| The TTIS team on Howrah station’s platform no. 8, in front of the Rajdhani Express coach no. AS7, that brought them back home on Saturday night. Picture by Aranya Sen
It was a not-so-small step for a group of Calcutta school kids, but perhaps a larger leap to improve relations between the futures of two neighbouring nations. The distance from Sealdah station to Karachi High School was covered over six days — train to Delhi and Amritsar, bus to Lahore and Karachi — but it was the three days the 33 youngsters and 13 adults spent there that made it all worthwhile.
The Telegraph in Schools (TTIS) team, in association with the Seagull Peace Works project, had set off on January 6. Late on January 18, when the group finally arrived at Howrah station, about nine hours behind schedule, there wasn’t a student or teacher untouched by the warmth and hospitality of the people across the border.
The students were shouting, singing, dancing, laughing, crying and hugging everyone in sight, in the ecstasy of a mission well accomplished. Not only had they made “lifelong” friends from several schools in Pakistan, they’d even paved the way for a reciprocal trip to Calcutta. Invitations to a Friendship Fest in October were gleefully given and enthusiastically accepted.
The principal point of the trip was to take part in the Schools Educational Olympiad at Karachi High School. “But they were too busy making friends to take part in the competitions and they were howling when we left,” smiled team leader Barry O’Brien. “These kids really broke ground… They’ve started a mini wave.”
For some, the experience was intensely personal. Like Fatema Marfatia, a student of Saifee Hall, who met relatives from her mother’s side of the family for the first time. “It was very emotional and overwhelming to be able to see each other. We had so much to talk about, but couldn’t speak for a few hours. The whole thing was unbelievable, because we never thought it would be possible,” said the 17-year-old.
P.B. Dasani, of Chowringhee Kindergarten and High School, too, had a sentimental bus journey through Sindh, the homeland of both his parents. “I never thought I would be able to visit my parents’ birthplace in my lifetime,” he smiled, teary-eyed. “And then, meeting Sindhi teachers who treated me like a long-lost brother was absolutely wonderful.”
For teacher Shukla Bandhopadhay, whose soldier son Anirban, 24, was shot and killed by a Pakistani mujahideen, the trip “revolutionised my ideas”. Her speech on the pain of losing a child received a standing ovation. “It was a healing experience,” she said.
Striking unexpected friendships was the highlight for Ansh Sahai, from Birla High School. From an army family, going to Pakistan on a peace mission was not appreciated by all. But it is with the memories she has brought back that she hopes to turn them around. “There was a boy, Numan, who became a good friend. His father is serving on the front, at the Indo-Pak border. But he says that doesn’t dictate who his friends are,” she added.
The kindness of everyone they met, including taxi-drivers and shopkeepers, is what the TTIS team remembers most. If they had left home with the hope of doing whatever little they could to rebuild relations between Indians and Pakistanis, they returned with the confidence that they could do that and much more. As young Fatema summed up: “A bond has been rebuilt after being dormant for so long. This is the beginning.”