Let’s be kind and assume someone didn’t have a momentary, or eternal,
lapse of reason, and only upon a second reading of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem The Country Without a Post Office did
they feel that it didn’t ring true. Let me rephrase that: Only upon an
exclusive reading of the title of the poem as displayed on a student poster
inviting other students to a discussion on Kashmir. Phew.
What might, then, be the course of action available to such a close reader of poetry?
A Borgesian interrogation of the verses whereupon we may appreciate the poet’s skill at invocation via fakery but ultimately reject it, because there do now exist quite a few brick-and-mortar post offices in Kashmir? With actual letters and parcels in them.
Or issue photographs – real, morphed or prefab ones, their veracity sealed by breaking and exclusive exposure in a TV studio – which can categorically refute the poet’s fanciful claim. Juxtapose scanned pages bearing the lines, “Each post office is boarded up. Who will deliver/parchment cut in paisleys, my news to prisons?” with a colossal banner of India Post atop a post office by the Jhelum, and... bingo.
Metaphorical excess is, after all, a thought crime as bad as any. What is the Twitter-TV-street arena for if not to slay the title of a poem that seems so patently wrong on facts? What else did the title on the poster imply if not the blasphemous accusation that India doesn’t have post offices? Answer me!
An eisegesis of the celebrated poem or an excavation of the poet’s early life to find clues that might explain his genius at mischief and inventiveness?
Shall we also heed the interrogator’s heartfelt plea – poetry or exaggeration? – and emphatically rule in favour of one. How can it be both, hain? James Merril, to whom Shahid dedicated the poem, can take a walk.
Or, better still, a Right To Information inquiry sent to a bureaucrat in the poet’s home: Please explain whether the poet’s claim is true or not. If untrue, which seems so loud and clear to us (how can a country not have post offices, huh?), how many post offices far from the truth is it?
Please furnish statistics in neatly laid columns. That will show the poem’s unusual rhyme scheme and narrative structure. The architecture of poetic beauty must be laid bare at a time of nation[alist] crises.
The bureaucrat has acted faithfully. After all, RTI is an act of the Indian Parliament, “to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens” – even though it “does not extend to the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” where the incriminating offices are located. I slip into bureaucratese... The officer of posts and letters has counted the exact number of offices, and responded in crisp columns. The poet’s haunting testimony of war stands exposed in prosaic detail.
Shall we now assume we have a strong case against this unacknowledged legislator of the world? If yes, we have no recourse but to take legal action. Especially, and crucially, because one of the muscular TV channels tasked with guarding the Indian nation in the dark hours before and after nine, has declared since the poem was about the rebellion in Kashmir, therefore using it as the title for an event at an insurrectionist university amounts to sedition.
And so it transpires that Shahid, the eternal witness and martyr, is posthumously booked for sedition. And why not? How dare you write a poem that is, one, political, and two, deploys powerful metaphors to depict the Kashmiri condition and that dark decade – the Nineties –when the Indian state came down on Kashmiris with all its brawn and fury for daring to rise in rebellion against Indian rule. For their audacity to demand political and human rights, for chanting that antinational, seditious, taboo song of freedom – azaadi.
Everyone and everything in the marauding path of state craft was brutalised. The Kashmiri body, incarcerated, massacred, tortured, raped, exiled, and interred into nameless graves in the mountains, lay asunder. For many of us, growing up amid this horror, it was Shahid who shone a light on the darkness. I remember I had a near visceral reaction when I first read Country... It was akin to listening to someone making sense of my world to me for the first time. I digress into unimportant matters...
What might Shahid, who once declared “o just my heart” when asked by a bureaucrat at an airport if he was carrying anything dangerous, say? Let me venture a guess:
What, only for the title? Not for the whole poem? It isn’t too long yaar, if I remember correctly. I am so offended. How can any poet worth his stanza (Shahid once bought a car only because the Nissan model was called Stanza) be pleased if you tell him you haven’t read the whole poem?
“Mad heart, be brave”, Shahid might sigh, as he switches off the TV.
Postscript: Requests to Interpol to issue sedition notices to writers Kamila Shamsie, Amitav Ghosh, and Suvir Kaul, great friends of the deceased poet and people who have written eloquent tributes to his dazzling oeuvre, were denied. A senior official at the agency on the condition of anonymity said “Our jurisdiction doesn’t extend to the realm of poetry. Yet”
Mirza Waheed is the author of the novels, The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves.
The Country Without A Post Office
Agha Shahid Ali
. . . letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins
Again 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 blank stamps
in that archive for letters with doomed
addresses, each house buried or empty.
Empty? Because so many fled, ran away,
and became refugees there, in the plains,
where they must now will a final dewfall
to turn the mountains to glass. They’ll see
us through them – see us frantically bury
houses to save them from fire that, like a wall,
caves in. The soldiers light it, hone the flames,
burn our world to sudden papier-mâché
inlaid with gold, then ash. When the muezzin
died, the city was robbed of every Call.
The houses were swept about like leaves
for burning. Now every night we bury
our houses – and theirs, the ones left empty.
We are faithful. On their doors we hang wreaths.
More faithful each night fire again is a wall
and we look for the dark as it caves in.
“We’re inside the fire, looking for the dark,”
one card lying on the street says. “I want
to be he who pours blood. To soak your hands.
Or I’ll leave mine in the cold till the rain
is ink, and my fingers, at the edge of pain,
are seals all night to cancel the stamps.”
The mad guide! The lost speak like this. They haunt
a country when it is ash. Phantom heart,
pray he’s alive. I have returned in rain
to find him, to learn why he never wrote.
I’ve brought cash, a currency of paisleys
to buy the new stamps, rare already, blank,
no nation named on them. Without a lamp
I look for him in houses buried, empty –
He may be alive, opening doors of smoke,
breathing in the dark his ash-refrain:
“Everything is finished, nothing remains.”
I must force silence to be a mirror
to see his voice again for directions.
Fire runs in waves. Should I cross that river?
Each post office is boarded up. Who will deliver
parchment cut in paisleys, my news to prisons?
Only silence can now trace my letters
to him. Or in a dead office the dark panes.
“The entire map of the lost will be candled.
I’m keeper of the minaret since the muezzin died.
Come soon, I’m alive. There’s almost a paisley
against the light, sometimes white, then black.
The glutinous wash is wet on its back
as it blossoms into autumn’s final country –
Buy it, I issue it only once, at night.
Come before I’m killed, my voice cancelled.”
In this dark rain, be faithful, Phantom heart,
this is your pain. Feel it. You must feel it.
“Nothing will remain, everything’s finished,”
I see his voice again: “This is a shrine
of words. You’ll find your letters to me. And mine
to you. Come soon and tear open these vanished
envelopes.” And I reach the minaret:
I’m inside the fire. I have found the dark.
This is your pain. You must feel it. Feel it,
Heart, be faithful to his mad refrain –
For he soaked the wicks of clay lamps,
lit them each night as he climbed these steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
His hands were seals to cancel the stamps.
This is an archive. I’ve found the remains
of his voice, that map of longings with no limit.
I read them, letters of lovers, the mad ones,
and mine to him from whom no answers came.
I light lamps, send my answers, Calls to Prayer
to deaf worlds across continents. And my lament
is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
to this world whose end was near, always near.
My words go out in huge packages of rain,
go there, to addresses, across the oceans.
It’s raining as I write this. I have no prayer.
It’s just a shout, held in, it’s Us! It’s Us!
whose letters are cries that break like bodies
in prisons. Now each night in the minaret
I guide myself up the steps. Mad silhouette,
I throw paisleys to clouds. The lost are like this:
They bribe the air for dawn, this their dark purpose.
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.
(for James Merrill)— Excerpted with permission from 'The Country Without A Post Office', Agha Shahid Ali, Penguin Books.