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The Country without a Post-Office by Agha Shahid Ali

Reviewed By Shreyashi Sharma

The Country without a Post-Office is a subtly crafted requiem for a valley that has known nothing but hate. It is the poet’s calculated presentation of the metamorphosis Kashmir has undergone, a cumulative arousal of clashing and contrasting ideas in a landscape riddled by generations of sanctioned atrocities from both sides of the border.

Agha Shahid Ali had consciously restrained himself from mentioning Kashmir in his poems for an entire decade. While the poems he penned in this period always ached with a forlorn idea of an unsupervised home, his home was never ascribed a name. But when he finally reclaims the name of the valley in The Country without a Post-Office, it gives off the feeling that he managed to rip off an age-old bandage that was accumulating dirt and decay under the pretext of guarding his charred skin.

Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Quashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cashmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kashmire, Kasmir, Kerseymere?

(Shahid, Agha, 1997).

He spirals into various semantic reiterations of Kashmir, and it feels like a reverberating wail into the void created by political conundrums. Dispelling all the varied meanings associated with the valley while observing, decoding, holding it in and pulling it apart- with a surgical literary precision; Ali finally brings to halt his affair with marinated lullabies sculpted in denial (which he managed to stretch for a decade) and readies himself to tackle the Kashmir question head on. He gives in, and he has never been better as an artist.

Ironically, while Kashmir rings with the reminiscent echoes for the idea of home, it is not a place the poet aches to return to. However, if given a chance to escape to a dimension made out of all the banalities of his existence, it seems he would definitely want to take with him, the memories of the valley he used to call home. He latches on to the idea of a reality where the valley is just what it is—a picturesque crystallization of nature’s best; free from the underlying air of dejected prudence it has come to recognize as its own, and all the subjugations it has encountered.

The whole idea of “Home” that The Country without a Post-Office condones, is intrepidly linked to the reverberating ambition of Kashmir’s people to establish some kind of familiarity with their surroundings. Where is this home? What is home anyway? Is it all but a distant and all-too-familiar dream which refuses to reconcile with their present realities? Or some utopic ideal they have to let go of? Home is where they are the most comfortable in. Home is where their identities lie. Yet, a home, is denied to them.

I’ve returned to this country
where a minaret has been entombed
Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps
in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
His fingerprints cancel bank stamps
In that archive with letters for doomed

(Shahid, Agha, 1997).

The genius behind the anthology, doesn’t lie in the poet’s careful eloquence or his ornamental sentences. It lies in his simplicity, his ability to portray the discrepancies of a tyrannical system with a minimum number of words and intrinsic scenarios. The title poem itself mentions a post office filled with undelivered letters, piling up in wait of finding their destination someday. In one of his darker illustrations, Ali declares: “I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir.” One cannot help but feel that more than a place, Kashmir is a feeling that the poet has delicately nurtured. It brings along with it a coagulating sense of pain, but it is also a bliss one hasn’t felt elsewhere. This duality allots his poems an intrepidly dynamic framework. The mosaic he weaves through his nostalgia and his detached ache for a golden valley, simmers within his sentences and strikes the readers. This is what makes his poems and The Country without a Post-Office universal. They transcend boundaries. His poems maintain a very strategic yet sometimes blurry balance between corporeality and illusion. One moment it is all blue and claustrophobia invades its spaces; while in the next moment he springs up familiar pictures drenched in a sepia undertone—intricately arranging them into coherence, and the reader stops decaying as rapidly as he was, a moment before. They speak of trauma, riots, hopelessness, and a dynamic range of atrocities—all circumscribed within a deafening aura of peace. You can’t help but feel calm as they dribble into your blood, spreading throughout your body while speaking to you with the voice of an acquaintance you meet on a rainy Tuesday, in a not too crowded cafe. You exchange updates on each other’s lives, and he assures you that everything is fine. It is only when you are recalling the events of the day before going to sleep that you realize that there was a lingering sadness in his eyes. You were remiss and you didn’t notice. But now, that is all you can think about- his calm and lopsided smile, the ease and familiarity you felt with him and his eyes. His eyes, that questioned: how do you run from this all-consuming smoke, when you reside in a burning house?

Shreyashi Sharma recently completed her Masters in Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.