Friends in other places
Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein (FAB) was born of the hope to transform how people from India and Pakistan think about each other. It is an archive of stories of cross-border friendships, and has an online and offline life. Online, it is a Facebook page and a blog. Offline, it includes working with schools and communities, using stories of friendships that cross these national borders.
Chintan Girish Modi, the young Mumbai-based educator who started the project, says Pakistan was a part of his imagination even as a child: “When I was a kid, adults asked questions like ‘Where would you like to go when you grow up?’ I would say ‘to Pakistan’. For an Indian child to say this seems quite strange to people. But all I heard about Pakistan when I was growing up was that it is a dangerous place. That the people are mean. I would not come back alive if I went there. I was not convinced. How could a place be all bad? I was curious and wanted to check it out for myself. But later I forgot about it.”
Years later, he watched Shabnam Virmani’s film Had-Anhad: Journeys with Ram and Kabir which explores the poetry of the 15th century mystic poet Kabir, the musicians in India and Pakistan who bring the poetry to life, as well as the continuing aggression and hatred on both sides of the border. This led Chintan to work with the Kabir Project, based at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. He then worked with Shishuvan School in Mumbai, and a project called Exchange for Change initiated by the Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan and Routes2Roots, a Delhi-based NGO. Through this project, children from Delhi and Mumbai exchanged letters and photographs with children in Lahore and Karachi. It was as part of this project that Chintan first visited Pakistan. Deeply moved by this experience, he saw that the friendships formed during this time showed another way to think about Pakistan – quite different from the tone of most media, history textbooks, and news.
A precursor to FAB was an open exchange of letters between Chintan and Shiraz Hassan, a journalist from Pakistan, which were published in the Aman Ki Asha supplement of a Pakistani newspaper called The News. These experiences, and various other workshops, conferences, and literature festivals were significant in shaping FAB. “I had a growing urge to make these experiences and opportunities available to other people, to let them participate and interact with folks across the border. I wanted something that would have a wider reach,” says Chintan. “Apart from this, I was visiting schools in India to talk to students about my experiences in Pakistan. All our interactions were based on questions the children had. It was an enriching experience for me as well. I began to think about combining social media and interactions with young people. That’s how FAB started. It has no funding and I co-ordinate it pretty much single-handedly. However, FAB owes tremendously to friends who have volunteered their time and support, and organized speaking engagements.”
The project began on Valentine’s Day 2014, a deliberate choice. “Valentine’s Day usually meets with two responses. It is either a consumerist understanding of love, or the activist one against capitalist propaganda. I wanted to see if we can think of love in a different context. There are many people in India and Pakistan with family and friends on the other side, or childhood memories and ties. Usually, as we become ‘smart’, we dismiss these things as sentimental. Instead, if we bring these into conversations around conflicts, we encounter the humanity in the other person.”
So far the project has 13 stories. The contributors, all volunteers, include a poet, a journalist, an arts manager, a wellness coach, a historian, a filmmaker, and students from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda. These experiences speak to both human relationships and the idea of peace itself, understood all too often in abstract ways.
A part of the motivation for FAB is to show the different forms that peace can take, and provide alternatives to the powerlessness that people feel towards these daunting issues. “Even as an individual, one could be transformed. What you and I can do is make friends even if we can’t sign treaties.”
One of the stories on FAB is of good friends who have never met. These are relationships that the internet enables and makes that much easier. Some stories come from people who met, neither in India nor in Pakistan, but in a third country. “This makes me think about how South Asians come together outside India and how Indians and Pakistanis interact in the diaspora. At the same time, in our own countries we tend to cling to narrow identities,” says Chintan.
Saim Saeed from Pakistan with Amey Charnalia from India
Focusing on relationships and connections however does not mean that all the stories are “feel-good.” Some of them do tackle the complexities, the struggles and the inner demons that the writers wrestle with. “Saim, who writes from Karachi, for instance, says it is easy to talk about similarities but real friendships make space to also talk about the things that have caused conflict. Saaz Agarwal from Pune, who went to Pakistan for her book launch, said she was very scared, as her Sindhi family had to flee during the Partition.” Another story poignantly captures the pure pain and loss of all conflicts, like the story written by Imaduddin Ahmed from Pakistan who befriends a Muslim man in India who lost family in the Gujarat riots of 2002. He writes, “Whereas in India, you aren’t safe if you’re a Muslim, in Pakistan you aren’t safe if you’re the wrong type of Muslim. Pakistan and India aren’t too dissimilar.” There are also stories by Mary Therese Kurkalang from Manipur and Kirthi Jayakumar from Chennai which evoke non-Punjabi, non-Sindhi perspectives, which do not often find a voice.
So what lies ahead for FAB? “One of the stories has been translated into Gujarati and Marathi with the help of volunteers. I would like to have these stories recorded as audio to reach people with visual disabilities. There is need for more structured interaction with schools and colleges, and see if there are particular parts of curriculum in which this work can be embedded. One of the problems in school curriculum is that it only addresses Partition. Events of 1965 or 71 are rarely even mentioned, let alone explored in depth. And there is certainly nothing about friendship. The Indus Valley civilization is one such possibility. This way maybe the conversation of our shared past and heritage can expand beyond the Partition or Kashmir. At the same time, rethinking the Partition, there is an attempt to bring in more personal stories from both sides. Many children have grown up hearing stories of the Partition from relatives, and at times they have heard stories that are completely different from what they encounter in the classroom. I have heard school and college students talk about how their grandparents were sheltered by neighbours and friends from other communities. On the other hand, children who do not have a traumatic family history in this context, often encounter the Partition only through statistics. There has to be a more human way to engage.”
Another hope for the project is to produce a book, perhaps with other educators, which can serve as a joint history textbook. “In our countries there’s an anxiety around being labelled as pro-Pakistan or anti-national. There is similar anxiety in Pakistan as well. People see love of country through a narrow lens like a jingoistic slogan, not in terms of what we can do to form more meaningful relationships. It will be great if educators, artists, and historians can come together to write not just the history of conflict but the history of confluence – a broader cultural history and not just political history. A history of music, dance, syncretic traditions, textiles, Sufism, so much…”
As borders and boundaries are drawn and redrawn in stronger ways, Chintan reflects that if people had not travelled across borders as they did in the past our lives would have been so different, culturally, materially and politically: “Even our food is a result of travels and exchanges across the world.” However, an important part of the effort, he stresses, is not to promote FAB in isolation. “We must also amplify the voices of other initiatives who are working towards these ideas. I don’t want to compete but collaborate, and honour the spirit of the work.”
Contact the author Madhuvanti Anantharajan