Thirty-one years ago today, an insignificant, unmarked listing appeared in the children’s page of the Pakistan Times. “Awarna Rajagopalan” of Bombay was seeking a Pakistani penfriend. In the month or two that followed, Awarna received almost a hundred letters, and not from children alone. The oldest person to write must have been her present age, and she simply wrote back to the youngest one. Last month, she emailed his daughter on her birthday! “Awarna” of course, was Swarna misspelt.
Nasir was not my first or only penfriend. I had already at that point, been writing to Christine for four years, Stephanie for three, Monika for two and several others that I have lost track of along the way. (I had twelve or thirteen at one time!) However, Nasir was from Pakistan, and in 1979, people who did not have family or any connection to Pakistan, did not write and receive letters from there. I did. And I did so with the conviction at fifteen that peace comes, one person at a time. I still believe this. As I do, that peace begins with children; hence, Prajnya’s work with peace education.
This conviction keeps me optimistic where nothing in politics, diplomacy, the security environment or the dominant discourse about the India-Pakistan relationship would suggest any reason to be. In thirty-one years, Nasir and I have seen this relationship change dramatically. I have visited twice. We can call each other (so phone lines may be tapped, so what?). We can email. We can chat or Skype. We can send packages by courier (theoretically, this is untested). And perhaps most importantly, to our children, the border will never seem as concrete and impassable as it once did to us.
I have met all the penfriends I still remain in touch with. Technically, once you meet, the penfriend becomes a friend. And something is lost. In many cases, it is the habit of writing letters by hand! Sad, but true. But I think the loss is also symbolic. A penfriend is a person who joins you in inscribing your hope for a joint, peaceful future, one letter at a time. This is a relationship that takes a special commitment and that can acquire a depth that is unrelated to frequency of meeting or anything superficial. To describe them as simply friends, steals from penfriends much of what makes them special.
I know that there remain initiatives out there that connect children to teach other across the world. We link to one of them from this blog. But I wonder too how the world of instant, electronic communication and wide social networks has transformed the ideal or nature of penfriendship–either undermining or expanding it. Something for us to think about!