The poet would be disappointed if he were to see Kashmir today, it is just as he left it—Suffering and entombed, writes Manan Kapoor
“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The kerosene lamps have been replaced by newfangled means, and the soundtrack has metamorphosed from exploding grenades to ‘harmless’ pellets, yet everything still seems oddly familiar in Kashmir.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 1990s, 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 then. 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. After he immigrated to the United States in 1976, he completed his Ph.D. in English from Pennsylvania State University. He then pursued a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing from the University of Arizona and taught MFA 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 tumor, an illness that had been the cause of his mother’s death as well.
Four years before his demise, he published what would become one of his most celebrated works, The Country without a Post Office. The collection of poems was originally published as Kashmir without a Post Office in the Graham House Review. Shahid Ali later 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.
When you first read Shahid Ali, a feeling of nostalgia resurfaces and engulfs you. As beautiful in their craft as they are poignant, the poems are taut with the absolute and inescapable sense of loss and fury which is layered with subtle yet violent nuances of protest.
“Translucent elegies ‘for the city that is leaving forever (Srinagar)’…” wrote poet John Ashbery for the twenty-seven poems in the collection. Shahid Ali uses his poetry to encapsulate the suffering of the people of Kashmir through 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 are dead.
“They make a desolation and call it peace,” he writes in the poem, Farewell. When Shahid Ali 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. Public intellectual, Edward Said who was a pioneer in post-colonial studies once said that, although Shahid Ali’s poetry derives its searing imagery from his response to Kashmir’s agony, it’s so compelling because his poetry’s appeal is universal, and its voice unerringly eloquent.
When The Country without a Post Office was released, I was merely 4 years old and it took me about fourteen more years to discover the book. I started reading Shahid Ali’s poetry while I was researching about Kashmir for my novel and ended up including a couplet from his ghazal, Of Light, in the book as an epigraph. At the time, I had only read his poems on the internet and would take another six months to find a paperback and really understand what it was all about. When I did read the collection, it had been twenty years since it was first published, and it was only when I read the poem, A Pastoral, that I thought of how disappointed Shahid Ali would be if he was still alive. In the poem, he wrote,
“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.
While I read the collection of poems, I was constantly making parallels between the Kashmir that existed while he was writing the poems, or even before that during the early 1990s, and the state of Kashmir today. Nothing has changed. Since Shahid Ali’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.
But there’s no sun here. There is no sun here.
Then be pitiless you whom I could not save—
Send your cries to me, if only in this way:
I’ve found a prisoner’s letters to a lover—
One begins: “These words may never reach you.”
Another ends: “The skin dissolves in dew
without your touch.” And I want to answer:
I want to live forever. What else can I say?
It rains as I write this. Mad heart, be brave.
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. Even if his 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. A fragile state of reconciliation might 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.
Manan Kapoor is the author of The Lamentations of a Sombre Sky. Born in Shimla in 1993, he discovered his love of reading and writing through writers like Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, Tor Ulven, and Agha Shahid Ali. His works have appeared in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Coldnoon Travel-Writing Quarterly, Indian Review of Literature. To buy his book click here