For a decade Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949–2001) didn’t use the word “Kashmir” in his poetry: it is missing from the two collections of verse he published after his breakthrough volume The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987). But though he was far from home for much of his life—he left for the United States in 1976 and would return only for holidays—the letters he sent back to his family in Srinagar reveal its lingering presence. “I hope the mail is not much disrupted because of the problems in the country and that this letter reaches you,” he wrote to his father in 1984. “I hope all the madness stops.”
When he finally reclaims the word on the first page of The Country Without a Post Office (1997), Shahid launches into a frenzy, repeating it over and over, allowing it to spiral through a web of semantic associations:
Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void:
Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire,
Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar
in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire,
Once the signifier of a place, the word turns into a sound, losing (or gaining?) all meaning. Kashmir becomes an incantation, a spell by which to conjure “an imaginary homeland, filling it, closing it, shutting himself (myself in it).”
Shahid was forced to reinvent Srinagar from memory. He wanted a city where people were sure that they’d return home when they left in the morning.
These lines come from the collection’s opening poem, “The Blesséd Word: A Prologue,” which in turn makes reference to an untitled poem Osip Mandelstam had written in 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution. “We Shall Meet Again, in Petersburg,” Mandelstam says, six years after St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd. The poem’s place had become temporal rather than spatial, a tissue of the past. Shahid, too, had lost his homeland to conflict.
“When you leave home in the morning, you never know if you’ll return.” “We Shall Meet Again, in Srinagar.” I want to answer Irfan. But such a promise? I make it in Mandelstam’s velvet dark, in the black velvet Void.
Was Shahid a nostalgist, as he had claimed in the title of his 1991 collection A Nostalgist’s Map of America? No, the past was not the country he wanted to return to; he only liked to bask in its glow. The conflict transformed his homeland into a valley where cries came back as echoes, and he was forced to reinvent Srinagar from his memory—forced to turn blood into ink. He wanted to meet his friend Irfan in the city where people were sure that they’ll return home when they left in the morning. And though no names were changed in the valley, Kashmir became Cauchemar—the French word for nightmare. He evokes Mandelstam to make the promise which he felt “already holds its own breaking.”
• • •
A few months ago in Srinagar, I spoke to Irfan Hassan, whom Shahid had promised to meet in Srinagar. In a bleak voice he narrated how Shahid had longed to come back to Kashmir, how he’d said that he wanted to die in Kashmir. He died instead in the United States, in 2001, though he returned to Kashmir almost every summer after 1984.
As Irfan and I sipped tea and discussed broken promises, Irfan went on and told me how the title of Shahid’s 1997 collection came about. When the Kashmir insurgency was at its height in the 1990s, the postal services in the valley were shut down. Heaps of undelivered letters littered the post offices; no mail was delivered. One day, as Irfan entered an abandoned post office, he found a letter addressed to Agha Ashraf Ali, Shahid’s father, on the floor. He delivered the letter himself and relayed the story to Shahid. In an essay, Shahid wrote that he had vivid dreams about the undelivered letters. While narrating one such dream, he asked of his letters, “Will they reach the forlorn ghosts forlorn for me?”
Kashmir has once again turned into a country without a post office.
Soon Shahid was ready with a poem titled “The Country Without a Post Office,” and it would end up anchoring one of the most profound yet painful books to shed light on Kashmir. Presenting a unique collection of voices and stories from the region, it deeply influenced the second generation of Kashmiri writers. “For many of us, growing up amid this horror,” the novelist Mirza Waheed wrote, “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.”
Reading Shahid’s poems in Srinagar three months ago, I could see what he saw around him during summers there—guns pointing to the sky, army personnel (who are far, far away from home), and the writings on the wall. The collection is a step-by-step guide to Srinagar and what to expect in the city. And then, two weeks ago, as Kashmir was turned into a prison cell, the post offices were shuttered by India Post—“until further orders,” the agency’s tweet read. Kashmir has once again turned into a country without a post office.
• • •
By the evening of August 2, around 38,000 additional troops had been positioned in the state after the Indian government issued a terror warning; the Amarnath Yatra—an important Hindu pilgrimage—was curtailed and tourists were asked to leave the valley. On August 5, Article 370 was abrogated by the Indian government and the state of Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its autonomy, all landlines and cellular and Internet services were shut down and curfew-like restrictions were imposed that barred all public movement. “Kashmiris knew something bad was in the offing,” Ashwaq Massodi wrote in n+1. “Almost as a ritual, Kashmiris stocked their houses with essentials, called their loved ones, and once again reminded one another that this could be the last time they would speak.”
Id-uz-Zuha, the joyous Muslim festival of sacrifice, fell on August 11, but there was no possibility of celebration; it was impossible to utter “Id Mubarak” on the telephones to loved ones. On the thirteenth day of the clampdown, some news escaped the valley: around 4,000 people, including leaders, journalists, activists, and even adolescents, had been detained by Indian forces under the Public Safety Act, which allows authorities to imprison people for up to two years without a charge or trial. Speaking to TRT World, Rukhsana, an eighteen-year-old girl, said:
The soldiers would come thrice every night—at 1am, 3am and 4.30am—shouting into the loudspeakers and threatening us that the crackdown will continue and no one should go to the local mosque. . . . The men don’t sleep because they are protecting us from the army and the women don’t sleep because they continue to wait for the men to return. This has become a painful cycle.
Fear and intimidation are nothing new for Kashmiris, but this time around, one can tell—even from New Delhi, where I write—that the air is different. Almost 8 million people are left without any link to the outside world. They are stranded inside their neighborhoods, which have been turned into prisons. The Indian government, meanwhile, maintains that the situation is normal and that the valley is peaceful. Though numerous human rights organizations have presented reports from the ground, there has been little but denial from the Indian government.
• • •
About 4,000 people have been detained under the Public Safety Act, which allows imprisonment for two years without a charge or trial.
As Kashmir was cut off from the whole world, Shahid was summoned to speak for those who were silenced. His poems flooded the Internet. And why not? This passage from “The Blesséd Word,” written more than two decades ago, could be describing the terrible events of last month—how Id-uz-Zuha was observed under curfew, how thousands of sons were detained by the armed forces, and God’s inability to help the people:
It was Id-uz-Zuha: a record of God’s inability, for
even He must melt sometimes, to let Ishmael be executed by the
hands of his father. Srinagar was under curfew. The identity pass
may or may not have helped in the crackdown. Son after son—
never to return from the night of torture—was taken away.
Shahid’s helpless resignation evokes Paul Celan’s misery—his father died in a concentration camp and mother was shot by the Nazis—when he wrote in “Ashglory,” “no one / bears witness for / the witness.” Writing in self-imposed exile, Shahid stood as a solitary witness to a world on fire. A Gestapo officer once barged into Pablo Picasso’s Paris apartment, pointed toward his painting Guernica, and asked, “Did you do that?” “No,” Picasso replied. “You did.” Like Guernica, The Country Without a Post Office is an act of mourning for a Paradise turned into hell.
At times in the book, the word Kashmir appears italicized, the slant denoting confusion and derangement, the crumbling of stability and coherence. The language comes to abrupt silences, whispers, and brief moments of stillness marked by uncertainty. Shahid lays down the full weight of his revelations gradually. For in the words of his beloved Emily Dickinson, whom he quotes and borrows from extensively throughout the collection, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—.” He tells all the truth, but both the truth and the telling are slant.
Faced with the environmental crisis, the Vietnam war, and the prospect of nuclear warfare, the American poet W.S. Merwin turned away from formalism, leaving out all punctuation to mark a sense of urgency. In his one-line poem “Elegy,” he wrote without a question mark, “who would I show it to.” Shahid, on the other hand, influenced by poets such as James Merrill, moved toward strict forms—villanelles, canzones, and ghazals—to contain his grief: in free verse, he could go on and on, but formal constraints reined in the course of lamentation.
Out of all his poems about Kashmir, the one that best captures his suffering is the canzone “After an August Wedding in Lahore.” Like Shahid’s two other canzones—“Lenox Hill,” written after his mother’s death, and “The Veiled Suite,” his final poem—it is a lavish ledger that assumes the voice of millions of people, and presents their suffering in lyrical manner. The question he asks is not whether there will be singing in the dark times—he knows that songs will be sung—but what his voice should lament:
The century is ending. It is pain,
from which love departs into all new pain:
Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,
is bringing love to its tormented glass.
Stranger, who will inherit the last night
of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?
Though The Country Without a Post Office presents Shahid as a poet of dark times, he was also a poet of peace in times of conflict; he lived, as Mandelstam did, “in the imperative of the future passive participle—in the ‘what ought to be’.” Sometime after the publication of The Country Without a Post Office, the artist Masood Hussain visited Shahid in Srinagar. Sitting in his verandah with his electronic typewriter, Shahid handed him some couplets that he had written and asked him to paint them. The couplets, to Hussain’s surprise, eulogized the beauty of Kashmir. According to Hussain, “they presented a contrast from the nature of our works which largely were a testimony to the ongoing turmoil in the Valley.”
One of the untitled couplets reads:
What measureless measures, the colors of fire clinging to the chinars, to the reflections of chinars,
to your eyes as from them you see the last grand crimsoned spillage.
Shahid, as Hussain would realize much later, was looking past the ongoing conflict, staring past all that was lost, already searching for all that could be regained. He was hopeful that peace would come back to the valley. And why not? After all, even Mandelstam’s Petersburg returned, shaking off a century’s worth of ashes, after the fall of the Soviets. There always was room for hope to exist, for Shahid to keep the promise he’d made, when he would be asked to sing of the promising, and not the promised end.