The Mad Heart’s Parable

Reading Agha Shahid Ali's 'The Country Without a Post Office'

By Aarushi Sultania

A beautiful island isolated from the world; its fate obscured in wintry fog; it hangs from heaven by pashmina threads. Its valleys are quiet and people are silenced – mountains of unopened letters pile away in Agha Shahid Ali’s country without a post office.

The face of Kashmir has been marred with conflict, ever since the conception of our nation. Enduring a partition-endowed cataclysm, it is an object of a tug-of-war between two countries that only seem to tighten their hold every second. No matter who wins, it is the Kashmiri heart that breaks. It is this pain that Agha Shahid Ali carried with him. He distilled into words, his despair and dismay at the destiny of his birthplace. He did not hide away his agony, broadcasting it to the world through his intensely musical poetry. Ghazals are poems of love and loss, of beauty and agony. While Begum Akhtar sang to her beloved or her humnafas, Shahid’s Ghazals are for Kashmir. He described it in all its beauty and lamented his separation from it. These poems, governed by a certain rhythm and characterised by the repetition of a word at the end of each sentence (refrain), confer a unique lyrical quality to Agha Shahid Ali’s writing and set him out from his contemporaries. To write like him, one needs to have a deep understanding of the musicality of verses. Like Begum Akhtar, Shahid Ali emphasised every word of his poetry and drew all emotions out of them. A soul at white heat (in the words of Emily Dickinson), his passion and intensity were unmatched.

Nothing seems to have broken Shahid’s heart as much as the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. He wrote Farewell as a love letter from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Pandit. ‘In the lake, the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s reflection.’ He believed the presence of Pandits to be integral to the culture of his land and saw their absence as a symptom of the gradual demise of Kashmiri identity.

In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.

Your history gets in the way of my memory.

There is everything to forgive. You can’t forgive me.

If only somehow you could have been mine,

What would not have been possible in the world?

His poetry is garnished with melancholy and peppered with sentiment.

Army convoys all night like desert caravans:

In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved-all winter- its crushed fennel.

You can almost see the series of army trucks, the colour of dried green fennel, make their way through mountainous roads; such was Agha Shahid Ali’s mastery of metaphor and imagery.

He will take me to Pampore where I’ll gather flowers and run back to the taxi, stamens – How many thousands?- crushed to red varnish in my hands: I’ll shout: ‘Saffron, my payment!’

Saffron is a rare, fragrant spice grown in Kashmir, associated with Hindu religious ceremonies. ‘How many thousands?‘ Shahid asks, demanding precise numbers of the bloodshed involved in the persecution of Pandits.

Was there, we asked, a new password –

Blood, blood shaken into letters,

cruel primitive script that would erode

our saffron link to the past? Tense

with autumn, the leaves drenched olive,

fell on graveyards, crying ‘O live!’

Death is a prominent character in The Country without a Post Office. Shahid Ali painted vividly haunting and distressing pictures, etching out the most gruesome details. In an excerpt from Muharram in Srinagar, 1992, he voiced his disdain towards Delhi politicians whose unempathetic decisions influence the fate of Kashmir.

The Mansion is white, lit up with roses. He is driven

through streets in which blood flows like Husain’s*.

Our hands won’t return to us, not even mutilated, when

Death comes – thin bureaucrat – from the plains.

(*Muharram, a Muslim month of mourning is observed to mark the martyrdom of Husain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad in the Battle of Karbala.)

To a first-time viewer with even a little idea of who Agha Shahid Ali is, the cover of The Country Without A Post Office will appear to depict a stampede of fleeing Kashmiri Pandits or victims of the violence that plagues Kashmir. The poet provided a beautiful insight into this –

Their footsteps formed the paisley when Parvati, angry after a
quarrel, ran away from Shiva. He eventually caught up with her. To
commemorate their reunion, he carved the Jhelum river, as it moves
through the Vale of Kashmir, in the shape of paisley.

Paisley, a tear-drop-shaped motif that features commonly in Kashmiri textiles, becomes the symbol of Kashmiri anguish.

And you, now touching sky, deaf to her anklets

still echoing in the valley, deaf to men

Fleeing from soldiers into dead-end lanes

(Look! Their feet bleed, they leave footprints on the street

which will give up its fabric, at dusk, a carpet)

Shahid Ali’s poems are replete with religious references. For religion to be so prominently featured seems fitting, due to the status of Kashmir as a religious battleground. I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight is a seemingly romantic poem from a Kashmiri Hindu girl to a Muslim boy called Rizwan, who is dead. He is mentioned again in Dear Shahid: ‘You must have heard Rizwan was killed. Rizwan: Guardian of the Gates of Paradise. Only eighteen years old.’ The death of Rizwan (an angel in the Quran) symbolises the death of all fairness and hope. It is a strong condemnation of the undemocratic torture and interrogation of innocent Kashmiri youth.

Agha Shahid Ali was unafraid and impervious to any kind of opprobrium that his work could generate. He wanted to tell his truth in clear-sounding words which would echo in the mountain valleys, down to the plains, and across the seas; his cry – Everything is finished, nothing remains.

Aarushi Sultania is a biotechnology student, passionate about film and literature. She self-indulgently rambles about movies and books on her blog.

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