narrator had read Shahid’s poetry collection “The Country Without a Post Office” in 1997 long before he had met him. Shahid belonged to Kashmir and had studied in Delhi. The narrator also studied in Delhi and they both got in touch through common friends in 1998. They were no more, than acquaintances till they moved to Brooklyn, USA in the year 2000. In Brooklyn, they met for meals and discovered that there was a lot in common between them. They both loved Rogan josh, Roshanara Begum and Kishore Kumar and had an attachment for old Bollywood films. However, they were indifferent to cricket.

 

About Shahid
 

Shahid was a sociable and witty person. He had many friends and liked to have people around him. He had the ability to convey the normal things in the most magical way. He lived on the seventh floor of a newly renovated building where he used to organise a lot of parties and invite his friends, relatives, students, and poets.

Even after being diagnosed with cancer, he continued holding these parties at his home. He would plan the parties in a meticulous way and take special interest that the food cooked in the party was up to the mark. Apart from Kashmiri food, he liked Bengali food a lot. He also loved the music of Begum Akhtar.

Shahid as a Teacher
 

Shahid taught in various colleges and universities in the United States. Once the narrator got a chance to be with him when he gave a lecture at Baruch College in the spring semester of the year 2000. This was to be Shahid’s last class. His students loved him and were sad that he would be leaving. They had printed a magazine and dedicated the issue to him. However, Shahid was not at all overcome with sadness. He was lively from the beginning to the end of the lecture.

Shahid’s time in America
 

Shahid moved to America in 1975. His brother was already there when he came to America. Later his two sisters joined them there. However, parents continued to live in Srinagar. He used to come to India in the summer months every year and stayed with his parents in Srinagar.

Effects of the Violence in Kashmir on Shahid


Shahid was a witness to the violence in Kashmir that seized the region from the late 1980s onwards as he used to stay there in the summer every year. The violence and the deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir had a powerful effect on him. This became one of the central subjects of his work. Although he was anguished about Kashmir’s destiny, Shahid did not see himself as a victim. He had an all-inclusive vision towards religion.

Stopping of Shahid’s Medication
 

The narrator recalls a telephone conversation between Shahid and him on 5th May. Shahid had undergone a scan that was expected to reveal whether the chemotherapy he was getting was having the desired effect on him or not. When he called Shahid to inquire about the test result, he was told that the doctors have stopped all his medications and had given him a year or less to live. Shahid wanted to make his will and leave for Kashmir after that as he wanted to die there. He later changed his mind and decided to be laid to rest in Northampton due to logistical and other reasons.

 

Narrator’s Last Meeting with Shahid
 

The narrator met Shahid the last time on 27th October 2001 Shahid was at his brother’s house and was able to talk intermittently. He seemed to be calm and contended although he was aware of his impending death. He was surrounded by his family and friends. He died peacefully in his sleep at 2 am on 8th December 2001. The narrator felt a vast void after his death and remembered his presence in his living room where Shahid had once read “I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World.”

 

Highlights

  • The narrator calls Shahid on 25th April 2001 to remind him that he is coming to pick him up as they had been invited by a friend for lunch. Shahid suffers a blackout and talks about his imminent death. He asks the narrator to write about him after his death, to which he agrees.

  • The narrator and Shahid met in New Delhi through common friends. They were acquaintances there. Their friendship developed when they stayed in the same neighbourhood in Brooklyn, United States.

  • Both Shahid and the narrator had a great deal in common. They had a lot of common friends and loved Rogan josh, Roshanara Begum, Kishore Kumar, and old Bollywood films.

  • Shahid lived in a spacious apartment on the seventh floor in Brooklyn. He belonged to Kashmir and his parents still used to live there. He went to India every summer and stayed with his parents.

  • Shahid was a sociable person and had many friends. He wrote poetry and taught at colleges and universities in the United States. He was an admirer of good food and used to hold parties regularly at his flat. He invited his friends, relatives, authors, poets, and his students to these parties.

  • He was loved by his students and continued to hold parties even after being diagnosed with cancer. He was also very witty and never lost a chance to show his wit.

  • Shahid was a witness to the violence in Kashmir that started from late 1980s onwards as he used to visit Kashmir in summer every year. This left an indelible mark on him and was one of the central themes in his poetry. However, Shahid did not see himself as a victim and had an all-inclusive vision towards religion.

  • As per the narrator, Shahid’s medications were stopped a few months before his death as they were not having the desired effect on him. He wanted to go to Kashmir and die there but changed his plans due to logistical and other reasons.

  • The narrator last met Shahid on 27th October 2001. He seemed to be content and had made peace with death. Shahid breathed his last on 8th December 2001 and was buried in Northampton.

Textual Questions

Q. What impressions of Shahid do you gather from the piece?

Ans. Shahid Ali was a multi-faceted personality and appears to be a sensitive soul. He was born in Srinagar and had studied in Delhi. Later, he migrated to America and served in various colleges and universities. Shahid was a fine scholar and a brilliant teacher. His students loved and respected him. Shahid was a profound lover of good poetry, music, clothes, and food. He always thought of Kashmir and was hurt by the mounting violence in the valley. Though he was not a political poet, his finest work relates to writing about Kashmir. Shahid outlook was ecumenical. He did not believe in mixing of politics and religion. He never lost the courage in the face of misfortune. Even dreadful disease of cancer could not break his spirit. He refused to take the help of the wheelchair in the hospital.

Q. How do Shahid and the writer react to the knowledge that Shahid is going to die?

Ans. “Oh dear! I can’t see a thing…I hope this doesn’t mean that I am dying,” The fear of death was clearly visible in these words of Shahid. He got scared when he felt for the first time that he was dying. When his occasional memory lapses became more serious with passage of time, the realisation of death drawing nearer becomes stronger. When he was in a conversation with Amitav Ghosh, he said in a clear ringing voice- “When it happens, I hope you will write something for me.” The writer could think of nothing to say on such a topic. At last, he had to promise, “I’ll do the best I can.” From that day, the writer started keeping a record of all the conversations and meetings he had with Shahid. This record helped him to fulfil his promise.

 

Q. Look up the dictionary for the meaning of the word ‘diaspora’. What do you understand of the Indian diaspora from this piece?

Ans. The term diaspora comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “to scatter about.” The Bible refers to the Diaspora of Jews exiled from Israel by the Babylonians. It means the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland.

From this text, we come to know that a number of Indians have settled in different countries of the West, especially England and America. Agha Shahid, his brother and two sisters, Suketu Mehta and the writer form part of the Indian diaspora in America. Shahid belonged to Kashmir and migrated to America in 1975. his elder brother was already settled there. His two sisters also joined them later. These people, though living in another land, never forgot about their roots. These Indians feel a sense of unity and keep meeting each other on various occasions.

 

 

Short Answer Type Questions

 

Q. When and where did Agha Shahid Ali talk of his death?

Ans. Agha Shahid Ali spoke to the narrator about his approaching death on 25 April 2001. The narrator telephoned that he was coming to his apartment to pick him up. They had to go to a friend’s house for lunch. Although they had talked a great deal over the last many weeks, Shahid never touched upon the subject of death.

 

 

Q. What request did Shahid make to the narrator and what did he say to Shahid?

Ans. The narrator tried to console Shahid that he would be fine again. Shahid ignored his assurance and cut him short. He requested the narrator to write something after his death. The narrator was shocked into silence. But Shahid insisted on extracting a promise. The narrator finally promised to write something after his death.

 

Q. What common interests did the narrator share with Shahid Ali?

Ans. Love for poetry and literature bound the narrator with Shahid. His work “The country Without a Post Office” made a deep impression on the narrator. They had common friends in Delhi as well as in America. Love for Rogan josh, Roshanara Begam and Kishore Kumar further cemented their friendship. Both of them were found of Bombay films and had a mutual indifference of Cricket.

 

Q. “Shahid’s gregariousness had no limit” Explain?

Ans. Shahid was very social. There was never an evening when there was not a party in his living room. There were always some half dozen or more people gathered inside. They included poets, students, writers, and relatives. Someone would always be cooking or making tea in the kitchen. Almost to the very end of his life, he was the centre of an ‘endless mela of talk, laughter, food, and, of course, poetry.

 

Q. Give an example to show Shahid’s sharpness in repartee.

Ans. Shahid was quite witty. Once a lady security guard at Barcelona airport stopped him. She asked what he was doing in Spain. “writing poetry” he said. Finally, the woman asked if he was carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other passengers. Shahid clapped a hand to his chest and cried; “only my heart.”

 

Q. Give an example to show Aga Shahid Ali’s secular credentials.

Ans. Shahid was secular in his outlook. He remained a firm believer in the separation of religion and politics. His outlook was all inclusive. In his childhood he wanted to create a small Hindu temple in his room in Srinagar. His mother bought him the idols and other things. He hated fanaticism.

 

Q. What did Amitav feel like when he was asked to write about Shahid?

Ans. Amitav was spellbound for a while. He could think of nothing to say. He didn’t get the words in which one promises a friend that one will write about him after his death.

 

Q. What do you know about Shahid as a poet?

Ans. Shahid’s most celebrated work is The Country without a Post Office, published in 1997. The Country Without a Post Office, had made a powerful impression on his readers. His voice was unique – at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined. His was a voice that was not ashamed to speak in a bardic register.

 

Q. What fed and strengthened their friendship?

Ans. Once staying in Brooklyn, in Shahid’s neighbourhood, Amitav soon discovered that the two of them had a great deal in common. By this time of course Shahid’s condition was already serious, yet his illness did not impede the progress of their friendship. They had a huge roster of common friends, in India, America, and elsewhere. They discovered a shared love of Rogan josh, Roshanara Begum and Kishore Kumar; a mutual indifference to cricket and an equal attachment to old Bombay films.

Long Answer Type Questions

Q. How did the writer come to know about Shahid’s approaching death? What was his reaction to it?

Ans. The writer knew that Shahid had been under treatment for cancer for about fourteen months. But he never thought of Shahid’s approaching death as he was still on his feet and perfectly clear headed, though he suffered from occasional lapses of memory. One day the writer rang him up to remind him that they had been invited to a friend’s house and tell him that he was coming to pick him up. While going through his engagement book, suddenly Shahid said, “O dear, I can’t see a thing. I hope this doesn’t mean that I’m dying.” This was the first time Shahid had touched on the subject of death and the writer came to know about his approaching death.

The writer was shocked into silence to hear this. After a long pause he tried to reassure Shahid that he would be fine. But Shahid cut him short and asked him to promise to write something about him after his death. The writer tried to change the topic but Shahid persisted on his request. There was an urgency in his voice. The writer realized that Shahid was dead serious. So, he promised that he would honour his wish.

Q. Give a few instances of Shahid’s liveliness and sharpness in repartee.

Ans. Once, the writer went to the hospital where Shahid was undergoing treatment to bring him home. He was accompanied by his brother, Iqbal, and his sister, Hina. A ward boy came there with a wheelchair. Shahid sent him away saying that he could walk on his feet. After taking a few steps, his knees gave way. Iqbal ran off to bring back the wheelchair while they stood supporting him. When the ward boy returned with the wheelchair Shahid asked him where he was from. The man said, “Ecuador.” Shahid held his hand tightly and said, “Spanish, I always wanted to learn Spanish just to read Lorca.”

At another occasion, Shahid was stopped by a woman security guard at Barcelona Airport. She asked him, “What do you do?” Shahid replied, “I’m a poet.” The woman asked again, “What were you doing in Spain?”

Shahid answered, “Writing poetry.” Whatever the question, Shahid worked poetry into his answer. At last, the woman asked him desperately, “Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other passengers?” Clapping a hand to his chest, Shahid replied, “Only my heart.”

Q. Trace the development of the bond of affinity between Shahid and the writer.

Ans. The writer Amitav Ghosh, had known Shahid’s work long before he met the man. One of their common friends put him in touch with Shahid. In 1998 and 1999 they had several conversations on the phone and even met a couple of times. But they were no more than acquaintances until Shahid moved to Brooklyn in 2000, when he had a sudden blackout in February. Tests revealed that he had a malignant brain tumour.

The building in which Shahid lived in Brooklyn was some eight blocks away from the writer’s apartment. Since, they were in the same neighbourhood, they began to meet for occasional meals, they quickly discovered that they had many things in common. Although Shahid’s condition was already serious by that time, it did not hamper their friendship. The writer was always present at the gatherings in Shahid’s house. He accompanied Shahid to the hospital whenever he went there. Even in a brief period they grew so intimate that Shahid asked the author to write something about him after his death.

Q. In spite of malignant brain tumour and awareness of approaching death Shahid was ‘the centre of perpetual carnival”: Elucidate.

Ans. Shahid suffered from cancer. A malignant brain tumour had been detected after he had a sudden blackout in Feb. 2000. The doctors gave him a year or less. In spite of the malignant brain tumour and awareness of his approaching death, Shahid retained his best for life. His gregarious instinct and love for music, poetry and good food helped in retain his cheerfulness. The spirit of festivity didn’t leave time for him to feel depressed. His living room was always full of people -poets, students, writers, and relatives. Songs, music, and recitation of poetry enlivened the meetings at his apartment. He loved entertaining guests with good food. His hospitality and personal attention to the details of food were well known. Although his life was being consumed by the disease, he was always the centre of a perpetual carnival—an endless fair of folk, laughter, food, and poetry.

 

Q. Shahid had a sorcerer’s ability to transmute/change the mundane/ordinary into the magical. What incident does the author quote to explain this?

Ans. Once Amitav Ghosh happened to accompany Iqbal, Shahid’s brother, and Heena, his sister, on a trip to fetch him home from hospital. By that time Shahid had already been through several unsuccessful operations. Now he was back in hospital to undergo a surgical procedure that was intended to relieve the pressure on his brain. His head was shaved, and the shape of the tumour was visible upon his bare scalp, its edges outlined by metal stitches. When it was time to leave the ward a blue-uniformed hospital escort arrived with a wheelchair. Shahid waved him away, declaring that he was strong enough to walk out of the hospital on his own.

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