Friendships Across Borders: Valentine’s Day Redefined

Exactly five years ago, on Valentine’s Day, I launched an initiative that goes by the name of Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein. The dream of nurturing cross-border friendships between Indians and Pakistanis continues to thrive in my heart, and it finds explicit as well as subtler manifestations in the work that I do under the broader umbrella of peace and human rights education.

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Painting by my friend Ellie Cross, which later became the logo for FAB/ADK

I have been invited to facilitate workshops, give talks, offer trainings, create curriculum and participate in panel discussions in places such as Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Lucknow, Ranipet, Walajapet, Kolkata, Guwahati, Jodhpur, Pune, Chandigarh, Kanpur, Lahore, Islamabad, Kathmandu, Vermont, Washington DC, Riyadh, and more! Whatever I have been able to accomplish so far owes to the support, good wishes and blessings of many who have encouraged me. I have not been able to document as much as I would have liked to.

I am a bit of an itinerant, and my approach is somewhat like an artist, so I never got around to building an organization out of this. Standardization and scaling up are not my cup of tea. They require specific skill sets, and a mix of ambition and leadership, that I am unable to provide. On the happier side, I am able to pursue more organic connections. This has led me to find meaning in working with educational institutions on addressing hate speech, communal violence, misogyny, toxic masculinity and homophobia, which belong to the same family as jingoism does.

People who are interested in thought leaders with linear journeys and aha moments that can be neatly packaged may not be able to see how creative affronts to patriarchy are at the heart of all of this work. And so am I. You will rarely find me describing myself as a change maker because I think it is pompous to imagine that I am leading a life that is somehow dedicated to service. I serve my own creative instincts, and the call of my gut. The work that comes out of this enterprise happens to be valuable to others as well, and I rejoice in that. However, I am quite wary of being celebrated as a selfless do-gooder. I am aware that my efforts are geared towards things that interest me deeply. If they did not, I would stop working on them.

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Artwork gifted to me at NLK Group of Schools’ Disha Literature Festival in Kanpur, February 2019

Anyway, I will not ramble any more. I reproduce here a blog post I wrote for the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange on 14th February 2014, the day FAB aka ADK was born.

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 are definitely matters that prompt us to reflect and rant. I thought it would be exciting to explore 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, 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 do we talk so rarely 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 I 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 my visits to Pakistan, and in my meetings with Pakistanis in India and Nepal, I have received love not only from the people who hosted me in their homes or invited me for events and programmes.

Knowing that I am from India has often invited spontaneous bursts of affection, goodwill, blessings and generosity. I am not referring only to people I have met at workshops or conferences but shopkeepers, taxi drivers, janitors, and fellow travellers I have chatted with while using public transport.

I have friends from Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Mansehra, Mirpur, Quetta, Sargodha, Sialkot, Jamshoro, Taxila, Hyderabad and Peshawar. I 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’ will be 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 I 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. We spend so much of our energy feeling bogged down by it or confronting it. Why should we not flood the social media with love speech instead? Let us reclaim the word ‘love’. Let us 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.

Eventually, I am hoping 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 feels good to know 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. The stories will then be able to reach visually impaired friends and elderly folks who find it cumbersome to read online. At some point, if there is a publisher interested in putting these stories together as an anthology, we could get in touch with individual contributors and check with them if they are open to the idea. Someone may feel inspired, and want to make a short film on one or more of the stories. Someone else who is teaching at a school may want to use these in class. The possibilities are quite endless.

In fact, I am particularly interested in engaging with schools, colleges, universities and also non-formal learning spaces. We need to grow constituencies of friendship everywhere. Given my own experience as an educator, I feel that 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. I have interacted with students in Mumbai, Delhi, Lahore, Islamabad, Pondicherry, Chennai, and Hyderabad, and I have come away happy knowing that cross-border friendships have many takers.

Friendships Across Borders will build on the power of personal friendships to transform the long-standing hostility between India and Pakistan. It will also draw on my participation in initiatives and programmes led by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, Roots 2 Routes, Aman Ki Asha, Pul-e-jawan, the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi, Aaghaz-e-Dosti, and Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace, the Peace and Conflict Studies programme run by the Norway-based Kulturstudier in collaboration with the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, and the Vermont-based SIT Graduate Institute’s Conflict Transformation Across Cultures programme in Kathmandu.

‘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.

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