The Country Without a Post Office is Agha Shahid Ali’s eloquent elegy to Kashmir
The elections are here. And everywhere I turn, wherever I go, all the talk is about the Dumb, the Devious, the Dubious — the expression coined by brave cop Sanjiv Bhatt for Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, respectively. The words resonate in my ears every time I switch on my television. But television is a poor, very poor option for anybody looking for civilised discourse these days. Hardly anybody talks, most scream. Disenchanted with the reporting on the upcoming elections — the focus almost completely is on individuals, hardly ever on the issues at the ground level — I come back to my study and look for a book to assuage my jangled nerves after all the talk of NaMo, RaGa and what have you. Turned out, I was in luck. My eyes fell on a thin book that was kind of peeping out of the pile that contained such profound works as the latest on Kamaraj, Kamal Morarka and Kishtwar. It was Agha Shahid Ali’s much acclaimed The Country Without a Post Office. Call it serendipity, if you will, but didn’t I tell you I was in luck?
I often start a book with its back flap. The jacket often gives an accurate indication of the contents, preparing me for the long haul or a quick read as the case may be. This time, the words of Edward Said and Amitav Ghosh had me hooked to the book. Talking of Agha, Said writes, “This is poetry whose appeal is universal, its voice unerringly eloquent. A marvellous achievement.” Ghosh found Agha’s work “lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward.” I had heard a lot about Agha, and maybe even more about The Country Without a Post Office, in a classic case of the work overshadowing the writer. And what a masterpiece! It left me singed with its cries, its words of utter desolation, that feeling of absolute hopelessness when life itself resembles a graveyard. The dead may carry no weapons, but death is the most powerful statement. About his beloved Kashmir, Agha who grew up in the State before shifting to the US, pens, “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 steps to read messages scratched on planets. His fingerprint cancel blank stamps in that archive for letters with doomed addresses, each house buried or empty.” Then he goes on to give reason for the emptiness. “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.” The words strike a chord with anybody who has read or heard about the displacement of Kashmiris in their own country, they alternately hurt and assuage. And in the end defy easy encapsulation. Just as Agha did throughout his life. It was the same when he wrote A Walk through the Yellow Pages many, many summer ago. It was very much the same when he penned Ravishing DisUnities. Every time, that piercing, that haunting, even hypnotising quality came to the fore. My personal favourite though from Agha’s collection remains A Pastoral which engages you, even admonishes you, and in the end overwhelms you with its simplicity, its transcendent integrity. “We shall meet again, in Srinagar, by the gate of the Villa of Peace, our hands blossoming into fists till the soldiers return the keys and disappear. Again, we’ll enter our last world, the first that vanished.”
Agha, unfortunately, did not live long enough to see his dream attain fruition. And Kashmir may still be synonymous in many minds with soldiers and cops, but someday, the Paradise on Earth shall be back to its beautiful days. Agha’s words are a pointer to the problem. And in many ways, in his humanism lies the answer.
As for the elections, well, who would want to read about NaMo and Co when it is exactly such self serving politicos that have brought the State to the precipice? More is the need to turn to The Country Without a Post Office.