A Post Office without a Country
on Agha Shahid Ali’s 70th birth anniversary
February 4, 2019
In the post office, moored to the ghat,
Secret griefs and joys are kept afloat.
Sealed in envelopes, the fate of letters
Wait for the familiar door. One day,
We lost the patience of letters. That
Day we lost within, the time of seasons.
We lost the secret of waiting. It isn’t
Our fault, you say. Grief poured
Like an endless monsoon. It refused
To leave the doorstep, dropping
Like a curse of needles. The cry of the
Blinded girl, set fire to the curtains.
It tore apart the door’s weak mercy.
The rain kept company with tears.
“Mad heart, be brave,” you said, on
A day it rained like this.
The day was a row of days. The way
It rained in Macondo. And it rained in
The Gardener’s Village, the day, old
Neighbours told us, tongue-lashing,
“You are foreigners here, you must
I lived the exodus of the heart. I learnt
Poetry, like a refugee, inherits torn
Lands, skies, food and water, I learnt,
We were encroachers, à la cockroaches.
I borrowed the metaphor of insects.
I learnt history seals the fate of irony.
Like food stuffed in my mouth. I learnt.
I came to you with such heart. You were,
After Mandelstam, after Darwish, the
Poet, exiled at home. You felt like me.
You felt unlike me. You fled cities,
And you fled countries, looking for love.
Love tried you, failed you, forbid you.
Sometimes, in a song, it found you.
Poetry stayed, always, by your side.
Till your blood, running out, allowed it,
Poetry, stubborn dog, wagged its tail
By your feet — and kept you warm.
In Srinagar, grief roams the streets
Like a cat, looking for company.
The fish seller waits for a letter,
No one will send: a letter from god.
I hear Noor Jehan singing Faiz
On the radio, and I twist the refrain
To suit the elegy of our time:
Do not ask me of my old griefs, my love,
There are griefs other than your country.
No letter breaks the monotony of
This grief, no word, blessed, appears
Like dawn, yet, among the chinar.
No one meets, only shadows meet
Shadows, shadows stalk shadows.
Grief is an undelivered letter. The
Rain has washed away its address.
Kashmir is a parched lake of Paradise.
It licks its own wounds. The sun on
The little girl’s forehead goes blind.
The post office is numb, delivering
Letters to a country — that waits to
Author’s note: The late Kashmiri American poet, Agha Shahid Ali, was born on February 4, 1949, in Delhi. After pursing his bachelor’s in Srinagar and master’s at Delhi University, Shahid immigrated to the United States in 1976. After earning a doctorate in English literature from Pennsylvania State University, Shahid taught in the MFA programs at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Bennington College, the University of Utah, and NYU. He passed away after a prolonged struggle with a brain tumour, the same illness suffered by his mother, on December 8, 2001. “The Country Without a Post Office” is an iconic poem, where the poetic powers that came to define Shahid were emphatically visible. Speaking about his lifelong, poetic preoccupation—the political conflict in Kashmir—Shahid merged the personal and the political to evoke a predicament of loss and wonder. In Shahid’s delicately woven poetry, the human spirit refuses to stop writing and dreaming the “blessed word” against the backdrop of exodus and terror. Shahid’s posthumous book of collected poems, The Veiled Suite (2009), was named one of “60 Essential English-Language Works of Modern Indian Literature” in the November 2010 issue of WLT.