Mere words are not enough to capture the sheer brilliance of Agha Shahid Ali’s poems and their plaintive cry for his beloved homeland.
The poems of The Country Without a Post Office (published in 1997) are complex and allusive, recalling the culturally rich past of Kashmir, and linking that to the carnage in the 1990s. This creates a haunting continuum to the idea of Kashmir- of how it used to be a land where religion, culture, folktales merged effortlessly and how now it has turned into a land where, “death flies in.”
Needless to say, the poems in this collection are nostalgic, bemoaning the state of Kashmir of the 90s’. Nostalgia comes naturally in Ali’s poetry which the blurb describes as “Agha Shahid Ali’s finest mode, that of longing.”
This longing though is immersed not only in the melancholic but also the political, historic and the literal. Each poem mingles intense pain of various kinds, be it the pain of losing a son or a relative; of the distance between families; of the silence in the wake of the aftermath, with the history, culture and politics of the decade that pillaged an entire state. All of this pierce the reader’s heart and soul and engulf them in a profound sadness the poet holds for his home.
Some remarkable poems that portray this continuum and make the reader engage with Kashmir rather than dismissing it as a mere site of never ending conflict include the beautiful, A History of Paisley that uses the motif of the ubiquitous paisley (often seen embroidered or printed on various fabrics), A Footnote to History, At the Museum that takes a hard factual look at the emblem of our civilization, The Dancing Girl bronze statue from Harappa or the sweeping, I Dream I am the Only Passenger on Flight 42 to Srinagar which in careful couplets and tercets marks the violent culmination of a 1000 year old civilisation.
The opening prose poem, The Blessed Word: A Prologue, itself establishes the aforementioned continuum and the mode of longing by evoking powerful imagery of Srinagar under siege and by invoking the different names the state has had in its past. In doing so, the poet seems to be crying out for the ravaged state and its people. The invocation itself points to the continuum of the place’s existence.
Rich and decadent metaphors that suffuse his poems such as the Kashmir rose, the famed saffron spice, the paradise like Mughal gardens, the majestic mountain peaks, the stately chinar tree or the floating gardens of the Dal Lake lie uneasily in stark contrast to the conflicted reality of the state.
A case in point is the pertinent poem, The Floating Post Office. It portrays, in Ali’s typical style of invoking quaintness, a post boat delivering letters on the sly through a network of waterways when the roads are shut.
This poem brings to attention the title of the collection itself and how this poem and the title highlight that communication is a lifeline for “the city from where no news can come.”
The titular poem also depicts letters unanswered, letters unsent en masse because communication has been blocked.
Now…think long and deeply about the ramifications of all forms of communication being cut off in today’s highly connected, globalised world.
Think then about what happened, right here in Kashmir, in 2019, where when the rest of the world enjoys high speed internet and India basks in its Jio revolution, an entire state became metaphorically a country without a post office.
This book review was first published with The Seer