Agha Shahid Ali's The Country without a Post Office: A Contextualized Reading of the Kashmir Tragedy
We have some parochial patriotic notions which we often build on the fabricated and biased newspaper reports, and our blown up nationalism forgets the sense of humanism, being completely oblivious of the other side of the story. Somehow, we come to believe that military forces are the one and only one solution to the problem which concerns the nation. We never bother about the suffering humanity subject to military brutality. Numerous children, women and old parents suffer inhuman pains out of no offence of their own but only because they belong to the families of those militants and terrorists who are a potentially threat to Indian national security and integrity. As our approach is coloured with the all-sweeping sense of nationalism, we fail to explore the other side of the human tragedy which Kashmir experiences every day. 'The Country without a Post Office', a collection of poems by Agha Sahid Ali is an attempt to bring out that other side of the human tragedy, ever-neglected and marginalised in the traditional discourses in the Indian print and visual media. Ali's attempt is to put the Kashmir tragedy in its true context, and give a hearing to the hitherto unheard weeping of the thousands of children, whose fathers have been killed or lost, of widows and wives who have lost their husbands as well as of old parents who have been suffering for their young sons ever lost.
Born on 4 February 1949 in New Delhi, India, Agha Shahid Ali belonged to a sophisticated, enlightened, and culturally rich Kashmiri Muslim household. He grew up speaking Urdu, Kashmiri, and English and developed a spirit of multilingualism and multiculturalism right from his very boyhood. He attended an Irish Catholic school in Kashmir. And later he earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar. He received his master's in English from the University of Delhi. And then he immigrated to the States in 1976 and completed his Ph.D. in English from the Pennsylvania State University in 1984. In 1985, he received a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Teaching in Creative Writing was his profession and his vocation was writing poetry. He taught MFA Programme at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, at the MFA Writing Seminars at Bennington College as well as at creative writing programs at University of Utah and New York University. On December 8, 2001 he died a premature death of brain cancer.
His collections of poetry include Bone-Sculpture (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, India, 1972), In Memory of Begum Akhtar and Other Poems (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, India, 1979), The Half-Inch Himalayas (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1987),
A Walk Through the Yellow Pages ( Sun/Gemini Press ,Tucson, AZ, 1987), A Nostalgist's Map of America the Yellow Pages (Sun/Gemini Press ,Tucson, AZ ( Norton ,New York, NY, 1991), The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems, Viking Penguin (New Delhi, India,1992), The Country Without a Post Office ( Norton ,New York, NY, 1997), Rooms Are Never Finished (Norton (New York, NY, 2001) and Call me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals, (Norton , New York, NY, 2003). The Country without a Post Office has got republished in India by Ravi Dayal Publisher, New Delhi in 2000. The last two collections have been republished in India in a single volume The Final Collections by Permanent Black and Ravi Dayal Publisher, New Delhi in 2004. The Veiled Suite: Collected Poems (Norton, New York, NY, 2009) has been reissued in India in 2010 by Penguin Books, New Delhi. He edited a book of several articles on the editor self of T.S. Eliot with the title T.S. Eliot as Editor ( University of Michigan Research Press ,Ann Arbor, MI,1986). He also edited an anthology of Ghazals in English Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, 2000). His translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's Urdu poems The Rebel's Silhouette (Peregrine Smith, Salt Lake City, UT, 1991) has been reissued in India by Oxford University Press, New Delhi in 1992.
The title of the book as well as that of a poem in the book The Country without a Post Office refers to the Kashmir insurgency of 1990 when hundreds of gruesome and violent deaths, fires, and mass atrocities on women and children happened unfortunately. For several months, there was no mail delivered in Kashmir because of political turmoil and unfortunate but perhaps 'unavoidable' military excesses. Kashmir had been cut off from the rest of the world for months. Thousands and thousands of men, women and children were separated from their near and dear ones within Kashmir and outside. Stepping out of the all-encompassing nationalism to the reality of humanism how countless women, children and men suffer only because of each being someone in relation to the Kashmiri extremists, Agha Shahid Ali has treated this human tragedy from a new perspective. His explorations help us change our monolithic nationalistic approach. We wake up into a new realisation of humanism. In a comment Edward Said, as quoted in the Indian edition of the book, observed:
The extraordinary formal precision and virtuosity of these poems, as well as their often searing imagery, derives from Agha Shahid Ali's responses to Kashmir's agony. But this is poetry whose appeal is universal, its voice unerringly eloquent. A marvellous achievement.
(Ali 1997: 1st blurb)
Being a Kashmiri himself and his self-exile from India helped him see the entire episode of political unrest, militant activities, military ruthlessness, murders, imprisonment and bloodshed from a rational and humanistic perspective. He has presented the other side of the story which our national news media failed to bring out or intentionally subverted in the name of national interest. The Country without a Post Office is a poetic documentation of the subversive history of Kashmir. The poems in this collection should be read in this context. Being oblivious of this historical context and humanistic approach we hurry to brand these poems anti-nationalist and fail to discover the socio-economic and political factors which have contributed to the making of the poems. But if these factors are taken into account, the poignant tragedy of humanity can easily be felt.
The book opens with a long prologue which strikes the note of loss, separation, nostalgia and sadness, prevailing in most of the poems of this collection. It is a record of collective weeping. It is often a potential challenge to our long conceived notion of nationalism. In the poems of this book Agha Shahid Ali has interwoven news reports, history, myths and poetry. All the five sections of 'The Blessed Word: A Prologue' adequately prove this observation. In this poem Ali writes:
And the night's sun there in Srinagar? Guns shoot stars into the sky, the storm of constellations night after night, the infinite that rages on. It was Id-uz-Zuha: a record of God's inability, for even He must melt sometimes, to let Ishmael be executed by the hand of his father. Srinagar was under curfew. The identity pass may or may not have helped in the crackdown. Son after son – never to return from the night of torture - was taken away.
( Ali 1997: 4)
Ali has beautifully employed the myth of 'kurbani' to hint at the political unrest, instability and large scale massacre of humanity. The tragedy has been brought out here with a sense of poignancy. And the employment of myth has added a sense of collective consciousness and that of evocation to Ali's poetic discourses. Here he reminds the readers of Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet, and Mahmud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who have delineated the tragedies of their respective native places when they being in exile.
Kashmir is an obsession with Agha Shahid Ali. He has returned again and again to deal with the issues related to Kashmir in poem after poem to be found in different books of his. In spite of deep passion Ali's expressions are always of tongue-in-check. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra observes:
Ali's poems seem to be whispered to himself, and to read them is as if to overhear. This is not to suggest that they are remote or in any way indistinct, but to underline the quietness of his voice and the clarity with which he speaks.
Kashmir and her tragedy have occupied a very important space in Ali's poetic imagination. And his depiction of Kashmir tragedy is not coloured in the hue of religious parochialism. He has attempted to bring out the collective tragedy of the Kashmiris. In the poem 'I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight' Ali writes:
From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighbourhoods,
the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.
Kashmir is burning:
By that dazzling light
we see men removing statues from temples.
We beg them, 'Who will protect us if you leave?'
They don't answer, they just disappear
on the road to the plains, clutching the gods
(Ali 1997: 11).
Even a casual reading of the lines can distinctly mark the poet's intention and his broad approach to the subject. Here it is not important whether the sufferers are the Muslim mothers or the Kashmiri Pundits. Ali does not deal with the subject as a nationalist Indian or as an extremist. His discourse is a distinct departure from that of the Kashmiri 'jehadis' and that of the Indian nationalists. Ali's poems on Kashmir offer us new perspectives to comprehend the Kashmir tragedy. His is an attempt to explore the issue from a point of humanity and human understanding. Bruce King asserts this humanistic element in Ali's poetry:
From the contents he could be the national poet of a future independent Kashmir, a land that the poems remind us has not been free since conquered centuries ago by the Moghul emperor, Akbar. Ali would probably deny a nationalistic intent and claim to be a humanist concerned with universal justice, which explains his references to Sarajevo, Armenia, even a Norwegian hostage killed by Kashmiri militants.
(King 2006: 273)
Ali's depiction is often so poignant with a sense of irrevocable loss that his personal cries turn to be the universal cries of humanity. His poetry often makes one stand in front of situations which we never conceived either emotionally or intellectually. In the poem 'A Villanelle' the poet writes:
A woman combs – at noon –the ruins for her daughter.
Chechnya is gone. What roses will you bring –
Plucked from shawals at dusk–to wreathe the slaughter?
What else besides god disappears at the altar?
O Kashmir, Armenia once vanished. Words are nothing,
just rumours–like roses–to embellish a slaughter:
these of a columnist: 'The world will not stir';
these on the phone: 'When you leave in the morning,
you never know if you'll return.' Lost in water,
blood falters; then swirled to roses, it salts the slaughter.
(Ali 1997: 61)
A reading of this poem at once grips us with a sense of loss, separation from the dear ones, uncertainty and pathos. The deaths of dear ones, the death of Begum Akhtar and the massacre of humanity in Kashmir at different times of History – all have worked together to form the tragic vision of a great human loss in Agha Shahid Ali.
Very often it seems that the poems in this collection are meant to support the jehadi activities in Kashmir. But a careful reading proves that the poet's intention is just the contrary. Ali advocates peace and is against any form of violence. He has mourned any kind of death in the valley. Hans Christian Ostro, a twenty-seven-year-old Norwegian hostage killed in Kashmir by the Al-Faran militants in August 1995 shocked Ali and he considered the loss as a misfortune as a Kashmiri in particular and as a human being in general. In the poem 'Hans Christian Ostro' Ali writes:
Bruised by trust O Heart bare amidst
fire arms turquoise with veins
from love's smoke-mines blessed infidel
who wants your surrender?
I cannot protect you: these are my hands.
(Ali 1997: 59)
Violence in any form is not only anti-humanity but also anti-civilization. It destroys the values of trust, hospitality and mutual understanding. The killing of Hans is a gross betrayal of a guest who deserves love, hospitality and protection. Ali has heard this deep weeping of Kashmir which he has described as 'mental cry' in his elegy on Hans Christian Ostro. Very mundane details frequent the poetic components of Ali. But he has the ability to transform them into inevitable poetic substances. In an essay of an obituary-kind 'The Ghat of the Only World: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn' Amitav Ghosh observes "Shahid had a sorcerer's ability to transmute the magical" (Ghosh 2006: 343).
The tragedy in Kashmir does not remain limited to the political level but becomes very personal and deeply moving. So Ali's poetry of love is also affected by this great loss in the valley. In the poem 'Ghazal' Ali weeps:
Rumours of spring – they last from dawn till dusk–
All eyes decipher branches for blossoms.
Your legend now equals our thirst, Beloved–
Your word has spread across broken nations.
Wherever each night I'm lost to myself,
they hear from me of Her –of Her alone.
Hope extinguished, now nothing else remains–
only nights of anguish, these ochre dawns.
The garden's eyes well up, the flower's heart beats
when we speak, just speak of O! Forever.
So it has, and forever it should last–
this rumour the Beloved shares our pain.
(Ali 1997: 51)
The self of the beloved lady and that of the native land have merged together into a single self. The personal and the political form together a new idiom of love. And this love poem must be read in the context of the political turmoil in the valley of Kashmir. Ali introduces the form of Ghazal into the realm of American poetry but extends the periphery of Ghazal and explores new possibilities in the tradition.
A crackdown on extremism often takes a thorough indiscriminate turn when any individual of a particular religious belief is treated as a terrorist for no reason. Ali critiques this irrational political rhetoric of Nationalism. The way an individual is branded as a terrorist is often an act of terrorism itself. So in the poem 'Death Row' Ali says:
Someone else in this world has been mentioning you,
gathering news, itemizing your lives
for a file you'll never see. He already knows
in which incarnation you won't find what you will
again lose in this one.
He has traced your every
death. You need him now, but he's still asking about
you, with each question destroying your any chance
to find him.
(Ali 1997: 52)
Kashmir is a central metaphor in the poems of Agha Shahid Ali's book 'The Country without a Post Office'. The mythical, the historical and the contemporary - all these different Kashmirs have formed the Kashmir of Ali. He treats the present unrest, loss and fragmentation against the backdrop of the mythical and historical past of the valley. We are habituated to see the Kashmir issues politically. And our political views are often based on distorted and exaggerated news reports in the Indian media. We try to cover up our state of being less informed and ill-informed with our flared up patriotism or nationalism. Ali's poetry critiques this false nationalism and re-evaluates the issue in a new perspective of love, compassion and humanism. His approach is that of analysing and comprehending the Kashmir tragedy in the context. And only a contextualised reading of the book can explore the possibilities of meaning and implication of the poems in it.
- Ali, Agha Sahid. 2000. The Country without a Post Office. Ravi Dayal Publishers, New Delhi.
- Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna. 2002. The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
- Ghosh, Amitav. 2006. The Imam and the Indian. Ravi Dayal Publisher and Permanent Black, New Delhi.
- King, Bruce. 2006. Modern Indian Poetry in English. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Paperbacks.