Crossing boundaries with ink, paper and ideas: From Kashmir to Delhi

Kashmir Times. Dated: 11/4/2021 1:47:01 AM

BOOK Review: Post Box Kashmir Two lives in a letter

Author: Divya Arya
Publishers: Dickbill Books, Penguin Random House
Pages: 208, Rs 299
By Anuradha Bhasin
In the summer of 2016, as Kashmir’s turmoil reached a crescendo with an outpouring of youngsters including women on the streets to rise up in rebellion with stones in hand, BBC correspondent, Divya Arya, saw in it the potential to begin a conversation between two teenagers from Kashmir and mainland India. While the idyllic world of school going youngsters came crashing in Kashmir, in rest of India, thinking teenagers had questions about what was happening and why. By the spring of 2017, Divya Arya’s search for the two conversationalists – separated by distance, ethnicity, religion and politics – ended. Thus began the journey of an exchange of ideas through old fashioned letters between 16-years-old Saumya Sagarika from Delhi and 15-years-old Duaa Tul Barzam from Srinagar. For the next few months, their letters – an exchange of personal to political - were showcased by the BBC, enabling a sneak peak into the lives and minds of two complete strangers living in contrasting worlds, curious to know about each other and trying to understand each other’s worlds.
Divya Arya’s book ‘Postbox Kashmir’ brings us a collection of these letters that were written in two tranches – one as part of the original BBC project in 2017 – and the other after 2019 when both the girls felt the need to resume their letter writing as their curiosity about each other’s lives and locations grew. The author, who became the letter keeper for four years, bunches these together in about 163 pages, and explaining their situational, historical and political context. It is quite a revealing journey of inquisitive minds of teenagers, their consciousness about the other, the many notions they grow up with and the ability to absorb and reconcile to each other’s ideas and perspectives. It is like a continuous dialogue that goes on – beginning from personal details that pivot around family and friends and moving to the political climate around them. It is about some inane questions to the more controversial and uncomfortable ones. Letter after letter, one can sense a level of trust and confidence building up through the plain speak, revealing a blend of innocence, knowledge and experience.
For instance, in one of her letters, Saumya asks Duaa what Kashmiris meant when they asked for ‘azaadi’. “Freedom from cruelty of the world, freedom from indiscrimination, freedom from the people who think that we are inferior to them,” Duaa writes back.
Saumya then responds, “I was hesitant to ask you about the freedom of Kashmir but I couldn’t hide my curiosity and I really liked your reply…The kind of freedom that the Kashmiris want is something that the whole humanity seeks.”
The first set of letters that ended in the summer of 2017 are mostly about Saumya’s curiosity about Kashmir and Duaa explaining to her how she sees the world around her. Gradually Saumya discovers a world of regular shutdowns and no internet and writes to Duaa that she can’t imagine a world without it and asks her whether Duaa would want to be in any other part of India to study. Duaa’s measured response reveals the nuanced landscape of Kashmir and how Kashmiri youngsters view a country beyond their land.
“I don’t want to study elsewhere in India, as students have been thrown out of the college in the dead of night just for being Kashmiris,” Duaa writes to Saumya. As for the Kashmir situation, she writes, “we have become habitual to all this, and when something becomes a habit, you don’t tire of it.”
Saumya’s observations and questions are direct. She writes in her first letter about the general notion of associating the word Kashmir with ‘Muslim’ and about why girls are pelting stones on security forces. Duaas answers are layered.
She responds:
“To outsiders it may appear that the girls are pelting stones for nothing, but there is a story behind it.
A leading female football coach was teaching some girl students in a ground. On the first day nothing happened, everything went on smoothly.
But on the second day as they were practising, the military started firing in the ground. I don't know why.
Naturally the girls panicked and started to run, hide, doing whatever to save their lives.
Then the coach, showing good presence of mind, picked up some stones nearby and started pelting, and the girls soon followed their coach.
The stone-pelting was purely an act of self-defence. What would you have done if you were in that situation? Please answer that question. I want to know.”

Saumya writes to Duaa:
“After reading your last letter, it became clear that our society is not safe for girls, whether it is in Delhi, Kashmir or any other place.
Girls in Delhi do keep some things with them for self-defence but even then they are harassed. Like recently in Haryana, an incident like the 2012 gang rape and murder of a female student in Delhi was repeated with another girl. In that sense, no Indian city is safe.
I'd like to tell you that if I would get stuck in such a situation, I would have reacted in a similar way to protect myself.”

The letters are an exchange in continuity, like a dialogue, that inculcates the confidence to ask straight forward questions, listen, speak, understand another perspective, leading to trust and confidence. This why after the BBC project ended in the summer of 2017, the two pen pals closed their last letters with the words, ‘I hope we keep writing to each other’ and felt the need to resume the dialogue after Kashmir’s changing socio-political landscape in 2019. With ink, paper and ideas, the mental boundaries were being crossed.
The Part II of the book presents the next bunch of letters that the two girls began writing by December 2019. By then, Saumya wants to know about Kashmir under internet siege and after Article 370 revocation. Duaa writes back to her, “People here are not happy with the removal of our special status. Personally, I feel depriving people of even talking to their near and dear ones is a violation of human rights.”
As the two young girls evolve into mature adults in the intervening years, the conversation now moves back and forth between Kashmir and Delhi. By early 2020, it is not just Saumya who is inquisitive to know about Kashmir, Duaa is equally eager to know about Delhi and rest of India as Indian streets sprout with protests against Citizenship Amendment Bill and National Register of Citizens.
Saumya replies, “Since this protest movement started, all of Delhi is feeling like Kashmir. Like internet/phone shutdowns, section 144 (curfew) being imposed, stone-throwing and police lathi-charge (using long batons) during protests. So, I can say that today I understand Kashmir and the situation facing people living there quite well.”

These are beautiful letters that reveal how two young adults view issues of rights, equality, discriminations, peoples struggles and what makes it even more evocative is that gendered layers are woven into the words.

Letter writing has been a known form of literature from the ancient times. Letters are powerful, evocative and tell us not only about the subject being discussed through glimpses of the lives and experiences of the letter writer. Post Box Kashmir comes like a fresh breeze with a form of narrative that has become archaic since the advent of internet and social media. And, just as letters do, this book allows one to take a sneak-peak into life in urban Kashmir. It does not promise an in-depth exploration of Kashmir’s politics, conflict and society but simply offers subtle glimpses into the minds of two teenagers in two different locations and how they look at Kashmir.

An important book for the uninitiated about Kashmir. Equally significant for those who know it well but wish to understand the place through the prism of a young adult.

***

Freedoms
Duaa and Saumya were down to writing their final letters. They had walked a long, if fine line, from discussing hobbies to stone pelting and more. How liberating that a friendship of just over a month, now had the courage, trust and equanimity to consider the call for freedom: ‘Azadi’. This Urdu word, that is simple to pronounce, with no complex sounds, but has many compounded meanings.
They had both heard it, on the streets of Srinagar and Delhi. At various protest marches in recent years, young men and women had made it their own. It was written on posters, sung in songs, cried out loud in passionate slogans……….

………Used by militants in training camps and by protestors on the streets, an inextricable part of the Valley’s political history. A call to struggle and resist collectively the daily violence in their lives. The forced disappearances, sexual assaults, human rights violations. ‘Hum kya chahte? Azadi’ (What do we want? Freedom), maybe used in different contexts and movements in the country but has become clearly associated with Kashmir’s aspirations. Some memoirs even credit Kashmiri students with bringing it to university campuses and conversations in the rest of the country.
But this has meant that in place of the myriad shades of ‘Azadi’, in popular consciousness, the chant has come to mean a demand for separation from India. Making it unpopular with a wide populace that balks at the mere suggestion of Kashmir acceding from India. For some in the Valley, it may mean self-rule, for others, autonomy within India and for a few, rule by Pakistan. But it is difficult to argue that the chant has any other meaning in Kashmir. Prompting Saumya to ask,

Sometimes I get to know from newspapers that Kashmiris want freedom. I want to know whom do they want freedom from?

Duaa’s answer was not straightforward, instead almost poetic, philosophical.

We want freedom from cruelty of the world, freedom from discrimination, freedom from the people who think that we are inferior to them.

She didn’t write about politics and power, government and the armed forces or separatists and militants. Her words were what she felt. What the world felt to her, and made her feel about herself.

(Excerpted from Post Box Kashmir)

***

Perceptions
Saumya’s questions were innocent and honest. She wanted to understand.
I couldn’t understand one thing—why did the army attack those girls? Army is for our safety, right?
The Indian armed forces are a hallowed institution. They represent an idea beyond the individual. For the greater common good. Men and women, who choose to train to be physically and mentally tough enough to fight, kill or even die. Sacrifice their life for the nation. To defend its borders, its people.
Saumya had grown up watching an elaborate parade on 26 January, India’s Republic Day, every year. It was a winter morning ritual common across millions of homes in the country. Over rounds of tea and breakfast they watched the more than three-hour-long live broadcast that went through the same motions every year but never tired its viewers. In fact, the routine built a bond. When the President would unfurl the national flag, stand in salute, the national anthem would be played, and Saumya would leave her favourite spot on the sofa in front of the television in her house and jump into attention too, singing along till the end. A moment of patriotic fervour.
As columns upon columns of soldiers would march on, her chest swelled up in pride. And eyes welled up when she heard the battle accounts of the bravehearts being honoured with the likes of Shaurya (courage), Vir (brave), Kirti (glory) Chakras, the titles underscoring their heroism. Sometimes these were accepted posthumously by their wives, sisters, mothers. Who stood stoically, as they awaited their turn, fighting a million memories tearing their heavy heart………
…..Saumya’s references clashed with the picture that Duaa’s letter evoked. And it wasn’t just the letter, as she engaged more with Kashmir, she could not escape the reports of pellet gun injuries, pictures of bloodied protestors of her own age that filled the newspapers and TV bulletins those nights, telling the story of the fight with the ‘internal’ challenge. When the army was engaging with its country’s own citizens and not an external enemy across the border.
Duaa had clarified in her letter that in the particular clash with the girls’ football coach that Saumya referred to, it was the police and not the army that was involved. The state police is a force made up of locals while the army is made up of soldiers from all over the country. And the army has been deeply involved in Kashmir. Not just in defending the borders of the state (and the country) with Pakistan and China in times of war but also as a force for maintaining internal peace and security. The army is assisted by the two paramilitary forces, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the CRPF. They have been inside Kashmir for more than three decades now. Hundreds of thousands of jawans are stationed across the state. It is an unusual sight for anyone who has not lived there. But for Duaa, who grew up witnessing that constant presence in Srinagar, it felt usual. She told me that she had gotten used to seeing them, that it did not matter and that she had learnt to ignore it.
They stood, with their rifles facing down. Inside the big cities, towns, villages. In their marketplaces, in neighbourhoods, on the roadside. Many times in bunkers, so omnipresent that they have become landmarks. Often cited by residents while giving directions, just as one would mention a traffic light or a shop. That’s how numerous they were when they started getting built in the 1990s. There are no official figures of how many were built, but estimates suggest they were in hundreds. They were a symbol of the state when the government was struggling in the face of an armed rebellion. Over the past decade or so, several bunkers were removed from Kashmir to reduce the visible security presence there But in many mohallas, their memory lingers.
((Excerpted from Post Box Kashmir)

**

Dear Saumya
When schools are shut, we students have to complete the whole course ourselves and if the shutting of schools coincides with the snapping of internet services - it is a headache.
Can you imagine being confined to the four walls of your home with no internet, no social media. We live in the era of internet, the 21st Century, but sometimes I feel that I am living in the 14th Century.
The snapping of these basic services always gets to my nerves because every human has the right to information and by snapping the internet, I feel we are being denied that right.
Your friend
Duaa

***

Dear Duaa
One can't even imagine life without the internet or other means of communication in Delhi. I feel very bad that people in Kashmir have to live through such difficult circumstances.
But are only some miscreants responsible for this situation or is there some other reason? If it inconveniences people there so much, then why is internet and social media shut down there?
I saw the photos of Sonmarg that you sent. And after seeing them I feel like coming to Kashmir.
Your Friend
Saumya

 

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