Award-winning poet remembered

Former friends, family look back on the life of local man now facing cancer

In 1961, Burris Laboratory School met an unusual young man from Kashmir. Since that time, the young man has become a national award-winning poet and is suffering from a brain tumor.

Agha Shahid Ali was a student at Burris from 1961 to 1964 with his older sister and younger brother. Their father was doing graduate work at Ball State and earned the first doctorate ever awarded by Ball State.

Victor Lawhead and his wife Doris are longtime friends of Shahid and his family.

"The whole family was well-educated," Lawhead said.

Anthony Tovatt, a teacher at Burris during the time that Shahid attended school, was a large influence on Shahid.

"He used to come in to my room after school while I was grading papers, and we used to chat," Tovatt said. "He was a very intelligent young man. He was always interested in what people did and why they did it."

Currently, Shahid, 52, is living in Amherst, Mass. with his younger brother. Shahid is suffering from an inoperable brain tumor. Friends of Shahid say that he is not doing well.

"He is losing touch with reality," Tovatt said after talking to Shalid recently.

Shahid has published many collections of his poetry, including "Rooms are Never Finished" and "Half Inch Himalayans." Many of his works are about his homeland, Kashmir, a historical region of northwest India and northeast Pakistan, and the people there.

"His writings are a lot of history treated with imagination," Lawhead said. "He can write about death and torture in his homeland, then go to a whimsical type of poetry. I guess that is what makes a good poet -- able to look at life through many prisms."

Shahid has spoken twice at Ball State UniverCity. While he was here in Muncie, he invited many of his school friends to visit and held a small reunion.

"He was quite popular with his school mates," Tovatt said. "He could relate to them."

While Shahid and his family stayed in Muncie, they visited the Lawheads several times. During those visits, Shahid's mother taught Mrs. Lawhead how to make many curry dishes -- which they still use while entertaining guests. Lawhead said that they shared many fond memories with Shahid and his family.

"The children liked to listen to American music," Lawhead said. "They even tried to teach me how to dance the cha-cha."

Although Shahid was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry for his book, "Rooms are Never Finished," he did not win. He was, however, one of five nominated in the nation to be considered for the award.


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