The Correspondent by Agha Shahid Ali

Agha Shahid Ali is a Kashmiri-American poet, but born and brought up in India. Having his origin from Srinagar, Kashmir, Ali has seen burning Kashmir ever since he started to understand the external world. Moreover, he himself has been an eyewitness of many gory scenes in Kashmir. Though raised in a well-to-do and educated family, Ali never lost his love towards Kashmir. He always loved the place where he spent his childhood, and spent much of his time among friends who later got lost either due to widespread migration or bloodshed in Kashmir. Let’s face it, most of his poetic works revolves around Kashmir, there are a few of his works that show a very different aspect of Ali’s poetic skills. Some of his most famous works include: A Pastoral, Rooms Are Never Finished and The Country Without a Post-Office, Call Me Ishmael Tonight (2001, The Floating Post Office, and more.


About The Correspondent

The poem, The Correspondent reveals terrifying state of two countries – Kashmir and Bosnia. In the poem, the poet says that the condition of Bosnia and torn Kashmir are not unequal, rather both countries are facing the same situation of bloodshed of innocent people that people in Bosnia are facing. Comparing his self-administered exile with the exile of Mandelstam or his cross-border relations with political sieges of ancient cities, Shahid Ali blends personal losses with the world’s losses. The war journalist, who is either a lover or partner of the poet equates the Kashmir conflict and the Sarajevo/Bosnian war, making reference to a third connotation: ‘correspondence’ as ‘analogy’ or ‘similarity’. Shahid shows his interest in all three nuances. He says there must be communication between people, the media must film and picturize the realistic picture of violence spread in Kashmir, and should also approach the Kashmiris with a very positive approach so that the age-old glory of this beautiful state can could be regained.

Shahid Ali makes occasional implantation of human characters in several of his poetic works. He uses these characters to portray the widespread devastation and age-old Kashmiri tradition. The portrayed characters in the poem are too real to synonymize with a metaphorical subjectivity.


The Correspondent Analysis

I say, “There’s no way back to your country,”

(…)

a dim kerosene lamp.

In the poem, The Correspondent, which you can read in full here, the poet, who is a speaker in the poem, gives an account of Bosnian journalist, who has come to Kashmir on an  assignment to film the warlike situation in the speaker’s country. While filming the documentary, the war correspondent comes to know that there is not much difference between his country and Kashmir. Both the countries are undergoing the same trauma of atrocities and violence. Though some critics have developed their own view when it comes to the relationship of the speaker, who is a Kashmiri, and his lover who is from Sarajevo, my views, as far as I have read the poetic works  of Agha Shahid Ali, are different from them. I don’t believe in deducing on the basis of words used in the poem unless the historical or literary background of the poet has not been researched and studied well. Yes, Ali does support all types of sexual relations, but that doesn’t mean the context of the poem is based on homoerotic relationship. In fact, the poem reveals the similar situation of both countries.

In the very first line of the first stanza, when the speaker says, ‘There’s no way back to your country,’ he may also mean that the situation in Kashmir has become so worst that going out may endanger his life. Therefore, he must not leave the country till the situation gets normalized, but his lover says that he has his own responsibility to fulfil.

The opening lines of the poem also hints that the speaker wants his partner to be around him, and in order to make his lover stay with him, the speaker even “takes off” his shadow, which is also meant by some critics that they are taking off their clothes to get involved in an act of physical intimacy. However, it is to be understood here that when the speaker says, “there’s no electricity,” he lights up a dim kerosene lamp so that the darkness of violence could be diminished to some extent. Right when the speaker is lighting up a dim kerosene lamp, there is a soundtrack of exploding grenades, which also suggests that the war is still on, and the people of Kashmir are still in the same situation.

“We must give back the hour it sheen.

(…)

inhabits the night?

In the above stanzas, the speaker’s partner says, “I’ve just come–with videos–from Sarajevo.” Having seen the footage, the speaker says, “His footage is priceless with sympathy, close-ups in slow motion, from bombed sites to the dissolve of mosques in colonnades.” The meaning of these lines may be that the speaker was highly impressed by the way the Bosnia correspondent had filmed violence and human atrocities in his country. Praising the documentary of his love, the speaker says that the documentary is “priceless with sympathy.” He has best captured the state of his country, “from bombed sites / to the dissolve of mosques in colonnades,” which make him emotional and nostalgic towards Kashmir. When the correspondent fast-forwards the documentary film, there is a scene of a solitary musician clad in formal wear, and playing his cello on the sidewalk; the barbed-wire fence of a concentration camp; and the dead, whose “gaze” is “fractured white with subtitles”. In the film that was being shown to the speaker, the first part was showing the prosperity and happy life of Bosnia, similar to Kashmir, which once used to be a nation of happiness and prosperity, but now similar to Bosnia, Kashmir has also turned into a country of violence, vengeance and massacre. As the scene of a solitary musician in Bosnia suddenly turns into; death and dead people, similarly, the beautiful scenery of Kashmir has now turned into blood-stained scenery, filled with the blood of innocent Kashmiri, fighting for their rights and independence.

The phone rings. I think he

(…)

what’s left. He zooms madly into my shadow.

In the last stanzas of the poem The Correspondent the poet, who is a speaker here, becomes worried as the phone rings. It is because he feels the call may be for his partner, and he may have to leave this place, leaving the speaker alone amid the tragic and terrifying state of Kashmir. The poet even asks: “When will the satellites transmit my songs, carry Kashmir, aubades always for dawns to stamp True! across seas?” However, his partner may not be in mood to answer this, instead, “He opens the window points to convoys in the mountains, army trucks with dimmed lights.”

At the end of the poem, both – the speaker and his lover – seem to be getting agreed that the filmmakers should come ahead, and make documentary film about Kashmir, depicting the gharry state of the country, and how Kashmiris are migrating due to frequent violence between Hindus and Muslims, and how the socio-political system of the country has been devastated due these violence. The speaker further says that the best way to recapture one’s sense of one’s homeland is to “erase” one’s definitive ideas of it and to start fresh, to “rewind to zero” and to work one’s way back to it.  The filmmaker should make his/her documentary on Kashmir by “zooming madly in” to his lover’s shadow. And if you really want to understand Kashmir, or a land like Kashmir, try to understand it by being personal and sensuous.


Personal Comments

There are many poetic works of Agha Shahid Ali, which reveal the sorry and gory state of Kashmir, but a few of his poetic works like The Correspondent have been presented in a very different. In the poem, the poet has portrayed a human character, a Bosnian war correspondent who equates the terrifying situation of Kashmir with his own country Bosnia. Though at some points, the poem has also been rallied for homoerotic relationship between the speaker and his partner, with the passage of time, it becomes clear to the readers like me that this poem also reveals the gruesome violence widespread in Kashmir, and how the people of two communities – Hindus and Muslims are becoming enemy of each other. In all, The Correspondent is also one of the best masterpieces of Agha Shahid Ali.

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One Response

  1. DR. SISIR KUMAR CHATTERJEE May 20, 2017

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