In that country (Kashmir), a prisoner’s letter to a lover begins: “These words may never reach you”.
-Agha Shahid Ali.
All my life, in all those hardcover Pakistan Studies books, Jammu and Kashmir were always “disputed”. I would retract and forget, time and again, as a kid and as an adult but the lingering question of the fate Kashmir never seemed to bother me. It was disputed, right? As long as I was concerned there was no bloodshed involved in Pakistan and India, none that I knew of.
2004, at the age of 7 I thought it obligatory to glue myself to the television because something called the “Kargil War” had everyone in Pakistan and India on their toes. Nothing that should concern me, I tell myself.
The next 10 years of my school life were spent hearing the words “amnesty, human rights, UN, line of control, armed forces” etc. in relation to the Kashmir issue but somehow nobody spoke about Kashmiris.
In August of 2014, we were sent back from school because Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused Pakistan of waging a proxy war against India in Kashmir during his visit to Kashmir. Yet again, an Indian PM completely disregarding the people of the land he’s spoken these words on.
Fast forward August 5th, 2019 – I woke up to the news of India scrapping Article 370. With almost all of Kashmir’s elected representatives under house arrest, I knew exactly what repealing Article 370 meant. Stripping Kashmir off its special status, its autonomy meant talking away the little authority Kashmiris had left over their own lives.
On August 13th, 1:04 pm the Indian Post confirmed that Kashmir no longer had access to postal services, hereby confirming that the region could no longer be reached via mail. At that particular moment, I couldn’t help but recall Agha Shahid Ali’s poem titled The Country Without a Post Office. Shahid’s fiction had come to life.
I take this moment in history and this space on the internet to pay tribute to the lives lost in Kashmir through Agha Shahid Ali’s verses.
The issue of Kashmir is 72 years old today and yet it has always been about Indians and Pakistanis and never Kashmiris.
Shahid expresses the love for his homeland in words that only a Kashmiri can word – and feel.
Postcard from Kashmir from The Half-Inch Himalayas
Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.
I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.
This is home. And this the closest
I’ll ever be to home. When I return,
the colors won’t be so brilliant,
the Jhelum’s waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed. And my memory will be a little
out of focus, in it
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped.
Agha Ali Shahid was born in Srinagar to a wealthy educated family. His poetry to this day, is nothing more than a heavy yearning to go back to the place he calls home.
We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the key and disappear.
Educated at the Burn Hall School followed by the University of Kashmir and the Hindu College, University of Delhi, he then earned a Ph.D. in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1984. Finally earning his M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in 1985, he taught at multiple universities in the US.
Often compared to Paradise, the valley of Kashmir, Shahid writes in his poem Farewell:
I am being rowed through Paradise on a river of Hell.
Being born, raised and an eye witness to the atrocities in Kashmir, Shahid is well known for his poetry on Kashmir. The continuous curfews, the long unheard protests and heaps of unidentified bodies made Shahid’s heartache for Kashmir.
The city from where no news can come
is now so visible in its curfewed night
that the worse is precise
a shadow chased by searchlights is running away to find its body
While my country is drowned in mindless celebration of their 72nd, I think about the 72 years of Kashmiri generations growing up and not knowing a life outside war. In his prose poem, “Karbala: A History of the House of Sorrow”, Shahid compares the scenario of Kashmir of the 1990s to the tragedy of Karbala:
Summer 1992 — when for two years Death had turned
Every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala.
For me, Shahid’s poetry is more than rhyming verses that are pleasant to hear. It’s a political commentary on years of oppression, injustice, and agony. It’s woven into a fabric of complete loss of identity and political exhaustion.
“Come before I am killed
My voice canceled”
“Nothing will remain
While the narrative power of art may come with the downside of it being categorized as a romanticization of the particular subject matter, I believe Agha Shahid Ali’s eulogy form has only contributed to the heaviness of the heart. In his poem “Death Row” Ali mourns the hostage life that Kashmiris have come to internalize:
else in this world has been mentioning you,
Gathering news, itemizing your lives
For a file you’ll never see.
Kashmiris have longed for independence for years. They’ve lost, lived and given up hope to oppressive governments over the years and yet, for people across the borders, the issue still revolves around geographical measurements. It’s a shame to be associated with nations that have close to zero regards for human life.
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 neighborhoods,
The homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.
Kashmir is burning.
Shahid’s poetry is an apt representation of how art can be used as a tool for political representation and counter repression. Shahid has managed to influence millions of Kashmiris and not only Kashmiris but all South Asians protesting for peace in the region. It’s high time the patriarchs of this region realize the human loss this conflict has caused for the last 72 years. The terror Kashmiri children have come to live and grow in and the continuous blind eye powerful intuitions like the UN and Amnesty International continue to turn towards this undisputed territory.
I pray (hopelessly), that a Kashmiri poet can achieve what many years of global diplomacy could not. In times like these, with an impending genocide, think, reflect and pray for generations to come.
I am writing to you from your far-off country.
Far even from us who live here
Where you no longer are.
Everyone carries his address in his pocket
At least his body will reach home.