India 2018, Part One: Chennai

Towards the end of 2017 I was invited to India by Gurmehar Kaur, one of our Ambassadors in that country, who was launching her book at the Jaipur International Literary Festival which wanted me to attend. Knowing that this would be an incredible opportunity to visit a country that has always been of great importance to Postcards For Peace, I replied that I would do all I could to make the trip. Thanks to the incredible support of some generous donors, who could also see the benefit of the trip, we started to make plans for people to see, places to visit and meetings to attend while there.

I flew to Chennai (formerly known as Madras) on the 18th January where I stayed at the very comfortable Footprint B&B. Because oif my early arriveal, I did have to wait for my room to become available but I was made very welcome and, although the owner wasn’t working that day, she sent in her husband to meet me and it was very reassuring to chat with him about, among other things, a couple of British TV programmes that they watch on Netflix! Within a few hours of landing, I met with Kirthi Jayakumar, one of the first Ambassadors we recruited in India, and the founder of The Red Elephant Foundation. Over lunch, we had a chat about a few issues that impact India in the 21st Century including gender, equality and religion, her work work with The Red Elephant Foundation and how Postcards For Peace could best work with them.

One of the first things you notice, on arrival in India, is the amount of traffic, the general business and the noise – Indian’s love to use their car horns: in a country that seemingly ignores all the usual rules of the road, it’s their way of notifying other drivers of their presence and it actually works effectively. It has to! However, ignoring the hustle and bustle, or perhaps just used to it, Indians do seem to live with an inner peace, often sitting outside their homes or at the side of the road.

This relative calm, and spiritual side, is also reflected in drawings on the pavements at the entrances to a lot of buildings. The geometrical line drawings, I later learned, were called Kolam and, in Southern India, they are often drawn using rice flour by a female member of a household to bring prosperity or good fortune to the home. A new design is often created every morning and at certain times of the year, around religious festivals, the designs become more elaborate. Many of the design that I saw were simple – though, no doubt, involved a lot of practice in order to perfect them – while others were much more complex. The biggest I saw featured the usual geomtric shapes but with a drawing of Ganesh – the elephant headed Hindu god – and the “om” symbol – a sacred sound and spiritual icon for Hindus and a popular tattoo in the West.

On the second day, while heading to our first appointment, I was quizzed by Kirthi and our driver, about aspects of living in the UK including driving and Brexit. I was tired but stirred by this discussion and was keen to say how I felt it might leave the country isolated and forced into unwanted trade deals.

On arrival at Akshar-Arbol International School – a school which Kirthi already had close links and had previously run lessons and which uses the line “Nurturing Young Minds” – we were greeted warmly by teachers who led us to a wonderful roof-top space where we were introduced to a group of around thirty pre-teens.

After introductions, I explained to the children that I had come from the UK to meet them and that the goal of Postcards For Peace was to encourage children from all over the world to become friends regardless of their race, religion, gender or if they were less able than others. Following on from my “Human Like You” talk in 2017, I asked the children to suggest things that link all humans on the planet and, as well as the expected skin, bones and hearts, children also suggested emotions, thoughts and movement.

I told the children that I thought we probably have other things in common that would enable them to begin friendships with other children in different countries. We asked them to design postcards based on something they enjoy doing or feel passionate about. One side of the postcard was to be a picture and the other could be a written message. It was interesting to note that some children started on the picture while others felt more comfortable beginning with the words.

Walking around, talking to the children as they worked, was incredibly rewarding as I discussed with the boys and girls what they were drawing and was able to disclose that what they were liked was very similar to what children in the UK, and in other countries, also enjoyed: art, football, dancing, cricket, reading, tennis, badminton and more. One boy told me enjoyed watching and playing basketball and I was able to tell him that my own 12 year old son was also a basketball fan. I asked if he had a favourite player and he said it was Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, the same as my son. It was great to be able to immediately make the connection for them between India, my son in the UK and an American basketball star. I was able to do the same when I saw a boy drawing a picture from The Diary of a Wimpey Kid too and we laughed about the “Cheese Touch”.

At this point I also had my first real Indian food of the trip – a type of savoury rice cake called Idli, served with a couple of different chutneys, which is a popular as breakfast food in India.

We ran a similar exercise with a group of older children straight afterwards. They told me how they are preparing to sit their exams in a few months time to which I was able to tell them about my oldest son’s revision plan ready for his exam in June. While they drew and wrote their postcards, I had conversations with them about climate change, Real Madrid and Ronaldo, The English Premier League and my own favourite team, West Ham United, who some of these older boys had watched on TV. It really felt that through something as simple as ball sports, we had shown that it is possible to build friendships with another child in a different country and pointed out that with these starting points, greater, stronger relations between different nations could be possible.

A short drive took us to the school’s other site where their younger children are taught. Because of their age, we decided to simplify the project and asked them to just draw their favourite things. It was funny how so many children drew food, and not Indian food either! There were many drawings of pizza, ice cream, cup cakes, KFC and chicken nuggets. We did also get more sports as well as cars, rainbows, unicorns and other things that you would expect primary school children to draw elsewhere. One boy drew a cricket match between India and England: he drew himself as the batsman and asked my name so that he could draw me as the bowler.

I had spent just a day in India and already shared one of the most rewarding experiences of my life with these children and teachers at Akshar-Arbol International School. It was certainly a few hours I would never forget.

The next day, my last in Chennai, I met up with Kirthi again and, after a short ride in an Auto Rickshaw (not actually as scary as they look!), we met up with some members of the Red Elephant Foundation team. The group of people she had bought together, to volunteer for the organisation, all came from different backgrounds and offered many different skills based on their professions and passions. We spoke about climate change and I realised that the challenges that campaigners face there are comparable with those we have in the UK and elsewhere. I also heard from a teacher at a school that educates less well-off children including many from tribal families with very troubled backgrounds.

By talking about the organisation, I came to realise that we had a lot in common and hope that we can find a way of sharing ideas and collaborating more in the future.

For now, my time in Chennai was over and the next day I flew to Delhi for the next leg of the journey.