In Agha Shahid Ali’s poem titled “Postcard from Kashmir,” the speaker describes receiving a postcard from his native land, “Kashmir,” a region of the Indian subcontinent. Parts of Kashmir are controlled by India, Pakistan, and China, and in fact disputes between India and Pakistan about the territory are long-standing and have often led to armed conflict.
In the opening two lines of the poem, the speaker indicates that the postcard contains a photograph of (part of) Kashmir, a place the speaker still considers his “home” (2). Apparently he is very geographically distant from Kashmir, a fact that makes his use of the word “home” ironic. He may have been born in Kashmir and may have lived there for much of his life, but now he is apparently living somewhere else, perhaps even in some Western country such as the United Kingdom or the United States.
In any case, the speaker next mentions that he “always loved neatness” – a trait that emphasizes the irony that he can now hold “the half-inch Himalayas in my hand” (4). The massive mountain range has been reduced to a small, tidy picture, which is surely not the kind of neatness the speaker truly desires. One of the most impressive aspects of his homeland has thus been shrunken and made to seem far less impressive and significant. Although the speaker holds the postcard, he has in more literal ways lost touch with the land he loves.
Perhaps the most intriguing and puzzling lines of the poem are these:
This is home. And this the closest
I'll ever be to home. . . . (5-6)
Does the speaker mean that Kashmir is home? If so, why does he say that “this” is the closest he will ever be to home? One might assume that he means that he is unable to return to Kashmir, and so the postcard must suffice as a poor substitute for an actual visit. In the very next phrase, however, the speaker seems to contemplate an inevitable “return” (6). Therefore, when he says “This is home,” does he mean the unnamed place where he currently resides, which seems a poor substitute for his actual home of Kashmir? The phrasing of lines 5-6 is not entirely clear and contributes an interesting ambiguity to the poem.
The speaker assumes that when he does actually return to Kashmir (in real life and not simply in his imagination), the real sights of the place will not live up neither to the picture of them presented in the postcard nor to the idealized memory of them in the speaker’s mind. In the poem’s closing lines, the speaker suggests that his memory of Kashmir is unreliable and that Kashmir itself may be like
. . . a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped. (13-14)
These lines – and especially the last word – are suggestive. They may imply that Kashmir is still in the process of development as a place, that it is at present still too polarized to live up either to the speaker’s idealized memory of it or to the postcard’s idealized presentation of its beauty.
Nevertheless, it does not seem a mere coincidence that the poem has fourteen lines -- the number of lines associated with sonnets, which are themselves the kinds of poems in which speakers often express unrequited love.