In the country without a post office, “the houses were swept about like leaves for burning” where “soldiers light it, hone the flames, burn our world to sudden papier-mâché”. In that country, a prisoner’s letter to a lover begins: “These words may never reach you”.
The country without a post office is Kashmir.
Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of poems, The Country Without a Post Office, published in 1997, entered the Indian Parliament a week ago, when BJP ministers mistook the country in Shahid’s poem for India, and saw “the absence of a post office” as a slight to India’s development and a hurtful indictment against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The poem, though, was a Kashmiri poet’s lament for the destruction of his home and his people. Politicians don’t necessarily need to read poetry but Shahid’s poems are not only an exceptional literary work — they vividly describe the lives of a people at the receiving end of policies and laws framed in that house of Parliament. Shahid died in America in 2001, thousands of miles from the home he loved, but he remains its most powerful voice, an emissary of its tragedy, pain and aspiration.
It is this poet’s brilliance and misfortune that his sad reflection on Kashmir’s fate keeps coming true again and again. When Afzal Guru, convicted of his role in the December 2001 Parliament attack, was secretly hanged in Tihar on February 9, 2013, the jail authorities claimed to have sent a letter to inform his family about his impending fate a day before he was sent to the gallows. The letter reached his family two days late. Afzal wasn’t allowed to say a final goodbye to his wife Tabassum and his nine-year-old son Ghalib. On February 12, Afzal’s last letter —a 10-line goodbye in Urdu — arrived home. There was no personal message. Instead of grieving, he wrote, his family should respect the stature he has achieved through his end. Jail authorities say that this was the only letter he wrote, a claim nobody believes at his home. None of his personal belongings were returned to his family.
When the event organised to discuss Afzal Guru’s hanging in JNU was named after Shahid’s poem, it wasn’t to claim that India lacked post offices — but to link a protest for Kashmir’s freedom to the voice of a beloved poet.
There is, however, a story of a post office in Srinagar in 1990 behind Shahid’s poem. Irfan Hassan, a childhood friend of Shahid, recalls: “It was 1990. I was walking with a friend in Jawahar Nagar, very close to my home, when I saw the door of the post office ajar. Street dogs were going in and out. I stopped and went inside. I saw heaps of letters. I looked through this heap and found several letters addressed to me. They had been sent by Shahid from America. I also saw his letters to his father. I picked up these letters and went home,” Irfan says. He wrote a letter to Shahid describing the incident. When his brother was about to leave for Chennai, Irfan handed the letter to him. “That was the only way I could send a letter to Shahid,’’ he remembers. “This is how the poem was born.”
Irfan says that the message of Shahid’s work is unambiguous. “It is an account of what was done to us because we want to be free,’’ he says. “I laughed when I heard about the discussion in Parliament (about Shahid’s poem). But it isn’t funny. It shows that they can’t still see what is happening in Kashmir.”
Shahid was born in 1949 in a Kashmiri Muslim family. His father, Agha Ashraf Ali, is a noted educationist in Kashmir. Shahid grew up and was educated in Srinagar. After a brief teaching stint at Delhi University, he went to the United States. He would call himself a multiple exile but his heart always longed for the home he had left behind. He would return every summer and I met him for the first time in 1995, or, perhaps, 1996.
Shahid means witness in Arabic and beloved in Persian. There is no doubt that he had become a “witness” to what was being done to his “beloved” home. He called it a country. He told me that almost every time I met him. Only a complete independence was the answer to Kashmir’s tragedy, he said. In a poem Pastoral, Shahid 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 and disappear…”
In I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight, he talks about an 18-year-old Rizwan, who was killed by soldiers near my village in Bandipore. Rizwan’s father, Molvi Abdul Hai, was a close friend of Shahid’s father and the two families were close. ‘“Rizwan, it’s you, Rizwan, it’s you,’’ I cry out/ as he steps closer, the sleeves of his pheran torn…../– ‘Don’t tell my father I have died,’ he says,/ and I follow him through blood on the road/and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners/ left behind, as they ran from the funeral,/ victims of the firing. From windows we hear/ grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall/ on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,/ it cannot extinguish the neighbourhoods,/ the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers,/ Kashmir is burning:’ Rizwan’s jinaza was the first such experience for me in the initial days of the uprising. He was buried near my village.
In another poem, Dear Shahid, he writes a letter to himself. “You must have heard Rizwan was killed. Guardian of the Gates of Paradise. Only eighteen years old. Yesterday at Hideout Cafe (everyone there asked about you), a doctor — who had just treated a sixteen-year old boy released from an interrogation centre said: I want to ask the fortune-tellers: Did anything in his line of Fate reveal that the webs of his hands would be cut with a knife?” Irfan says that he was with Shahid, when they met that doctor in a café on Lambert Lane in Srinagar. Like Shahid’s house, the Hideout Café was destroyed in the floods that drowned Srinagar in 2014.
Shahid would often pose a riddle to his friends: “An artist was asked, if your house is on fire, what will be the first thing that you would take out?” And then answer: “I will take the fire out”. His work, Irfan believes, was all about taking the fire of oppression out of his home.
Shahid’s poetry, however, wasn’t only limited to the aspirations of Kashmiri Muslims, he mourns the migration of the Kashmiri Pandit minority too. Farewell is a plaintive love letter from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit: “At a certain point I lost track of you/They make a desolation and call it peace /When you left even the stones were buried. /the defenceless would have no weapons… I am everything you lost. You won’t forgive me/ My memory keeps getting in the way of your history./ There is nothing to forgive. You can’t forgive me./ I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself/ 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?”
While the title of Shahid’s poem was mistaken for something else in Parliament, I wish its honourable members would realise what eludes them in Kashmir. It is the message in one of Shahid’s endearing stories about an encounter at Barcelona airport. “A securityperson frisked me and then asked if I was carrying any object which could be dangerous to other passengers,” he once said. “I said yes. Startled, she asked: what? I told her, just my heart.”
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