Read With Me: Finding freedom in friendship this Independence Day

How do we expose children, beyond the regular self-congratulatory patriotism through songs, speeches and skits, to reflect more deeply about our country and the neighbour we have been taught to hate? Stories may be a good place to start.


How do we expose children, beyond the regular self-congratulatory patriotism through songs, speeches and skits, to reflect more deeply about our country and the neighbour we have been taught to hate? Stories may be a good place to start.

Even as a media-fuelled climate of mistrust dominates the current relationship between Pakistan and India, peace and friendship groups comprising people from both countries are joyfully going ahead with joint Independence Day celebrations on August 14 and 15 respectively.

This act of resistance is worth applauding, especially since these dates not only mark the creation of independent nation states free of British rule but also the anniversary of large-scale communal violence and mass displacement in the name of Partition.

How do schools engage with this legacy? Most simply do not. They satisfy themselves with generous helpings of self-congratulatory patriotism through songs, speeches and skits without actually engaging children in an exercise of individual and collective reflection about where our country stands today, or solicit their perspective on how to make it better. Therefore, an open discussion about how we choose to remember 1947, and how it is possible for India to build on the positive aspects of our relationship with Pakistan, is quite a rarity.

As parents, educators, people who care about or work with children, what can we do to expose children to narratives that are not stepped in hatred but filled with hope? Stories are a good place to start.

Mukand and Riaz cover

Mukand and Riaz by Nina Sabnani.

A book that I have found moving is writer-illustrator-filmmaker Nina Sabnani’s ‘Mukand and Riaz’. Here is a simple story of a deep friendship between two boys from different communities – one Hindu, the other Muslim. The author has made them Hindu and Muslim respectively not as a token gesture of being inclusive. Although this friendship is at the heart of the story, the author has not shied away from addressing the violent conflict. The story is set against the background of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, a time that many of us know only through films and history textbooks, and which some of us know through stories told by parents and grandparents with a great deal of pain in their hearts. For Nina, ‘Mukand and Riaz’ was a profoundly personal journey too. The story was told to her in bits and pieces by her father, Mukand, who came from Karachi to Mumbai at the age of 14 years.

The book’s lush visual appeal owes to the art of women’s appliqué work, which Nina has woven in as a reminder of the shared traditions between Sindh in Pakistan and Gujarat in India. It has reached readers in many parts of the world, and in several languages, thanks to the efforts of Tulika Books. However, the original form of the story took shape as an animation film, also called ‘Mukand and Riaz’, made by Nina during her tenure as faculty at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.

When I met Nina on the sidelines of the Designing for Children conference a few years ago, she said, “Every time there is a riot, you hear people talking about each other with such irritation, anger and hatred. It is a mix of fear and trauma. As a human being and an artist, I thought I was doing nothing despite my concern. I felt that the film might be one way of addressing these issues.”

Initially, she just wrote out a story pieced together from recollections shared by her father two years before his death. At that time, Nina wondered to herself, ‘Who would want to read my father’s story?’ She sent the story to all her siblings, who felt quite overwhelmed. Next she shared the story with her friends, who again had a very warm and encouraging response. “I wanted to make my father feel heard. I had such romantic notions at that time. I thought my father’s friend Riaz would watch the film, and they would somehow get to meet!” Nina’s father passed away without meeting Riaz again, but he lived graciously with the fond memories of Karachi that fill up the pages of the book and the frames of the film. The pain of separation from a dear friend and one’s homeland is also accompanied by the joy found in ordinary things like playing cricket, relishing kulfi, and having good times with friends.

Mukand and Riaz

Mukand and Riaz

The book and the film have touched many people, some of whom are educators who have used these as resources in their classrooms. Nina once met a teacher in Bangalore who shared her experience of having a Muslim girl in her class who became the target of several hushed insults and anti-Muslim conversations after the September 11 bombings in the United States of America. The teacher introduced Nina’s book to her students, and facilitated conversations around it. The book struck a deep chord with them. Apparently, they stopped making hostile remarks about Muslims, and the girl in that teacher’s class felt a lot more comfortable.

Nina, who works at IIT’s Industrial Design Centre, feels the need to respond to things in her environment through her art. The communal violence in Gujarat was an immediate context for her, as she was living in Ahmedabad in 2002. She says, “I tend to focus on the positive rather than the negative. You can go on being angry, but there is no point in keeping the anger in your soul. Of course, I agree it is important to be angry about certain things, but that anger needs to be channelized in a constructive way. And I feel that celebration of little joys is equally important, even when we express our anguish.”

This celebration finds expression in ‘Mukand and Riaz’ through anecdotes of little kindnesses and moments of warmth that touched Nina when her father narrated them – the kindness of the bonesetter in Karachi who doesn’t charge a fee for fixing Mukand’s arm, looking after people’s shoes outside the gurudwara, the serving of iced water to devotees, a gift of kulfi from Ladaram Faludawala, escaping in disguise with the help of friends from a community that is supposedly antagonistic, and the beautiful exchange of caps between two thick friends who had no clue if they would ever meet again.

We cannot undo history but it is up to us whether we want to live as sparring neighbours or mature friends. The process of arriving at that place of friendship may not happen overnight but we can consciously seek resources, experiences and conversations that help us expand our view of the relationship between Pakistan and India, instead of contributing to the hatred that surrounds us. Let us find our freedom in friendship.

This piece is published as part of Read With Me – August Special on The Alternative.

As parents, educators, readers and writers, we know how important it is to get children – from infants to young adults – to be readers, and readers for life. Read With Me all this month looks to encourage children to read more. We are also talking about reading that goes much beyond a good tale – as vibrant, fun and effective ways to get children to connect to themselves, their roots, accept difference, understand people and places and be more sensitive. All of August, The Alternative says Read With Me – read more and read for change.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, educator, researcher, teacher trainer and copy editor living in Mumbai. He is the founder of Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, an initiative to promote friendship between Indians and Pakistanis. He holds an M.Phil. in English Language Education, and has received fellowships from Commutiny – The Youth Collective, the Seagull Foundation for th... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, educator, researcher, teacher trainer and copy editor living in Mumbai. He is the founder of Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, an initiative to promote friendship between Indians and Pakistanis. He holds an M.Phil. in English Language Education, and has received fellowships from Commutiny – The Youth Collective, the Seagull Foundation for th... more
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