They wear different colours, but go through the same rollercoaster of emotions during an intense game of cricket. They have different cuisines, but enjoy food with liberal amounts of spice. They are separated by stringent visa regimes, but now some schoolchildren of India and Pakistan are beginning to realise they aren’t so different after all.
Under the Exchange for Change programme, over 3,500 children from 17 schools in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Delhi, Chandigarh and Mumbai poured their affection onto pieces of paper, which were then shipped across both sides of the border. For some, words just couldn’t capture the warmest wishes that they had for their neighbours - this is why one student even peppered her letter with tiny little hearts and a couple of smiley faces.
The programme is being run by two not-for-profit organisations - The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) and Delhi-based Routes2Roots. This is not the first time that they have advocated amicable ties between the two neighbours which, for the most part, share a frosty relationship. The pilot project for the programme, in which 10 schools and over 2,400 students participated, was successfully completed about a year ago.
At the star-studded launch of the programme’s second phase in November last year, CAP’s executive director, Swaleha Alam Shahzada said, “Our stories are the same - we just need to share them!” Tina Vachani, the co-founder of Routes2Roots, had hoped that the exchange would “help students realise that the children on the other side of the border are just like them and have similar hobbies and daily routines”.
It appears that the first set of letters has started to work its charm. One of the Pakistani participants was “glad” that her Indian counterpart followed sports rather than the life of Canadian pop sensation Justin Beiber or British boy band One Direction. Another from Chandigarh pointed out the similarities between the city and Islamabad. “[Chandigarh] is a very well-planned city like Islamabad. It has many parks, lakes and malls.”
In addition to sharing their hobbies, most students provided a little window to their county’s customs, culture and history to help shatter stereotypes, which have been built and maintained for over 65 years. “Our new year starts from ‘Gudipadva’. We have different festivals, such as Diwali, Navratri and Ganesh Chaturthi,” wrote a student from Mumbai. A Pakistani counterpart wrote, “The culture of Pakistan is rich and the traditions include festivals [such as] Basant. Biryani and spicy food are really famous in Pakistan.”
The children’s immense curiosity about what lay beyond the border was also evident by the deluge of questions that they had put down. “What is your national anthem? How is the climate? What place do you like in Pakistan? What is your city like?” scribbled one fifth-grader from India. Likewise, a Pakistani counterpart asked, “Can you please tell me about all the extraordinary places in your country?”
Though several more letters are to be exchanged, one student from Rawalpindi feels a breakthrough has already been achieved. “I had always prayed for Pakistan and India friendship. I am now glad that these prayers are finally being answered.”
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2013.
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