Cultural Homelands in Poetry: Agha Shahid Ali’s “Postcard from Kashmir”

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Agha Shahid Ali seems to pack a lot into the 14 lines of his poem “Postcard from Kashmir.” A personal reflection on his homeland of violence-ridden Kashmir, Shahid Ali’s poem does not provide much in the way of historical or political facts about the country. However, the poem does provide some insight into the country’s past, at least from Shahid Ali’s perspective, as well as a seemingly clear description of the poet’s feelings about his homeland and reasons for the complicated nature of the poet’s feelings about Kashmir. In other words, Shahid Ali’s relatively short poem reveals a great deal about the Kashmir and the poet’s relationship with his homeland.

Shahid Ali’s poem does not contain much in the way details about Kashmir. The news media paints a picture of Kashmir as politically, religiously, and ethnically diverse as well as politically unstable and plagued by violence and territorial dispute. It is rather unsurprising that the poet left his home country to seek opportunities elsewhere. However, none of that violence appears explicitly in the poem. He acknowledges the country as his home, writing “…Now I hold/ the half-inch Himalayas in my hand./ This is home” (Shahid Ali 4-5). This description of Kashmir acknowledges a geographical boundary or delineation of the country, without directly connecting it to the ongoing territorial disputes.

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However, the poet potentially hints at the less-than-orderly nature of his homeland by declaring that the “four by six inches” of the postcard, creating the “half-inch Himalayas,” to which the postcard has reduced Kashmir is preferable (Shahid Ali 2,4). In fact, the poet writes that he “always loved neatness” (Shahid Ali 3). But the less-than-orderly nature of his country has clearly had an impact on his relationship with it, practically speaking; Shahid Ali notes that this postcard is “the closest” he’ll “ever be to home” (5-6). The again, while not explicit, seems definitively present. And that implicit again carries a great deal of weight in this compact little poem and suggests a lot about the poet’s personal history with his homeland.

In fact, the explicitness of the postcard being “the closest” he’ll “ever be to home” and the implicitness of the again create a significant emotional weight that only seems to grow heavier as the poem progresses. There are several affective responses that clarify the poet’s relationship with his homeland. He acknowledges that he has likely idealized his homeland in his mind by admitting that he knows that any actual return to the country of Kashmir will reveal that his memories aren’t accurate. When he returns, “the colors won’t be so brilliant,” and the waters of the Jhelum River won’t be “so clean, / so ultramarine” – in fact, he will see that his love is “so overexposed” (Shahid Ali 7-9). But within that brief line and a half – “My love / so overexposed” (9-10) – the poet acknowledges that he does in fact harbor love for his homeland.

That love might be predicated on a romanticized memory, similar to the cleaned up, well-designed, and carefully constructed postcard in its 4 x 6 compact neatness, but it is still his love for his homeland. However, he goes farther in acknowledging the gap between his memory of his homeland and the reality of the country. That gap will impact his memory and his feelings of his homeland. The discrepancy will make his memory “a little out of focus,” with “a giant negative, black and white, still undeveloped” (Shahid Ali 12-13). This suggests that the poet will not fight to keep his idealized memory of Kashmir intact; he knows reality will supersede that memory, forcing Shahid Ali to regard his memory as imperfect and incomplete.

Shahid Ali’s responses to this reminder of his homeland clearly prompt mixed emotions. The poem starts with a kind of visceral reaction on the poet’s part, acknowledging the poet’s love of neatness and his appreciation that this reminder of his homeland is so compact and tidy. However, as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that this initial reaction belies the poet’s mixed feelings about the postcard and his homeland. The complicated nature of Shahid Ali’s reactions to the postcard and his homeland are clearly accounted for in the poem, in the poet’s own hand: the distance between the poet’s memory and the reality of his homeland cause conflict within the poet. He acknowledges that he has an idealized memory of Kashmir, one that seems devoid of conflict or violence, one in which the colors are brighter and the nature of his homeland is more orderly. He also acknowledges that this is his picture of home, a place to which he will never be able to return because it’s not real. However, he still loves his homeland, though he recognizes than visit to Kashmir will undo that picture he has of his homeland, reducing it to something less clear, less sharp, less detailed, than the picture he currently has in his mind. But he seems to acknowledge that he will go back, and that he recognizes the risk of such a visit to his memory. Acknowledging the risk but also seeming to acknowledge that he’ll return causes conflict in the poet.

Kashmir has been characterized by conflict – political, religious, and ethnic – for many years. This conflict seems to take on a personal dimension for poet Agha Shahid Ali when he considers his memory of the country versus its reality. Though “Postcard from Kashmir” relates little of the past or history of the country, it reveals the poet’s past with the country. The poem reflects the poet’s affective responses to his homeland which reveal a great deal of conflict on the part of the poet. These responses seem to be the product of the deficit between the poet’s memory of his homeland and the reality of the country, a deficit the poet acknowledges.

  • Shahid Ali, Agha. “Postcard from Kashmir.” gulgasht.wordpress.com/

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