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My Soul Sister From Across the Border

It is rare to meet in one’s lifetime a person with whom you can connect intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It is even more difficult when the country to which they belong is an ‘enemy’ of your country! However, I was lucky enough to find my soul sister and would like to share such a phenomenal story with Beyond Violence readers.

It was early 2014 and I was a participant in the Building Peace Project (2014-15) pioneered by the Red Elephant Foundation in Chennai. I was paired with Sehr Nisar, a first year student of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), to talk, build bonds, share cultures, and cement friendships through virtual connections on Skype, Facebook, and WhatsApp. I got myself a new mobile phone, rather a smart phone, only for this project, to be able to connect with Sehr on a regular basis. It is a different story for another time, but I damaged the phone within a month of the project’s commencement!

Another matter worth mentioning is that this was also the time of me going through a crazy phase in my doctoral research on conflict mediation between India and Pakistan. I was comforted by ”Zindagi Gulzar Hai” ’ (Life is a Rose Garden) , a Pakistani soap opera starring the charismatic, effervescent, and popular actor Fawad Khan on a new Indian TV channel that brought Pakistani dramas to Indian audiences. I was particularly swayed by his boyish charm. 

Apart from my interactions with Sehr, I was keen to connect with other Pakistani participants in the group who came from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. I noticed the presence of a girl from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). She was called Salma Noureen. Salma’s social network identity is Neo-Salma-Noureen-Vela and to this day I have had a hard time understanding the reason behind the prefix and suffix she applies to her name! 

One fine day, I decided to message Salma on Facebook and introduced myself as a co-participant in the peace project, hoping to talk to her. I still haven’t figured out why I was drawn to her. Perhaps her fascinating name, or the fact that she was from a province of Pakistan I hardly knew anything about. Meanwhile, we exchanged numbers and I was excited to begin talking to her on WhatsApp. We started off with the usual conversation, talking about who we were, about our families, what brought us to this peace project, and so on. From the very beginning of our friendship I found Salma to be quite engaging in conversations. What started off as a casual, formal, project-related interaction has grown into a deep, strong bond. I'm proud to say that we have been good friends for a year now. 

With Salma, I have realized, we share so much in common despite existing on opposite sides of the border. Our views on education, routine life, family, gender, politics, and culture almost echo each other. Our friendship has been nurtured through WhatsApp’s voice messaging technology through which we have shared our lives with each other. Recording and listening to long voice messages has become a regular feature of our lives and our respective families are quite aware of what the two of us are up to, locked in our rooms, with a mobile phone in our hands. Many times, being the boon that WhatsApp is, it has also betrayed us, when recorded voice messages have been erased, leaving us in splits of laughter. 

Salma is an articulate, headstrong, clear-minded lady who knows what she wants from life. She is well-read and has a strong opinion on many issues facing Pakistan. Salma is an educationalist and when she is not talking to me, she can be usually found multi-tasking. She does some amazing work by traveling to the most remote areas of Pakistan to monitor and report on the conditions of schools in the country. Her work demands a lot of physical and emotional strength since at times, she visits schools that were destroyed by extremists and talks to children who face immense adversities in going to school and attaining an education. She does this bravely and through her work brings to light the impact of violence on Pakistan's generation of youths. 

While traveling by bus, working, studying, relaxing, and just being myself, Salma has become an integral part of my life through her voice messages. I make it a point to share every aspect of my religion and culture with her, sending her photographs and videos of festivals. She is aware of the fact that Gujarat, a state in the western part of India, is a festival-crazy state so much so that once she told me – “you people seem to celebrate a festival every fifteen days!!!” Both of us share our crazy love for ‘Pani Puri’ (best described as a spicy, tangy street food of the sub-continent). 
Salma writes to me in 'Gujarati'

We have had deep philosophical discussions about matters like religion, spirituality and yoga. But there also have been fun chats on food, movies, Peshawari chappals and Pakistani salwar kameez (traditional attire worn by Pakistani women, but worn in a different way by Indian women). What I admire about Salma is her devotion to her work and family, her caring demeanour, her patient listening, candid take on important issues, and her commitment to our dialogue, despite a hectic schedule. Knowing her and talking to her has to me, meant a rediscovery of my own self. Both of us are what I call totally ‘desi’ (traditional). We are modern, progressive, and yet traditionally rooted to our own cultures. We love exchanging thoughts on what makes us so different from each other and yet binds us together. 
Salma in her typical 'Pakistani Kudi' look 

My peace partnership with Salma has illuminated me to new possibilities in life. We have discussed politics, Kashmir, gender inequality, society on a serious note, while also recording songs and poems for each other. Once, for my love of the Gujarati language, Salma tried her hand at Google translate and sent me a message in the language I love the most. That to me demonstrated her warmth and care. For a moment, I forgot that she belonged to Pakistan. Salma is very proud of her country. However, she is also very respectful of other cultures and countries, primarily because she has had her share of inter-cultural experiences in Britain and Africa. The world may picture Pakistani women as burqa-clad and meek, disempowered, and subjugated; I on the other hand, have a different picture in mind. To me, it is Salma who is the representative of Pakistani women - fearless, gutsy, sensitive, and empathetic. She brings to me the beautiful realities of Pakistan. 

Salma’s voice has filled my life with inspiration. I have learnt from her the different facets of Islam, the different festivals that Pakistanis celebrate and have also brushed up my vocabulary in Urdu. Back in India, my friends here know about how my day is incomplete without a voice message from her. This was the first time I was engaging in a sustained friendship with a Pakistani Muslim and Salma with an Indian Hindu. We have had our share of differences, disagreeing with each other, yet continuing to talk. 

Once on a bus journey to my hometown, I imagined how it would be like to meet Salma in person, hug her, talk to her, have Pani Puri with her, and gift her Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography. These thoughts brought tears to my eyes. I wish for us to meet despite never feeling the distance that separates us. However, I want to savour that moment of being able to meet her. She is a friend, she is also a sister. But she is also much more than that. The search for the perfect word to describe what she means to me ended when I told her that she is my soul sister, the one who lives on that side of the border and yet stays with me through her voice and her soul.


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