Aga Shahid Ali’s “Postcard from Kashmir”: A Romatic Poem

postcard

This is a Romantic poem, the poet is a Romantic poet, and the spirit that animates it is Romantic.

You may remember in the post on the Romantic Spirit, I had requested for some time before I took up the spirit of melancholy later. This is that time and Ali’s “Postcard” is the poem with which I do that. I’ll try a close reading here, and it is for that purpose that I have highlighted, underlined and made boxes all over the text liberally.

My method in this poem will be to begin in the end. The last four lines, i.e. “And my memory…undeveloped” have only one verb: “will be”. They are juxtaposed with the preceding four-and-a-half lines, i.e. “When I return…overexposed”, again  with only one verb: “won’t be”. And yes, there’s zeugma in the yoking of “won’t be” with the four phrases that begin with “so”. The balancing of sentences with opposite verbs is significant. Moreover, “won’t be” in the seventh line is structurally mid-way from both the beginning and the end in this poem of fourteen lines (please don’t call it a sonnet yet).

The strategic positioning and need of negation in future arises from the present that has  miniaturized, commercialized, and (in Baudelairean terms) Disnefied “home” from a prelapsarian past. Irony, the potent weapon of the powerless, is subtly sent to work here. The word “so” is the key. Of course, in poetry, unlike life, accidents are rare. Therefore,  four instances of the same word in four consecutive lines, yoked strongly with one verb at one place, is definitely significant. The unstated structure is “so”…”as” kind of comparison from which the “as” part has been omitted. Inserting it results into:

When I return, the colors won’t be so brilliant [as that in the postcard at present/as they were in my past/ as they used to be in the past of other people]                                                            

[When I return,] [T]the Jhelum’s waters [won’t be]  so clean, so ultramarine  [as that in the postcard at present/as they were in my past/as they used to be in the past of other people]

[When I return,] [M] my love [won’t be] so overexposed [as that in the postcard at present/as they were in my past/as they used to be in the past of other people].

Therefore, there are three possible correct readings of these lines. As the occasion of the birth of all these lines is the arrival of that postcard, the first reading, that’s located in the present time, is definitely and obviously valid. We’ll see towards the end that the second reading is misleading. The third reading, with the past of other people, or Kashmir in the accounts of people other than the speaker, Kashmir is the picturesque paradise on earth that it once used to be. So, the postcard in the present time and all the accounts of Kashmir in other people’s memory or the collective memory of the people of Kashmir exist in an ambiguous tension in the interpretative possibilities of the first few lines centred in “home”.

The word home is linked with hand, love and memory in a neat pattern. The word “my” is the strong binding force that attaches them to the speaker, and to one another in this poem.  It’s his home that he calls his love and holds in his hands, that’s also in his memory. Home in hand is upon the postcard in present time, but it is only a representation, or distortion, of a past time.  Home in memory may have its origin in direct sensory experience and later retention of Kashmir or absorption of a picturesque Kashmir already developed and in place in stories, myths and histories when the speaker started thinking of and imbibing ideas of home. Or, it can be an amalgamation of various personal, ancestral, regional, communal and collective pasts. For our poet, past is ancestral past and it never dies:

snow

Before we go any further with interpretation, a short digression on home and past in Ali’s poetry is in order. Amitav Ghosh wrote a beautiful piece on Shahid Ali’s death, life, and love for his home and culture. In it he mentioned the physical and mental pain the poet went through and also pleasure that he derived from his life: present and past. I remember three words from that piece that meant everything to Ali: Kashmir, Kashmir, Kashmir. Ali’s poetry and his life are not divorced. He is not fully subjective, but his is not the passionless and hard kind of modern or postmodern poetry. His is the poetry of heart, home and past, and that’s the reason I call him a Romantic. Ali is never away from Kashmir. Kashmir is with him, in him and he in it. Kashmir is not a place for this exile. It has become a memory. It’s vivid, even immediate, but in his mind. It’s his heaven or hell, or whatever else he makes of it.

land

Home and pain go hand in hand, as home is not where he is or will be. It is where he used to be and still is, whenever he looks back. The poet’s eyes “in a fine frenzy rolling” glance form present to past, from America to India, from twenty-first century to eleventh century, and

lh

Irony and repetition are used in the first seven lines too, and alliteration is the force that binds the key words there: home, half-inch Himalayas, hold and hand, the last two words contributing to the masculine rhyme too. Home has been shrunk, and a definitely phallic Himalayas is held in hands. Psychoanalytically speaking, there definitely is rage and repression, along with transference, because pain is not fully expressed and the parental injunction for neatness that had been internalized resurfaces.

The word “home” comes thrice in the beginning of the poem. It’s first shrunk into 24 square inches in area, then reduced in dimensions too into half-inch, and finally denied any possibility of return. The very first word of the very first line of this poem is Kashmir. The very mention of the word Kashmir invokes the following lines:

pIf there’s a paradise on the earth,                                                                                                         It’s here, it’s here, it’s here.

It is from that paradise that the speaker has been exiled. The fall is irreversible. This Adam will never return to his Kashmir. His paradise is lost and not because of an angel denying him access to Eden on God’s orders, but because it’s not there anymore. It can only be found shrunk onto an area of four by six inches. Between the home that he can’t return to, and the postcard that re-presents home, lies its memory.

The postcard of the title that is never mentioned by name in the poem is coloured, as is proven by the ultramarine Jhelum. The very presence of the prefix ultra- that means beyond in Latin is pregnant with possibilities. As affirmed already, there aren’t any accidents in poetry, this particular shade of blue that’s contextually totally justified, is not innocent of other interpretations. The reading of ultra- as over or beyond is underscored and emphasized by the prefix over- in the very next line. Thus there are six indicators (four times “so”, ultra- and over-) in the four lines governed by  “won’t be” that make the negation complete and final. Thus the postcard held in hands in the present time re-presents an extinct Kashmir at the best, probably not even that. In an age of commercialization and packaging, probably the postcard “creates” a Kashmir that the speaker had neither seen nor heard of. That may be the reason behind his chagrin, if it isn’t called rage.

I don’t know why, but while reading this poem, Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” flashed into my mind suddenly. I quote it in part before we look closer:

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,                                                                                    
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The speaker wants (wishes) to go home, although he doesn’t call it by that name. His home is in a kind of pastoral past, and he is away from both the pastoral and the past while he stands in his present time on the roadways or on the pavements. Water is there, just as Jhelum is in Ali’s poem.

The last few lines play, and not so subtly as traces are left, with distortion of home. The coloured postcard of the beginning is not home but an enhanced slice of the picturesque. The scale is altered, home is “shrunk” and hands are left holding a half-inch Himalayas. Thus irony functions to show the unreal nature of colours, neatness and dimensions. The ‘overexposed” love of the speaker is also not home, as the prefix over- suggests. Finally, the memory, looking back at home, will find no colours there, and no clarity of vision. Home is lost irrevocably. Whatever the speaker does, it can never be reached again. The pain of loss is intensified by its erasure from and distortion in the memory too. There is a technical detail that must be mentioned here. Coloured and black-and-white photographs are developed from two different types of negatives. Just as one kind of photograph can’t substitute for another, negatives are also not interchangeable. The Kashmir of the first few lines and that of the last few are not one and the same. Neither are they related in any way. Real or not, the postcard has colours. Developed or not, the negative is black-and-white.

Ali died away from home. He never returned. In a way, it was good for the romantic in him as there actually was no home to return to; there never is a path in space that cuts across time.

The boat laid up, the voyage o’er,
And passed the stormy wave,
The world is going as before,
The poet in his grave.      

(John Clare, “The Poet’s Death”)

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4 thoughts on “Aga Shahid Ali’s “Postcard from Kashmir”: A Romatic Poem

  1. So the whole poem sits on the zeugma on the line “my love so overexposed” for me. The kind of turn that interpretation of this takes in the poem is amazing. It was a joy to read through such complex explanation. I will be reading it again and again to grasp what exactly this poem wants the reader to interpret. The deeper melancholy in the pure black and white image of his is more than the pain he describes for his inability to go back home. Truly, he could never go back home since it no longer exist.

    Like

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