By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, Aug 7 (IANS) Two teenaged girls, one in Srinagar and the other in New Delhi, set out to be pen-pals and over the years this has blossomed into an abiding friendship that contextualizes their lives and attempts to bring out the complex realities that confront them.
The letters “bring together two teenagers growing up in very different circumstances and amongst polarising opinions. Duaa in Srinagar and Saumya in Delhi start writing letters to each other when they are barely 15, an age when young minds are open and inquisitive. It helps them have frank conversations and candidly ask each other searching questions. From internet shutdowns, to stone-pelting and even the call for ‘azadi’, they move easily between discussing their favourite music bands to the most contentious issues” BBC journalist Divya Arya , who kick-started the letter-writing project and has now encapsulated the outcome in a book, “Post Box Kashmir” (Duckbill-Penguin), told IANS in an interview.
Like Anne Frank’s letters, the book, set against the backdrop of the political history and turbulence of Kashmir provides an insight into the minds and hearts of teenage girls undergoing momentous points in history. The answers they seek are likely to be the answers that all teenagers growing up in India would ask.
Do only Muslims live in Kashmir? Why do girls in Kashmir do stone pelting? Whom do they want freedom from? Can you imagine being confined to the four walls of your home with no internet, no social media? Are Kashmiris really invisible to the rest of the country?
These are some of the questions Saumya in Delhi and Duaa in Kashmir asked through letters they exchanged over almost three years.
“Postbox Kashmir” takes on the challenging task of attempting to portray life in Kashmir from the perspective of the young minds growing inside it and providing a context of understanding for the young generation watching it from the outside.
“Letters, the old school form of communication, play a crucial role in this project. It brings in time and distance. The teenagers are not reactionary. Their responses are considered and empathetic. Their probing questions are framed with care. Strangers before they were brought together for the project, they are now friends,” Arya said.
“This journey between a young Hindu girl in Delhi and a Muslim teenager in Srinagar will surprise some people. Unlike the popular perception of anger and hostility, the young girls reach out to each other. Duaa writes at length about her life’s experiences of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. While Saumya tells her that their friendship makes her comfortable to ask questions about identity and religion that she would not speak with any of her other Muslim friends.
“The period right after the abrogation of Article 370 brings a complete halt to any communication between Duaa and Saumya. A few months later, as the telecommunication shutdown eases, they start writing again. This time Saumya is the one answering questions as Duaa feels cut-off from the rest of the country during one of the longest internet shutdowns,” Arya added.
The book is also the journey of the teenagers evolving into two young women.
“It contextualizes their lives and attempts to bring out the complex realities that confront them. The pen-pals letters bring a crucial lens often missed in discussing geo-politics. A reflection and reminder of the impact of conflict on young people and the need to have open conversations,” Arya explained.
Divya Arya has been telling people’s stories for almost two decades now. An award-winning journalist, she has also presented the global news programme OS on BBC World Service radio from its London newsroom and launched the chat show “WorklifeIndia” on BBC World News TV from Delhi. Arya is the first journalist from India to be chosen as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. Her research was published in the collection of essays, “Breaching the Citadel”.
By Vishnu Makhijani