In 2017, two teenage girls—one based in Delhi and the other in Kashmir— became pen pals. Through their letters, exchanged over three years, they discussed everything from the personal to the political, from stone pelting in Kashmir to internet bans, and more. These letters now offer a prism to the way young minds view notions of freedom and discrimination, more specifically, their understanding of the situation in Kashmir. These exchanges are part of the book, Postbox Kashmir: Two Lives in Letters, by Divya Arya and published by Duckbill.
Arya, a journalist who covers human rights and social justice through a gender lens, embarked on this project for the BBC in 2016. “There was a decline in militancy though the armed forces were still omnipresent in the Valley. A new generation was born, one that had no experience of the volatile 1990s including two young women, Duaa in Srinagar in 2002 and Saumya in Delhi in 2001,” she writes in the book. The summer of 2016 brought with it volatility in Kashmir, when images of bullet-ridden bodies of Burhan Wani and two of his associates emerged. This led to clashes between the youth and the security forces, leading to a number of deaths.
While Arya’s colleagues covered politics and policies, she felt something was missing. “[It] needed more humanity—a step back to delve deep. It also needed to tell the story of those writing its destiny at that moment. Many editorial brainstorms later, we found our answer: teenagers,” writes Arya. “We wanted to understand Kashmir from the perspective of the young minds growing inside it, and to explain it to the young generation watching it from the outside.”
So, Arya's team decided to find two teenagers—from Delhi and Kashmir—and ask them to be pen pals, with the BBC eventually publishing their letters. Arya wanted the youngsters to be girls as often it's the female voices that go missing from conversations about conflict. Serendipity led her to Saumya Sagrika, whose parents ran a small library-cum-reading room in outer Delhi. The shy, quiet girl agreed to be one letter writer.
Meanwhile, Arya had sent requests to families in Kashmir, and one of those landed at 15-year-old Duaa Tul Barzam’s doorstep. “Duaa’s father had a gentle demeanour. We discussed the project a little and then some more. But we spent a lot of time trying to know more about each other, me and my family and Duaa and hers. The conversations with her parents were never rushed and always began with courtesies that extended to my parents, my husband and his family,” writes Arya. And so, finally on April 17, Duaa wrote the first letter to Saumya.
It starts with introductions. Duaa calls herself a music freak, who is inspired by Western and Kashmiri music, while Saumya writes back, telling her about not having any siblings, but how a five-year-old in the neighbourhood doesn’t let her feel the absence of a brother. The personal soon turns into the political, with Saumya asking: “Here, whenever people hear anything about Kashmir, the one word that comes to their mind is ‘Muslim’. I want to know if it’s true that only Muslims live there.” Duaa replies in the subsequent letter that all people in Kashmir have a strong brotherhood, irrespective of religion.
Over time, the two talk about stone pelting, freedom from cruelty and discrimination, status of women in society, and more. One of the most pertinent sections from Duaa’s letters is about the frequent internet bans in the valley. “Can you imagine being confined to the four walls of your home with no internet, no social media like WhatsApp, Instagram, etc? Because of the snapping, we can’t remain active on social media… . We cannot remain in touch with our friends. We can only talk to them over phone or sometimes not even that because calling facilities are also snapped. We live in the era of internet, the twenty-first century, but sometimes I feel that I am living in the seventeenth century,” writes Duaa.
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Over a phone conversation, Arya reveals the primary reason she chose letters for this project was because the act of writing gives us time to pause and reflect. And both Saumya and Duaa insisted they write on paper. “Even though I was translating their letters—they chose to write in different languages—and sending them via email, they wanted to write on paper. They would send me scans. I was only a medium, and I wasn’t editing the letters. Later when I met them, both said that on paper, you can’t delete or press backspace. All of that meant that what I had thought of in some ways was happening,” she says.
The fact of the letters, and with the internet erratic in Kashmir, added a layer of time to the process. Arya hoped the act of writing would make them think about how they were framing their questions and explanations. “It added patience and empathy to the process. That’s why I harked back to the old idea of pen pals,” she adds.
The two girls were requested not to look one another up on social media, and they stayed true to that promise through the project. The experience turned out to be a cathartic one for the teens. “The beauty is that we, as adults or as journalists, assume that if Duaa was asked something about the armed forces, this is how she would respond. But she surprises you. This process was cathartic, in a sense, as they were able to ask questions,” says Arya.
“At the end, they felt they were able to talk about things they couldn’t with the rest of the world. When I sent Duaa a manuscript, she sent me a text, which is very precious to me. She said, ‘I wish everyone reads this to understand Kashmir’. Today, Saumya feels she now has a friend there and feels an attachment to the place, even though she has not been there even now,” she adds.