The Country Without a Post Office

by Agha Shahid Ali

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

Ali’s poem describes the destruction of his homeland, Kashmir, and the endless battles fought by Hindus and Muslims to control it. Located north of India and bordered by Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China from the west to the east, Kashmir was one of more than five hundred states of India that Britain controlled when power was transferred to the people in 1947. After Pakistan sent troops into the region to annex the states, the ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, signed the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947, making Kashmir part of India. This did not stop the bloodshed or fighting, however, as various Muslim and Kashmiri independence groups continued to battle Indian forces for control of the region. Pakistan tried to annex Kashmir in 1965 and 1971 but failed, and in 1990 a new outbreak erupted between Pakistan and India over Pakistani support of Muslim militants in Kashmir. More than a hundred thousand Hindus fled Kashmir Valley, fearing for their lives, and India moved more troops into the region to stop cross-border infiltration from Pakistan. Insurgents assassinated Hindu officials, and in return the Indian military routinely harassed, and often shot, peaceful unarmed demonstrators. Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto traveled to Pakistan in 1990 promising a “thousand-year war” to support the militants, and Pakistan threatened to use nuclear weapons if Indian forces crossed the Line of Control.

In an effort to control the growing tension, the Bush administration imposed economic and military sanctions on Pakistan and won assurances from the Pakistani government that Pakistan would stop supporting training camps for Kashmiri insurgents. In the late 1990s when Ali published his poem, the United States had focused its overseas attention on Eastern Europe. In 1996, America sent twenty thousand troops to Bosnia as part of a NATO peacekeeping force, and in 1999 they joined NATO in conducting air strikes against Yugoslavia in an attempt to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Domestically, the United States economy was booming, due in large part to the popularity of the Internet. While Ali was composing a poem using the symbol of a country without a post office to express his grief over the relentless strife in his homeland, millions of other people were sending electronic mail with telephone wires, cable lines, and satellite dishes. Some of the most gripping stories coming out of the wars in Yugoslavia involved residents of Sarajevo, which had been bombed into rubble, emailing outsiders during the war. Industry analysts estimate that email messages sent daily will exceed 60 billion worldwide by 2006, compared with 31 billion email messages sent daily during 2002. More than half of such messages will be person to person. The emergence of email as the preferred form of communication for millions of people worldwide means that postal services will have to begin to find new ways to compete.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245

“The Country Without a Post Office” is written in four sections, each composed of three eightline stanzas (octaves) rhymed ABCDDCBA. This unconventional, yet symmetrical, rhyme scheme mirrors the movement of the speaker, who moves in and out of darkness, up and down the minaret. Each line contains roughly ten syllables, which provides one more restriction on the poet. The restrictions of the poem create a tight linguistic environment, which parallels the suffocating emotional state of the speaker, who struggles to understand himself and to make sense of the war raging in his homeland.

Who is the “he” the speaker returns to find? There is no definitive answer. The person the speaker seeks can be both a lover or a loved one and a part of himself with whom he is seeking to make contact. The latter point makes sense when one considers the third section in which the speaker addresses his own heart a number of times, encouraging it to “feel.” The assumption must be, then, that the speaker has had a difficult time feeling before he returned.

Concrete imagery appeals to the senses. Ali uses concrete images that are also symbolic and universal to evoke ideas and emotions familiar to most readers. Some of these include “fire,” signifying purification and ruin; “lamp,” signifying insight; and “heart,” signifying passion and emotional turmoil. Taken as a whole, Ali’s imagery suggests powerful yet conflicting emotions, which underline his speaker’s state of mind.

Media Adaptations

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38

Asia Pacific Forum has produced an audiocassette tribute to Ali, which includes the poet reading from his work. A copy can be received by writing to Asia Pacific Forum, WBAI 99.5 FM, 120 Wall Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10005.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

Advani, Rukun, “Agha Shahid Ali: A Few Memories,”, dec/8/lr120801agha.htm (last accessed January 2003), December 8, 2001.

Ali, Agha Shahid, “The Country Without a Post Office,” in The Country Without a Post Office, W. W. Norton, 1997, pp. 48–51.

Brainard, Dulcy, and Sybil S. Steinberg, Review of The Country Without a Post Office, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 244, Issue 8, February 24, 1997, pp. 86–87.

Bryant, Eric, Review of The Country Without a Post Office, in Library Journal, Vol. 117, No. 12, July 1997, p. 102.

Gamalinda, Eric, “Poems Are Never Finished: A Final Interview with Agha Shahid Ali,” in Poets & Writers, Vol. 30, No. 2, March–April 2002, pp. 44–51.

Guillory, Daniel L., Review of The Country Without a Post Office, in Library Journal, Vol. 122, No. 13, August 1997, p. 92.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 4th ed., edited by William H. Gardner and Norman H. MacKenzie, Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 101.

King, Bruce, Review of The Country Without a Post Office, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 3, Summer 1997, p. 590.

Miller, J. Hillis, “Narrative,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Letricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Further Reading
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Routledge, 1995. This anthology provides the most comprehensive selection of texts in postcolonial theory and criticism to date, featuring ninety of the discipline’s most widely read works. Well-known theorists, such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhaba, are represented, and their essays have been edited for clarity and accessibility.

Ganguly, Sumit, Conflict Unending, Columbia University Press, 2002. Ganguly presents a concise, dispassionate summary of each Indo-Pakistani conflict since 1947, foregrounding the two countries’ claims to Kashmir.

Kak, Subhash, Secrets of Ishbar: Poems on Kashmir and Other Landscapes, Manohar Publishers, 2000. The first part of this book details the author’s memories of Kashmir, and the second part describes landscapes of his imagination. Critics claim Kak is one of India’s finest poets.

Said, Edward, Orientalism, Vintage Books, 1978. Said’s study of how the West has historically represented the “Arab” world ranks as one of the most important works of postcolonial theory.

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