Christina Makri, who volunteers with The Red Elephant Foundation, interviewed me recently for a piece she was writing about Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, an initiative I founded in 2014. She asked me some really good questions, which prompted me to articulate my thoughts in a way that I may not have done earlier on a public platform. With permission from The Red Elephant Foundation, the full text of the interview has been reproduced here.
How do you feel about this title you’ve been given — ‘Change Maker’? What does it mean to you? And if you had to put it in a sentence, what kind of a change did you cause?
That surprises me a bit. I don’t usually think of myself as a change maker. Perhaps ‘educator’ is more like it. I am actually a bit wary of trying to pin my being down to one descriptive word. There are many things I like doing — working with children, writing about issues that are dear to me, editing copy for publishers, reading children’s literature, running initiatives to forge friendships between Indians and Pakistanis, looking at the stars, immersing myself in folk music, meditating, traveling, and so much else. I am not sure if ‘change maker’ adequately brings together all of these strands. But, in a broader sense, yes, we are all change makers. We find things in ourselves that we need to attend to, appreciate perhaps, wash off, air, iron out, or discard. And we find things around ourselves that we seek inspiration from, or that bother us. We try to change these. We try to change ourselves. And, well, we continue to be changed by our circumstances.
You seem to have plenty of interests. Do you think that that is an important part of your character and is there any connection between your interests (and the amount of them) and with the change you wanted to see in the world?
Yes, I guess I’m always looking for something to do, something to engage myself in — either in a conversation, or in hugging a tree, or in reading up about gender, or sitting by the sea listening to the waves, or researching about the lives of Sufi saints, or thinking up different ways to reduce the hostility between India and Pakistan, or writing letters to friends, or chanting, or leading a workshop…the list goes on. This doing is not always a hurried, feverish, strike-off-the-checklist kind of doing. In the last few years, I have been trying to live up to my name, which means contemplation. I like to make time to think about what I’m doing with my life — if I am using my skills and education in a manner that is, in some way, useful to society; whether I am wasting time meeting people who are in the social sector only to puff up their egos and say that they are doing the world a service by leaving their corporate jobs, if I am being able to take care of my family along with pursuing my own dreams and desires. It would be dishonest to say that I do these things only because they will bring a change. I do them because I enjoy them. They come from a place of conviction. I do not like to delude myself thinking that I am some sort of saviour. But I do speak up when I feel strongly about something.
Also, do you think your background affected you, and the way you saw the world and wanted to improve it?
Yes. I have seen a lot of fear and hostility being spread in the name of religion. When I was in elementary school, there were riots in Mumbai, the city I live in. Hindus and Muslims were killing each other. I had no idea what was happening. Now, when I am 29 years, when I have had a chance to read a bit, see things, learn about the world, I feel disturbed by the anti-Muslim statements I hear when I go for family weddings, or in casual conversation with relatives, or while commuting by train. I also feel bothered by the statements of people who call themselves secular but tend to dismiss anything that is associated with religion and spirituality.
What I love about living in India is the fact that there is so much diversity to experience and appreciate. I have friends from various communities, and I love learning about festivals, listening to folktales, picking up words from languages not spoken in my home. I wish we did not think of each other as categories. When we refer to people only by the labels they carry, we deny them a wholesome existence. And we do this violence to ourselves as well. I am including myself here. For example, my experience of Buddhist meditation with the Tibetan community in Dharamsala, and my limited exploration of Sufi poetry, lead me to think about how all of us are one. But my intellect comes in the way of practising this. I struggle to feel compassion for people who have been responsible for genocides, who have killed in the name of religion, who have raped women to take revenge on a community.
My passion for the work of peacebuilding comes from all that I just shared. I really wish people would live in harmony; that they would not give in to divisive forces. And these forces are not only out there. Yes, there are politicians manipulating people, and there are journalists who try to misrepresent facts. But the seed of division is also in our mind, isn’t it? We are always judging people, sizing them up, labeling them as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, thinking of some as allies and others as enemies. The work of changemaking, as you call it, is also based on fighting enemies, isn’t it?
Working for peace cannot be an external thing alone. It has to align with how we care about our own selves, how we treat people at home, if we are willing to forgive and reconcile just the way we want communities in conflict to do.
How do you feel about academic settings — Do you find it easier to work on your own terms?
Academic settings are often difficult for me, especially those that are besieged by bureaucracy. It is difficult for me to accept something only because it has been said by someone in a position of power or authority. I have studied at a university, and I have taught at a school. At both places, I have been struck by the amount of energy that is spent in pleasing people who hold a certain designation. Isn’t that a waste of our precious time on earth?
I warm up to academic settings that respect students, that honour the heart as much as the mind, that are not afraid of change led by introspection. When I was doing my M.Phil. degree, I had the most amazing research guide anyone could ask for. She got me to work on five drafts of every chapter of my dissertation. Not because she wanted to give me a tough time, but because she saw in me more potential than I saw in myself. With each revision, she got me to examine my own work in greater depth. She taught me not to be over-confident. She taught me to ask probing questions, of my data, and of myself. It was a difficult time, full of agony, and frustration and self-doubt. But I made it, with her help, and that of my parents. That is what academic settings should be like — trusting young people, supporting them even as they challenge them.
There aren’t too many such places. There aren’t too many such teachers. I was conducting a two-day workshop in peace journalism with some media students recently. They were surprised that I wanted to know what they felt about something I had shared with them. Apparently, no teacher had asked them how they felt. They were only asked to sit, listen, and turn in assignments. That was disturbing for me. If we don’t invite people to share their feelings and thoughts, how can we hope to share any learning with them?
How did you feel while meeting such great people, such as His Holiness Dalai Lama? What was going through your mind at the time?
I will be forever grateful for that opportunity. When I met him, there was absolutely nothing running through my mind. I touched his feet, and he held my hand and blessed me. I was in tears. They kept flowing for ten minutes or more. I felt I was in the presence of someone who reached out to my being in a way that was profoundly moving. There were no words exchanged. But a connection was felt.
What do you think is your greatest accomplishment? What are you most proud of?
Yet to come!
Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein and Planet Harmony are amazing initiatives that have affected plenty of people. How did you come up with the idea of creating them? What was the reaction you received initially and has that reaction changed by now? What are your thoughts at the moment about these initiatives, and is there anything you would still like to improve about them?
Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein was a seed that sat in my heart for a long time before it said hello to the world. It began as an initiative that would document stories of cross-border friendships between Indians and Pakistanis. I felt like this needed to be done because a lot of what we read in newspapers and hear on television are stories of Indians and Pakistanis firing at each other, or hurling abuses at each other, or spewing hatred. There are many beautiful initiatives facilitating connections and meetings between people of both countries but these are hardly reported, so very few people know about them. Pakistanis and Indians travel to each other’s countries to attend weddings, visit relatives, participate in conferences, study in colleges, teach at universities, etc. The stories of friendship that come out of these interactions need to be shared widely if we would like to transform the mainstream narrative.
From documenting such stories, Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein has ventured into peace education workshops with schools and colleges, offering translations of stories in multiple Southasian and European languages, and into collaborating with multiple partners to run campaigns and events that would introduce new audiences to the possibility of cross-border friendships, and celebrating our shared humanity and our shared heritage.
What I received initially is also what I receive now. I meet people who think this work is meaningless because the governments of both countries do not get along with each other. And I also come across people who think that this work is needed right now, more than ever before. Both skepticism and solidarity come my way. I try not to be bothered much by detractors, and to feel grateful for the support and encouragement I am receiving. I feel it is better to use my energy working for what I wish to see in the world, rather than using it to shut up people who say things I do not like.
As for Planet Harmony, I did not start that initiative. I was invited by Navita Mahajan and Ajeet Bajaj to come on board, after they had an initial plan in place. I loved their idea of bringing together high schoolers from Kashmir, Delhi, Manipur, Meghalaya and Chhattisgarh to live with each other and learn from each other. They wrote, painted, trekked, played, hugged, danced, cried, swam, ate together, and they went river-rafting and zip-ling. It was so much fun! I really enjoyed co-facilitating that programme. It gave me an opportunity to celebrate the child in me, and to also learn from people younger than me. The secret to being an effective educator is to be open to learning from your students.
There is a lot that can be done with both Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, and with Planet Harmony. We have to seek feedback from people we have worked with, find out about their experience, and then see how we can use it to improve our work.
You have also published several essays. What would you say is the main point that you are trying to convey with your writing?
Well, most of my writing comes from something that has a personal resonance. I am not sure if my writing is only trying to convey a point. I see the process of writing as something that helps me clarify my thinking, that helps me articulate and structure my thoughts. The attempt is to usually talk about responding to conflict in ways that heal, that affirm well-being, that open hearts to the pain of others, that talk about friendship as a way to walk together towards a future that is not a slave to the past. I try not to be prescriptive. I try to speak my own truth. Sometimes, I am thinking through it even as I saying it. We change our stances as we receive new information, as we grow more aware of our own prejudices. I try to acknowledge mine. I own up to my confusions when I am conscious of them. I hope my writing can help readers view things in a way they may not have before. I try to speak to those parts of them that are willing to recognize how we are all flawed in some way, how we are all suffering, and how life would be a bit happier if we didn’t give each other so much grief.
Do you have any more plans for the future?
Yes. My mind is constantly buzzing with ideas. I would like to write books, travel to certain places, meet certain people. But in my quieter, more grounded, moments, I feel like not having any plans whatsoever, trusting that the right experiences and opportunities will come along. I am also beginning to realize that I need to take better care of my health, and also be compassionate towards myself and my family.
Do you see any major differences from when you started compared to today? Do you think things will further improve in the future?
I thrive on hope. I like to think things will improve. Though what we see reported is a world full of deceit and murder and rape and opportunism, there is a world of love and solidarity and peace too. People want to breathe, enjoy the sunrise, and have a nice meal with their dear ones. We all are hungry for peace. It’s just that we don’t realize that we are also the obstacles in our own paths.
What has inspired you to keep going and come all this way, since the road couldn’t be easy?
I would not say that I have come a very long way. To borrow from Robert Frost, I have miles to go before I sleep. The road is never easy for anyone. It’s not easy for the peacebuilder or the investment banker or the ragpicker or the mother who devotes her life to looking after the home and family. I am no special individual with special challenges. In fact, I am fortunate that I do not have to be anxious about where my next meal will come from. What inspires me is meeting, listening to, and reading about, people who refuse to think of themselves as victims. Gratitude keeps me going. And the belief that the universe will look after me, come what may.
Did you have to deal with any rejection or people not understanding or believing in your vision, and how did you deal with that?
Oh yes, I have had to face resistance from people who think that being Indian implies hating Pakistan. I think that my identity comes not from my nationality alone. If I really had to locate myself geographically, I would call myself a Southasian. All the wisdom available around me come from a time far before the world was divided into nation-states quarrelling with each other over river water, land, and acquisition of weapons. I deal with rejection in different ways at different times. Sometimes, it upsets me. Sometimes, it gives me renewed motivation to do the work I am doing. I am a normal human being. I am not a superhuman. I feel angry, sad, dejected, happy, thrilled, excited — all of these things.
Is there anything else you would like to mention? Any message to send your readers?
Yes! When everything else is going wrong, it is a phone call from a friend, a silly joke, or a happy memory that cheers you up. It doesn’t take too much to make a friend across the border. You’ll be surprised at how much you have in common with someone you’ve been brought up to think of as your enemy. You and I cannot make big decisions that will alter the course of the world, but we can certainly make friends. Let’s do that! Visit www.friendshipsacrossborders.org, and if you’d like to volunteer with us, please write in to us at firstname.lastname@example.org