Friends Without Borders: Status Report

Flags and Dove

This has been an exciting two-and-a-half months for the Friends Without Borders. As we make our final preparations to deliver the World’s Largest Love Letter and the first salvo of individual friendship letters from the children of India to the children of Pakistan, it is time to take stock of our achievements and look to the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Who would have thought, as the last week of December gave way to the New Year, that in less than three weeks the World’s Largest Love Letter could transform from brainstorm to reality. But that is exactly what happened. The event at Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium set the tone for all that would follow. Acting with impetuous verve, an all-volunteer team created magic out of thin air, stunning corporate nay-sayers who declared that six-months would be needed to plan and execute such an audacious project. Neither holidays – New Years, Pongol, and Id – nor school closures could stand in our way. The event in Bangalore received massive press coverage and was seen by crores of viewers during the television broadcast of the opening Pakistan v. India cricket test. In the process, the entire nation was introduced to a project elegant in its simplicity, vital in its relevance, and joyous in its execution.

Next stop Bombay, and our foray into the mainstream media. Our first Public Service Announcement was produced with equal measures of love, brilliance, and professionalism. The result was so stunning the television networks simply could not refuse to broadcast it. The Friends Without Borders message of friendship and hopefulness is currently being aired throughout India, and is about to start playing across Pakistan as well.

There is more television exposure to come: a second wave of PSAs are in the works, with the most famous celebrities in the country telling viewers, “I went to my old school to ask the children to write letters of friendship. Now, why don’t you go to your old school and do the same.”

But Bombay was about more than media and movie-stars; we had a major event to produce, and precious little time to produce it. If we thought this was old-hat after our success in Bangalore, we were soon disabused of this notion. Difficulties popped up like a cruel game of whack-a-mole; but we whacked away tirelessly and, in the end, produced a World’s Largest Love Letter event that the city will not soon forget. As one journalist at Wankhede Stadium put it, “I have been covering Indo-Pak relations for 20 years. It is an ‘evergreen’ topic for us; people always want to read about it. This is the most interesting initiative in Indo-Pak peace in my memory.”

As always, the kids stole the show in Bombay. There was poetry in their friendship letters: “My Friend, I want you to know that the sun shines exactly the same in India as it does in Pakistan,” wrote a seven year-old girl from the Jogeshwari slum. An astonishing group of high school brainiacs taught the silent corps of professional journalists at our press conference how to ask questions: “Sir, if this project is a success, do you think it might have long-term economic implications for India?” And their enthusiasm for the World’s Largest Love Letter absolutely rocked Wankhede Stadium. Many of the messages penned on the giant letter demonstrate that this project is not only promoting international friendship, but allowing kids to find a voice in the chorus of democracy. One note reads: “War is an adult stupidity and we children do not want to be a part of it!”

Interfaith harmony, not international peace, was the principal theme of our next event, which saw panels from the World’s Largest Love Letter paraded through the streets of Ahmedabad from seven different places of worship: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Parsi, and Jewish. As at previous events, the day ended with dancing – only this time, it was garba!

In each of the metros, the Friends Without Borders team has taken the projects to the schools of the wealthiest and most privileged students, and also to those of the poorest and least fortunate. But to really show the all-India face of this project, we wanted to spend more time with children in rural, remote locations. So the team packed-up our colorfully painted trucks and bus, and headed to Kachchh and Rajasthan, stopping at number of small schools, celebrating the spirit of the project with the kids, and collecting letters.

It is difficult to say exactly how many letters we have amassed to date – certainly in the tens-of-thousands. Each one is reviewed to ensure that there is a return address (so the writer can get reply mail from the recipient), that there is no inappropriate content (it happens extremely rarely, but it happens), and to identify truly exceptional letters and artwork for presentation in the book that will be published on the project late this summer and in a touring exhibition. Any letters written in a language other than Urdu or English are also translated. This work is being done at our home-base at the Gandhi Sabarmati Ashram and in regional centers established by volunteers in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. This is the backbone of the project, the thing that will sustain the pathway for heart-to-heart, border-crossing pen-friendships long after the World’s Largest Love Letter is a distant, if delightful memory.

As we look toward the border, we see volunteers working hard to make sure that the crossing is a fitting celebration of all the love that has been poured into this project – by the kids as well as by the adult participants. In Lahore, preparations are well-settled for a blow-out event in Gaddafi Cricket Stadium, in which India’s gift of the World’s Largest Love Letter will be received by not less than 10,000 Pakistani children. Schools, NGOs, and individual volunteers are being recruited to distribute the letters that will arrive from Indian children, and to collect letters from schools throughout Pakistan. We understand that four of the largest schools in Pakistan are already busily at work on a “reply” to the World’s Largest Love Letter – but the exact nature of their response is a carefully – and giddily – guarded secret!

You may have noticed that, in recounting our triumphs, I have studiously avoided attributing credit to the people or companies who made it happen. This has been such a remarkable team effort, it feels inappropriate to call attention to individual contributions, spectacular though many of them have been. We cannot begin to count the number of people who have contributed their time and talents to this project – the number is probably well over one-thousand.

We need that number to grow. The volunteer networks in both India and Pakistan – the teams of people who will introduce the project in the schools and who will sort and translate the letters – will have to scale-up to meet the demand we foresee in the near future. The response in both India and Pakistan has been so overwhelmingly enthusiastic, we foresee rivers of letters flowing in both directions. It is time to harness this passion to ensure that “neither sleet nor snow nor gloom of night will stop our couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” (OK, so sleet, snow, and gloom are not major problems in most of India; you get the drift. It’s a “mail-thing.”)

If Friends Without Borders has created the World’s Largest Love Letter, it might also create the largest, most spirited volunteer team in the history of postal delivery. So far, our ranks have been filled entirely by word-of-mouth and networking among friends; and that is certainly the way we will expand to meet the challenge ahead.

No one should feel hesitant about jumping in. There are excellent, step-by-step volunteer guides on our website; and more personalized help in welcoming new volunteers to the team is always just an email away. The tasks are as easy as they are rewarding. So tell a friend about this amazing project, and ask them to share in the fun as we work to change the emotional landscape of the sub-continent.

Or, you can emulate the big-time movie stars and say to your friends: “I went to my old school and asked them to write letters of friendship. Now, why don’t you go to your old school and do the same.”

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