NowActivism: Friendships Across Borders

By Chintan Girish Modi

Going to Pakistan was a childhood dream. There was no Facebook or Twitter at that time. There was no way for a curious little me to catch a glimpse of the so-called monsters living on the other side. Thankfully, adulthood happened, and my good fortune enabled me to visit Pakistan three times, as part of the Exchange for Change Project in 2012, and the Children’s Literature Festival in 2013 and 2014. I have also met Pakistanis in the course of peace building programmes in Delhi, Kathmandu, and cyberspace.

Owing to the decades-long hostility between our countries, such opportunities are rare for Indians even though Pakistan is our neighbouring country. Therefore, it feels like a responsibility to share with a wider set of Indians what I have experienced. This sharing, I feel, will challenge stereotypes and make available a narrative of friendship, love and hope between Indians and Pakistanis.

Having shared these experiences by writing blog posts and newspaper articles, and through interactions with school and college students, on an ad-hoc basis, I decided to eventually announce the launch of an initiative called Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein.

A large part of my work has had to do with opening up conversations, sometimes by accident, at other times on purpose. For example, if someone appreciates a kurta I am wearing, I make it a point to mention that I bought it in Lahore. When I see surprise in his eyes, I share more. “Isn’t it lovely? It is from a store called Khaadi, which is on M. M. Alam Road.”

This kindles further interest, and brings up questions about pricing, fabric, designs, and of course, comparisons with FabIndia. “Yes, Pakistanis know about FabIndia. In fact, my friend Haroon Sheikh loves their kurtas. He bought several of them when he visited India. A journalist I know, Raza Rumi, loves their tulsi green tea,” I say.

Now I learn that my conversation partner had never thought of Pakistani men in the context of shopping. He had thought of them only in the context of praying at a mosque, relishing meat, or forcing the women in the house to wear a burqa. The stereotypes appear familiar, and I cannot even get perturbed any longer. I feel grateful that this conversation has inaugurated new possibilities for this person, has lifted the veil (pun intended) of unfamiliarity from ‘those people’.

The person I was describing was not one individual. That was many people rolled into one. Such conversations happen often, and they leave me with a feeling of change-is-around-the-corner. It is amazing how receiving new information or listening to anecdotes can alter people’s perceptions. That is the power of stories.

With this in mind, I plunged myself into the process of talking to friends, acquaintances and friends of friends and acquaintances, looking for stories of cross-border friendships. So far, Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein has featured 10 stories of friendships between Indians and Pakistanis.

The writers have included people of both nationalities, and the stories tell us about how and where they first met each other, the resistances they had to overcome before they become friends, how these friendships are sustained given the visa restrictions, and the feelings these friendships bring up for them because of the conflicts their countries have been struggling to resolve.

Not everyone who has a story is willing to share it publicly. Some of those who want to share are doubtful about their writing skills. In such cases, it takes a few rounds of editing before the piece is finalized. Occasionally, it can take a really long time to convince people that their story is important.

There are no funds available, so I cannot pay writers. I can only offer a platform to share the story, and ensure that it reaches as wide an audience as possible primarily through social media. Hopefully, there will come a day when there are enough stories to put together a book. Some of these stories are also shared in workshops I facilitate with children in schools.

This initiative felt urgent enough and important enough to do. I could not get myself to wait to apply for a grant or for some sort of miraculously rich funder to come by. I would have been completely restless if I had not started this initiative. Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein was born out of my heart, and I have this deep faith that the universe will continue to support me. It has not let me down so far.

Recently, I finally encountered my anger. Not at the Taliban. But at an uncle who told me that Muslims are barbaric, they kill because they eat meat, and it is part of their blood to be ruthless and merciless. I heard this when I was sharing about how beautiful it is to see Indians standing in solidarity with Pakistanis after the Peshawar attacks. Prejudices about people of other faiths thrive in our midst, in our families, communities and neighbourhoods. This is exactly what violence and terror thrive on. Sometimes, I feel too tired, engaging, defending, explaining, listening. I wish I had infinite patience…

At the same time, it feels good to know that there are so many people who believe that individual effort counts, that we are not at the mercy of our governments and other institutions; that we can bring about transformation if we sincerely try. I guess when you do not couch your work in fancy jargon, or flash impressive statistics at people, they realize that you are happy doing something small, doing it with love. And they are willing to help nurture your dream. Such support has come in different ways — whether it is by writing stories, helping me set up a blog, inviting me to interact with students, interviewing me about my work, organizing paid workshops for me to facilitate, etc.

I feel rewarded by the people who have come into my life, the solidarities I have forged with folks in India as well as Pakistan who feel that we must move past the antagonism we have inherited.