Kishan Devi

A postcard written by Kishan Devi to her father, who was fighting in the Middle East in 1916.

The commemoration of the centenary of the First World War in Britain can seem to be everywhere. On 31 May, the BBC broadcast live the service of remembrance for the Battle of Jutland, and on 1 July, we were overwhelmed by events marking 100 years since the Battle of the Somme. You’d be forgiven for thinking that World War I was a story about white men only.

But this postcard, written in 1916, tells a different story. Its author was a young girl from the Punjab, from what is now Pakistan. Her name was Kishan Devi and the postcard was for her father, Sewa Singh, who was fighting with the Allies in Egypt at the time.

My heart is yours. You are my everything, and I worry about you. I am like a living dead without you. I am unable to live like this.

The letter is of course a reminder that the war had an impact on everyone – not just the men men we see when we scroll through the wonderful photography archive at the Imperial War Museum or read the famous war poets.

But beyond that, it tells us something fascinating about Kishan Devi.

Mother says that you can write your innermost thoughts to us. I will read the letter. We do not rely on anyone else to read the letters.

Kishan Devi is telling her father something he doesn’t know about her: she can read and write. So we can guess that she has learned to do this in the year that he has been overseas with the Army. This is pretty remarkable at a time when over 90% of Indians were semi- or non-literate and when it was quite normal for letters to be dictated to and read by a scribe, who might be the only literate person in the vicinity.

It is even more astonishing when you consider that the literacy rate for women in India in 1911 was 1.1% and by 1921 was only 1.8%. We don’t know enough about Kishan Devi or her father to know how she got her education. Perhaps she attended one of the Christian missionary schools for girls in the Punjab, which had started to open in the early nineteenth century. Or maybe she learned to read and write in a school run by a Sikh gurdwara, which were established to ensure that education wasn’t only served with a side of European traditional values. What we can be sure about, however, is that Kishan Devi’s decision to learn to read and write was neither an obvious nor an easy one.

You can read a full translation here.

-Eleanor Harding
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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