The Country Without a Post Office

by Agha Shahid Ali

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

The twentieth century was a century of wars, when old countries dissolved and new ones sprang up. As a result, cultural and national identity was often in flux, products of shifts in population and changing borders. The image of exile permeates much twentieth-century poetry and is a primary motif in Ali’s poem. To be lost is to be in exile, not only from one’s country but from oneself as well. Ali’s speaker is both lost to himself and lost to his land. However, he seems to have found himself, at least temporarily, in the third section, when he says, “The entire map of the lost will be candled,” suggesting that self-knowledge will be possible for a short time, as he issues stamps at night. In the penultimate stanza of the last section, the speaker finally understands that he has “no prayer” that can save him and shouts, “It’s Us! It’s Us!” This shout illustrates the fact that the speaker has accepted the contradictions of his own heart, which are also the contradictions of his country, which, like the speaker, has no name.

Communicating is more than merely exchanging words. For Ali, it is an act of emotional understanding of the other and of self-knowledge as well. By using letters, stamps, and the post office as central symbolic images in his poem, Ali underscores both the need for communication and the impossibility of communicating. Not only is it literally impossible to communicate (at least by letter) in a country without a post office, but also it is difficult for the warring factions of Kashmir to communicate with one another, blinded as they are by their own passions and self-righteousness. The speaker’s identity and desires are comprised of contradictory elements, just as his homeland of Kashmir is. The more he can understand himself, the more he can understand the turmoil that is ravaging his country. The speaker moves from returning to the country at the beginning of the poem to acknowledging that he cannot save himself or, by extension, his country, at the end of the poem. Like Kashmir, the speaker’s heart is damaged, but also like Kashmir, it continues, fueled by its own courage and the need to go on.

The term “postcolonialism” refers broadly to the ways in which race, ethnicity, culture, and human identity are represented in the modern era, after many colonized countries gained their independence. However, some critics use the term to refer to all culture and cultural products influenced by imperialism from the moment of colonization until today. Ali and his poetry are such cultural products. Ali was born in 1949, two years after Indian independence, in New Delhi, India, and raised in Kashmir, a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan. His family was Shia, a minority among the Muslims of Kashmir. In addition, he spent his mid-teens in Muncie, Indiana, before returning to India. The sheer fact of so much moving and so many cultural affiliations plays into the composition of Ali’s poems, especially “The Country Without a Post Office.” Here, the speaker is fraught with contradictions and competing desires, so much so that he seems to long for annihilation, if only to free him from the pain of so much confusion. “Everything is finished, nothing remains,” the poet says at one point and “I want to live forever” at another point. The change in the poet’s role from observer of the minaret to its keeper marks Ali’s attempt, through his poetry, to inhabit the contradictions rather than to keep them at bay. In doing so, however, he risks his own sanity.

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