Feeling flustered by celebration of ‘love’ or making ‘peace’? This Valentine’s Day, engage in building friendships, instead suggests Chintan Girish Modi
We live in times when the celebration of love has got associated with a particular date in the month of February, and it is not uncommon to come across people flustered by this, trying to fight the trend. The fact that certain forms of love are privileged over others or that expression of love is equated with gifts, chocolates and candle-lit dinners definitely prompts us to reflect and rant. How about, instead, exploring other spaces of love, particularly those that challenge us – the difficulty of loving someone you have been brought up to despise, or discovering love in seemingly unexpected places – in this case, friendships between Indians and Pakistanis.
This Valentine’s Day, I am launching an initiative called ‘Friendships Across Borders: ‘Aao Dosti Karein’. The idea is simple, to share stories of cross-border friendships between Indians and Pakistanis, to show that peace talk is not just lip service (pun intended!), to demonstrate through real examples that it is possible for Pakistanis and Indians to build beautiful friendships. Usually, the word ‘cross-border’ is followed by ‘terrorism’ or ‘trade’. Why is there so little talk of ‘cross-border friendships’ or ‘cross-border love stories’? These are spaces of transgression but also spaces of love. They shake up conventions and norms around whom one is allowed to befriend, love, care about, share joys and sorrows with.
I have grown up in India and also feel at home in Pakistan and among Pakistanis. I say ‘and’, not ‘but’, because Bhitshah, Data Darbar, Sehwan Sharif, Nankana Sahib and the Jain temples of Tharparkar are as much a part of my legacy as are Varanasi, Sarnath, Shirdi, Harmandir Sahib and Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah in Delhi. On visits to Pakistan, and in meetings with Pakistanis in India and Nepal, there has been an outpouring of love not only from the people who hosted me in their homes or invited me for events and programmes but shopkeepers, taxi drivers, janitors, and fellow travellers I have chatted with while using public transport. Knowing that I am from India has often invited spontaneous bursts of affection, goodwill, blessings and generosity.
I have friends in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Mansehra, Mirpur, Quetta, Sargodha, Sialkot, Jamshoro, Taxila, Hyderabad and Peshawar; and have not even met some of them in person because current visa rules followed by India and Pakistan make it arduous. However, we have had the warmest of exchanges over Facebook and Twitter. These have gone far beyond superficial pleasantries, and we have had the opportunity to enjoy listening to each other’s thoughts about various things.
These are things friends, regardless of nationality, talk about – liking someone you bumped into at a wedding, figuring out ways to deal with annoying colleagues at the workplace, parents who pester you to get married, not knowing how to continue with something you are passionate about in the absence of support structures, feeling anxious about a relative who is ailing and might not live too long. There is a richness in these conversations that I would like other Indians and Pakistanis to experience.
‘Friendships Across Borders’ is being launched on Facebook and Twitter on 14th February, 2014, and it will gradually flow into other forms. I first met many of my own Pakistani friends thanks to social media, and know this to be true for many other people. Social media is powerful, and can be intelligently used for a variety of purposes. Why should we not use it to build cross-border friendships? There is a lot of hate speech out there. Instead of feeling bogged down by it or confronting it, should we not flood the social media with love speech instead? Let us reclaim the word ‘love’and not be embarrassed by it, laugh at it, or call it naive. Let us speak of a love that enables Indians and Pakistanis to see other aspects of themselves and each other, beyond the nationality they were born into or identify with. Friendships Across Borders will build on the power of personal friendships to transform the long-standing hostility between India and Pakistan.
Eventually, the hope is that a bunch of passionate volunteers will gather around the ‘Friendships Across Borders’ initiative, and we will be able to do many beautiful things together. One friend has offered to help design a blog, and another has offered to translate our stories into Punjabi and Urdu. A children’s magazine has shown interest in publishing some of these stories in Hindi translation. It is encouraging that people think of this initiative as having some kind of value and worth spreading.There are so many possibilities. It would be great to find volunteers who are willing to record these stories on audio, and upload the files online, making it available for visually impaired friends and elderly folks who find it cumbersome to read. At some point, there may be a publisher interested in putting these stories together as an anthology or someone may feel inspired to make a short film on one or more of the stories or some teachers want to use these in class. The possibilities are endless.Engaging with schools, colleges, universities and non-formal learning spaces will be particularly interesting, with the potential of evolving constituencies of friendship everywhere. Given my own experience as an educator, students are quite willing to welcome new ideas, if they are shared in a manner that is lively, respectful, and participatory. Apart from that, ‘friendship’ seems so much more doable and immediate than ‘peace’ which often gets associated with formal dialogues, agreements and conferences.‘Why not India and Bangladesh?’ asked a friend of mine. ‘Why not Srinagar and Delhi?’ asked another. There are many borders, on the ground, in maps and atlases, and in minds and hearts. ‘Why not India and Sri Lanka as well, or India and Nepal, or Delhi and Manipur, for that matter?’ I would ask. Given my affinity towards Tibetans, I would add, ‘Why not Tibet and China?’ Cross-border friendships in each of these spaces is urgent and important. The challenge appears massive but we ought to begin somewhere. Friendships Across Borders chooses to start with India and Pakistan. Let us see where we go.https://www.facebook.com/
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