The Country without a Post Office: Agha Shahid Ali & Kashmir

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Portraying Violence: Kashmir in Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country Without a Post Office
by – Bilal Ahmad Kuthoo, Vol. III, Issue. XXXII, September 2017


The paper attempts to analyze the portrayal of violence in The Country without a Post Office (1997) by Agha Shahid Ali. The poet bestows voice to the ordinary people of Kashmir whose suffering remained unknown to the world during the 1990’s when the insurgency erupted and counter-insurgency measures were taken, as a result, civilian population suffered enormously. This paper analyses the word-picture that poet has weaved of violence, bloodshed and beauty of Kashmir. Agha Shahid was immensely concerned about the cultural affinities between Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir. All along Ali has not been politic but poetic, a sonorous poetry rather than propaganda.
Key words: portrayal, violence, Kashmir, insurgency, bloodshed, beauty.

Agha Shahid Ali is known as Kashmiri-American poet, a renowned teacher in America, was born in New Delhi and studies in Srinagar and at Delhi University. Later he moved to the United States of America to pursue Ph.D. in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1984 and an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Arizona in 1985. He wrote many books, translated Urdu Ghazals in English and edited a book on T. S. Eliot. He received the Guggenheim and Ingram-Merrill fellowships and a Puschart Prize. In 2001, Ali was finalized for the National Book Award for his collection “Rooms Are Never Finished”. Kashmir had a prominent place in his life, and the political condition in the 1990’s made a strong impact on him. And the outcome is fiercely beautiful collection of poems “The Country Without a Post Office (1997)”. Ali is also credited for introducing the Ghazal form in English.
A Country Without a Post Office “narrates the woeful tale of his native soil” (Sharma 219), it will not be inappropriate to affirm that it is the only anthology of poetry that has made an attempt to fasten the events of violence in the thread of words. Amitav Gosh asserts that “his voice was like none I had ever heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward” (2). Kashmir witnessed a bloody and violent decade from 1989; there are not many poets or novelists who wrote about this phase in Kashmir. Ali’s attempt was first of its kind to intimidate people outside Kashmir about the prevailing condition in the valley. He filled the colours in the dark portrayal of ghostly markets and the haunted streets deserted in the curfew. Ali portrayed the threat caused by a military searchlight in the street to check the movement of the people at night. He gave voice to the eerie silence after cross firing causing the death of a dear one.
Agha Shahid Ali’s Kashmir is like “an untitled poem” (1), a place where “when you leave home in the morning, you never know if you’ll return” (1). Everything is unsure like the title of the poem. Kashmir in his poetry is a place where one should not promise to meet again. Mansi Mehra argues that “his poetry is like a canvas on which he draws an imaginary painting of his homeland though bruised and besieged” (121). In his prose poem “The Blessed Word” Ali portrays Srinagar a place where “Guns shoot stars in the sky” (2). The portrayal of violence is such brutal and intense that the guns range upto the stars in the sky. The stars appearing in the night are vulnerable, at the risk of being shot dead. The portrayal is similar that of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s novel A Grain of Wheat where Mugo recalls how Gitogo, who was both deaf and dumb, was shot dead during the Mau Mau Movement. The expressions “Ishmael be executed”, “Srinagar under curfew”, “Identity pass”, “crackdawn”, “the night of the torture” from the poem “The Blessed Word” accentuate the picture of a violence ridden Kashmir.
The poem “Farewell”, in this collection is a letter from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit. Kashmiri Pandits left Kashmir after the armed insurgency erupted in the valley. Both communities had lived in peace and harmony; Kashmir has been only place in the Indian subcontinent that has never witnessed any type of communal violence throughout the history, not in 1947 even. But the Kashmiri Hindus left Kashmir on the night of 20th January 1990. In this poem a Kashmiri Muslim informs his Kashmiri Hindu friend that “when you left even the stones were buried” (7). The poet points toward an ibex, and in a cynical tone says when this exquisite feathered animal rubs itself against a rock no one gathers its fleece it left behind because it does not have any value for them, but only a weaver has the skill to use it. The Hindu-Muslim relation took a different turn after Hindus left Kashmir and this Kashmiri Muslim complains to his Hindu friend that “in your absence you polished me into the Enemy” (8). Chattaraj argues that “history and culture of Kashmir are being destroyed by continuous violence and political storms” (621).
Amitav Gosh writes about Agha Shahid Ali that “Shahid knew all too well that for those writers for whom things become real only in the process of writing, there is an inbuilt resistance to dealing with loss and bereavement” (2). Ali deeply loved Kashmir, even in America the political situation of Kashmir haunted him and he is also haunted by his imaginary dead friend who says to Ali “each night put Kashmir in your dreams”(11). “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight”, the poem gives the picture of “the cantonment, where the Gupkar road ends”, “Interrogation cells”, “burning tire”, “naked boy screaming ‘I know nothing’, “blood on the roads”, a place intolerably hellish (11). The desperation for peace is depicted through the people tying the green thread at the Shrine of Shah Hamdan and “untie only when the atrocities are stunned” (12). It is a custom in Kashmir that people tie a green thread at a shrine for the fulfillment of a desirable wish and untie it only when the wish has been fulfilled.
“The return of appropriate words would articulate a desire to return to a particular time, place, and/or culture” argues Woodland, the first line of “The Last Saffron”— “I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir”— foregrounds the poets wish to return and die in Kashmir. The extent of violence was so intense for Ali that saffron is identical to “gold from the burned fields of Pompore” (14). Ali yearns for a perpetual peace in Kashmir, the blooming saffron flowers. Ali portrays a nostalgic mantle image of Pampore, the saffron town of Kashmir, where he imaginarily gathers the flowers of saffron. The flowers of saffron symbolize the flowers of peace and “his poetry is the very stuff of beauty, loss and redemption” (Maqbool 1). But Ali’s “Kashmir” lingers in violence and on the brink of war.
Sharma rightly observes that “Agha Shahid Ali appears emotionally bound to his roots” (204); “A Pastoral” is emotionally charged poem that talks about the “stories rumoured in branches” (30). During the turmoil in Kashmir many people disappeared, they have not been traced to this day. Often there were rumours about there being dead or a rumour of their dead body left on the road. As was common in Kashmir then that people who had been abducted, their dead bodies were left on the road side at the night and people only discovered them when the sun came up in the morning. A sadistic voice in the poem announces that “my death, at the mosque gate/ in the massacre” at the time of the “Call to Prayer” (30). The poem repeats the words like blood, death, cemetery, graves and broken city. But the line that strikes the most in this poem, “the dust still uneasy on the hurried graves/ with no names” sends a shiver down the spine.
“The Country Without a Post Office” is a poem of grim serenity, a lonely voice, a ghost like a figure in the night under the poor light which “soaks the wicks of clay lumps/ in mustard oil” to light properly. This ghostly figure thinks about empty houses, and those so many people who “fled, ran away/ and became refugees there in the plains”. This country that sans the post office no messages can be sent to those who left and neither can one receive any message from them. Roshni Sharma opinionates that the “absence of ‘Post Office’ from a country symbolizes the concealing of a person’s existence from the world” (217). The silence in this country is so perpetual and eerie it seems even the muezzin is dead; no Call to Prayer is heard. This ghostly figure is engulfed in the confusion and concern about those who left with “feeling of rapture and fragmentation” (Mehra 122). The speaker throughout the poem is concerned about his lost friend whether being alive. The speaker in the poem has “Phantom heart” asked to “pray” “be faithful” bear the “pain” (39). And the poem ends at an embarrassingly bold note, “mad heart be brave”; Amitav Gosh argues that he “knew of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like” it (2). The unsent letters on both sides are “a shrine of words” (39). Similarly the poem “The Floating Post office” is preoccupied with “word” and “letters”, repeatedly used throughout the poem.
The poems like “First Day of Spring”, “Death Row” and “The City of Daughters” are emotionally depressed depicting a helpless speaker of violence begotten in a paradise. The dilemma of the speaker puts all in a “barbed-wire”, entangled in confusion and chaos. The sign of order from the city has disappeared in the smoke that has risen from charred buildings. Ali seems to stumble with different imagery in this war torn Kashmir, his is not the poetry where a poet picks and choose the images to decorate the poem but Ali steels his eyes from every sight of violence fallen on ordinary people. Poet finds a strange similarity in Sarajevo and Srinagar, an anguished similarity. Next, the poem “Muharram in Srinagar, 1992” creates a resemblance between Karbala and Kashmir, the imagery used by poet relate to violence and struggle whether Sarajevo or Karbala.
Amitav Gosh maintains that “the steady deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir—the violence and counter-violence—had a powerful effect on him”. He farther adds that “indeed it could be said that it was in writing of Kashmir that he created his finest work” (12). Mehra also points out that “the poet raises his voice of protest against political repression, as well as ignorance on the part of the government but the main focus is on the plight of innocent people dying in the valley” (122). It is futile to debate whether Ali was a Kashmiri-nationalist poet as few people have argued about it. But it is more simple and clear that Ali wanted and gave voice to suppressed people who have been silenced by gun and high military presence. He was concerned with the plight of ordinary Kashmiris who suffered in the war torn state. So he highlighted the atrocities and acts of violence suffered by common people. Ali’s poetry is an “elegiac tribute to Kashmir as a ‘Paradise Lost’” (Khurshid 2) and an amalgamation of images of innocence, beauty and violence.

About the Author: 

Author, Bilal Ahmad Kuthoo, is presently pursuing his PhD in English from Jiwaji University Gwalior. His area of interest if New Literatures in English, African-African Literature, Indian Mysticism and Post 9/11 American Fiction with themes of trauma and terror. Author has done his M. Phil research on Toni Morrison.


Works cited
Ali, Agha Shahid. The Country Without a Post Office. Penguin Books India 2000.
Chattaraj, Jhilam. “To Kashmir and Back: Analyzing The Concept of Diasporic “Fundamental Ambivalence” in Agha Shahhid Ali’s The Country Without a Post Office”. LangLit. Vol. 1. Issue 4. May 2015. 620-625.

Gosh, Amitav. “The Ghat of the Only World: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn”. The Annual Urdu Studies. The Nation, 2nd February 2000.
Khurshid, Javeria. “Literary Responses to the Catastrophic 90s in the Un-Silent Valley: The Comparative Study of Agha Shahid Ali, Basharat Peer, and Mirza Waheed”. Galaxy: International Multidisciplinary Research Journal. Vol. II. Issue VI. Nov. 2012. 1-6.

Maqbool, Iffat. “If There Is a Poet, It Is This, It Is This: Aga Shahid Ali – Chronicler of Pain”. The Criterion. Vol. III. Issue. I. March 2012. 1-3.

Mehra, Mansi. “Lamentation for the Lost Culture: A Reading of Agha Shahid Ali’s Poetry”. IJELLH. Vol. IV, Issue 1, 119-124. January 2016.
Sharma, Bindu. “Shadows of Past in Shahid Ali’s Poetry”. IJELLH. Volume III, Issue IV, June 2015. 203-211.
Sharma, Roshni, “Sense of Lose in Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country Without a Post Office”. IJELR. Vol. 2. Issue 2. April 2015. 216-220.

Woodland, Malcolm. “Memory’s Homeland: Agha Shahid Ali and the Hybrid Ghazal”. ESC. June/September 2005. 249-272.


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