“And he walks — there’s no electricity —
Back into my dark, murmurs Kashmir!, lights
(to a soundtrack of exploding grenades)
A dim kerosene lamp”
– Agha Shahid Ali, “The Country Without a Post Office”
The kerosene lamps have been replaced by newfangled means, and the soundtrack has metamorphosed from exploding grenades to ’harmless’ pellets, yet everything still seems oddly familiar in Kashmir. The same notion is suspended in the valley, static, inert, yet lingering on from day to day with a new hope. Its murmurs, sadly, still pass on to nothingness, unheard. While shuffling through the pictures of Kashmir from the early nineties, I try to fit the current condition of the whole state in a single frame, and it isn’t much different from what it was in the nineties. Still confined by the framework, the char chinar are silently lamenting.
Born on 4th February, 1949 in New Delhi, India, Agha Shahid Ali belonged to a cultured, educated Kashmiri Muslim family. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar, and his master’s in English from the University of Delhi. He immigrated to the States in 1976 and completed his Ph.D. in English from the Pennsylvania State University. He pursued a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing from the University of Arizona and taught MFA Programme at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, at the MFA Writing Seminars at Bennington College and at the University of Utah and NYU. On December 8, 2001, he passed away after a long struggle with a brain tumour, an illness that had been the cause of his mother’s death as well.1
Four years before his demise, he published what would turn out to become one of his most celebrated works, “The Country Without a Post Office”2. “The Country without a Post Office” was originally published as “Kashmir without a Post Office” in the Graham House Review. Agha Shahid Ali revised it, doubling its length and changing its name when he included it in his collection of poetry by the same name in 1997. The title of the poem derives from an incident that occurred in 1990, when Kashmir rebelled against Indian rule, resulting in hundreds of gruesome and violent deaths, fires, and mass rapes.3
A feeling of nostalgia resurfaced as I read the poems for the first time. Beautiful and poignant in their own ways, the poems are reminiscent of an absolute and inescapable sense of loss and fury with subtle yet violent political nuances of protest. Encapsulated in the twenty-seven poems are woeful tales of the incessant suffering of the people of Kashmir, a series of heart-wrenching images of the valley – women lost in bereavement, unkempt hair replacing the veils that used to cover their faces; men, roaming around looking for their loved ones, and the shadows of young boys asking the poet not to tell their fathers that they have died.
“They make a desolation and call it peace,” he writes in the poem ‘Farewell.’ As he presents a devastating elicitation of conflict and its aftermath, he paints a picture that is not only true for Kashmir but even extends to faraway lands such as Palestine where it still stands relevant. Even Edward Said, an academic and intellectual in the field of Post-Colonial studies, remarked that “extraordinary, 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.”3
When ‘The Country Without a Post Office’ was released, I was merely four years old and it took me about fourteen more years to discover the book. I started reading Shahid’s poetry while I was researching about Kashmir for my novel. I ended up including a couplet from his ghazal, ’Of Light’ in the book as an epigraph. But I had only read his poems on the internet and would take another six months to find a paperback and understand what it all was about. I read the book almost twenty years after it had been published, and it was only when I read the poem, ‘A Pastoral’ that I thought about how disappointed Shahid would be if he was still alive. In the poem, he writes,
“We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
He was hopeful that the unrest would end, and above all, he was optimistic that the piles of letters would start disappearing from his country, that the minarets would no longer be entombed. But while I read the poems in his book, I was constantly making parallels between the Kashmir that existed while he was writing the poems, or even before that during the early nineties, and the state of Kashmir today. Nothing has changed.
Since Shahid’s time, Kashmir has been caught in a miserable and deadly cycle whose advent has been put in a nutshell by the poet, and has continued for almost two decades now. A conflict is followed by a period of unfruitful peace talks and continued settlements, yet there is no denouement in the play, only a violent act of some kind that follows. It seems as if the rubble of the houses from Shahid’s times is still there, the barricades still standing, the bullets still glued with the Sarajevo Roses, and butterflies still pausing on their way to Kashmir. The walls are still as high as they were back then, the letters have been replaced by phones and the internet but media blackout still curfews the cries. The analogy to Shahid’s Kashmir, even though it was visible even before, can be made more strongly after the recent unrest in the valley.
“I am in pain. I am in pain,” a 17-year-old boy was heard sobbing in the Anantnag District Hospital after he was hit by pellets. The military forces fired up to 3,800 cartridges between July and August, each containing 450 metallic balls, totalling up to 1.7 million pellets4 in the past fifty days with more than 74 people dead and about 7000 injured. Due to the medical emergency in Kashmir, there was a shortage of eye specialists in Kashmiri hospitals. In SMHS Hospital, over 200 patients were admitted by 13 July with the same problem, and doctors were rushed in from New Delhi. A five-year-old, Zohra Zahoor, had pellet wounds in her legs, forehead and abdomen, and is one of the youngest victims from the valley5. Even if Shahid’s poetry wasn’t as exquisite as it is, the subject would make it timeless because nothing has changed in the state; the pale cries of the people still pierce through the air.
The unrest is almost an echo of what happened in 2008 and 2010. A fragile state of reconciliation will settle over the region like mist upon the Jhelum, but the things won’t be any different. It will still, at the end of the day, be a desolation, peace will still remain an unfathomable dream, and the unrest will go down as another unread letter in ‘The Country Without a Post Office.’
1.The Country Without a Post Office, Agha Shahid Ali (1998 by W. W. Norton & Company)