Two teenagers—Saumya in Delhi and Duaa in Kashmir—ask through letters they exchanged over almost three years some pertinent questions about Kashmir.
Like Anne Frank’s letters, Post Box Kashmir:Two Lives in Letters provides an insight into the minds and hearts of teenage girls undergoing momentous points in history.
Finding my letter writer in Delhi was a pleasant accident. I hadn’t really started looking at that time. On a completely different mission, one winter afternoon in February 2017, I found myself at Saumya’s house. It was books that led my husband and me there. Both of us, he way more than me, are guilty of hoarding books. And now, a carefully built selection of over fifteen years needed a new purpose. Our search for a library, where we could part with our much-loved treasures knowing they will be equally valued, was what led us there. It was a cosy unassuming two-bedroom flat in a colony in outer Delhi. Saumya’s parents ran a small library-cum-reading room from an even smaller space on the floor above.
They could have rented it out to supplement their income, but decided to use it to work with schoolgoing children by providing them a place to come read. As the name suggested, Umang Library was to spread the simple ‘joy’ of immersing in the written word, to give wings to young imaginations. We were inspired with what we saw and went back down three floors to make multiple rounds, heaving cartons full of books up a narrow, broken staircase.
Saumya didn’t speak much at that time. She quietly helped with the unpacking and laying out of books, stopping only to peer at some titles from behind her thick spectacles. She was fifteen years old and preparing for her Class X board exams. We didn’t talk about Kashmir.
A few weeks later, when I started the search for my letter writers, I recalled the shy young girl from that winter afternoon. The more I thought about it, the more she seemed to be the perfect fit. A couple of phone calls later, it was done. Saumya Sagrika was waiting to get her first letter.
In Kashmir, the situation was very different. I had never been there, I had no family there and very few friends. As I started making calls, finding connections and building bridges to reach out to parents, it became very clear that the biggest hurdle was going to be trust. It was the casualty of decades of conflict. Entering into anyone’s circle of trust is always difficult, but on some days, it seemed unsurmountable. The physical distance, lack of confidence that a personal meeting could build, all added to the challenge.
In 2017, there were visible strains of pain and anger. The violent autumn after Wani’s encounter had quietened as snow covered the streets in the Valley. But the cold seeped in through the telephone line from the other side when I tried to explain our project. The memories were very raw.
There was a strong belief that the momentous upheaval led by young people was going to change something. The rage was still simmering. At that time, when opinions, borders and beliefs had a razor-sharp edge to them, my offer of a quiet conversation over letters seemed suspiciously innocuous to the parents on the other end of the phone call.
But I persisted, not losing hope. Days turned into weeks, which turned into months. And finally, a door opened just a crack. My request had landed at fifteen-year-old Duaa’s doorstep, with just a recommendation from an acquaintance trusted by her family, holding this together.
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. This was my lovely introduction to Kashmiri tehzeeb (etiquette). As trust grew, the anxieties became more honest too. And some stemmed from what had happened to another Kashmiri teenager.
Divya Arya has been telling people’s stories on social issues for almost two decades now. In Post Box Kashmir she deals with another non-fiction story on the backdrop of political history and turbulent present of Kashmir and India.