Aug 112021
Review: Postbox Kashmir – Two Lives in Letters
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Title: Postbox Kashmir – Two Lives in Letters

Author: Divya Arya

Publisher: Duckbill

Type: Paperback

Age group: 13 – 17 years (as per the publisher). Adults will appreciate this book as well.

A very special book, presented in a unique way. It’s a poetic, poignant take on Kashmir, and is compulsory reading for young minds, parents, and anyone and everyone, who has roots, or a connection with Kashmir. Well who doesn’t? We all grew up with picture post card snapshots of the Switzerland of the East. 

That was sadly a long time ago. Post 1990s, we all know that Kashmir turned into a paradox, and to this day, we can only visualise the Indian Army, guarding a troubled Kashmir. 

Against this backdrop, veteran BBC journalist Divya Arya, seeded a creative rendering of the story of Kashmir, for the younger generation, who are consuming TV, Netflix, Instagram, and other social media. 

The idea was old school but perfect: pen pals exchanging notes. One is in Delhi, and the other in Kashmir. Finding the right persons was half the battle, and the book recounts this journey. Then, winning the trust of the Kashmiri parents, seeking their permission for allowing their daughter to exchange a series of letters with a stranger in Delhi.

When 2 young school-going girls, choose to write, question, explore, even philosophise, can we take our eyes away from the pages? It’s an endearing account, made sweeter and simpler, by explanations from the author. The complexity of the political scenario makes this necessary, and helps put everything in a framework and context. 

The Article 370 revocation, two years back, further created a new chapter for Kashmir, and coupled with the pandemic that follows, we find our letter writers are at home, adjusting to a new normal. 

But not before all of us are exposed to the brutal reality of Kashmir: months without internet, Army high handedness to the extent of using a local as a human shield, and of course, the saddest part, the stone pelting and the subsequent quelling using guns with pellets which end up blinding many Kashmir youth. 

It’s a miracle that amidst all this, the letters and the letter writers move on, showing a maturity beyond their age. To counter the erratic Postal Service in Kashmir, thanks to the uncertain circumstances, the letters are written by hand, scanned, and e-mailed. The personal touch and individual personality is retained, a far cry from today’s social media frenzy. 
It is also but natural that the entire exchange happens in English, as the knowledge of Hindi and Urdu is specific to Delhi and Kashmir respectively. But the exchange happens through our author, as Saumya from Delhi, chooses to express herself in Hindi. Divya translates these letters into English, and then sends them to Duaa in Srinagar. Duaa, is more comfortable in expressing herself in English, so she sends her reply directly to Saumya. 

There are so many questions these young minds seek answers to, across this 3 to 4 year exchange of letters. Their letters are a series of dialogue, probing, exploring, internalizing. And most important, re-connecting. Because of the pandemic, and various political and personal reasons, the exchange between our two friends comes to a halt for almost 2 years. Hats off to the persistence of the author, aided by her Kashmir colleague, that the project is revived again, and the excitement rebuilds. 

In 2017, the exchange of letters was published on the BBC Hindi website, attracting a record 96,000 visitors. The exchange of letters resumes in 2019, under peculiar tough circumstances (especially for Duaa in Srinagar). 

Not surprisingly, towards the end of the book, these are two smart, mature young women, attained 18 years of age, and who are now embarking on new dreams. While both feel bittersweet on taking their 12th Exams online, they can see the brighter picture of a future ahead. For Duaa, a trip to Mecca, followed by turning 18, and carrying her voter’s ID and actually voting in the block election is a big thing. 

Finally, the revelation all readers  want to know. Do Saumya from Delhi and Duaa from Kashmir meet? You have to read the book to find out!

The project ends with the author and her BBC team, shooting with Saumya in Delhi, and also flying over to Srinagar, to spend time capturing Duaa, amidst all the changing hues and colors of Kashmir’s  political seasons. 
And that’s what this book is. With every new page, you discover hope.

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