I was met at Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi, after my connecting flight from Chennai, by Chintan Girish Modi – one of Postcards For Peace’s long-standing Ambassadors – who immediately presented me with a copy The Gandhi Experiment by Margaret Hepworth. I had already been given a copy of Kirthi Jayakumar’s own book, The Doodler of Dimashq, as well as War and Peace, while in Chennai. It was clear that a) Indian’s love to give gifts to visitors and, b) my luggage was going to be a lot heavier by the time I came to leave.
Waiting for the taxi, Chintan asked if I had noticed the Delhi smell yet (although he did say that it wasn’t too bad at the moment). I had to admit that I hadn’t but by the time I came to leave, a couple of days later, I had noticed that the air is thick with pollution and, given the amount of traffic and roadside fires I noticed, it hardly seemed surprising.
A last-minute change of plan saw us change direction, mid-journey, and head to Depot48, a small restaurant/venue where another of our ambassadors, Gurmehar Kaur, was due to give a book reading that evening. I was very excited to meet Gurmehar, who was the reason I was in India at all, having invited me to her book launch that was to take place a few days later at the Jaipur International Literary Festival. Initially full of youthful spirit, as the time came for her to do her reading, she became noticeably more nervous, “How much should I read?” she asked. Following a musical act and stand-up comedy act couldn’t have been easy but she did an admirable job in front of a (mostly) attentive audience. As part of her introduction, it was mentioned that Gurmehar was an Ambassador of Postcards For Peace and that I, the charity’s founder, was in the audience. I was happy to raise my hand in acknowledgement and it felt like everybody there knew of the charity.
We left soon after to get something to eat soon after and, after building a friendship online for the last couple of years, watching her forced to grow and mature as her name became more well known, it was great to actually spend some time in Gurmehar’s company. It was reassuring to watch as she debated what to eat: avoiding carbs, it seemed, was all that bothered her, despite all that she had been through, at the hands of online trolls, in the last year.
The next morning, I met up with Chintan again. He wanted to take me to a traditional arts and crafts centre he thought I would like so we jumped into an auto-rickshaw. The driver told us he had a son in Nottingham and was interested to know why I was in India. Chintan explained to him about Postcards For Peace and about how we were trying to unite people in different countries, including helping to bring children in India and Pakistan closer together. He couldn’t understand why we would want to do that.
Chintan looked confused when the driver stopped. This wasn’t the arts centre he wanted to show me: it was a shop that sold souvenirs (nice souvenirs but not what we were hoping to see!). The driver then explained that this was the best he could take us to because the roads ahead were closed due to rehearsals for the forthcoming Republic Day celebrations. Chintan suspected that he was really after some commission from the store owner. We called a cab that didn’t turn up and in the end, crossed the road to the Metro – the plans changed again. The Metro was busy. Bags had to be scanned and bodies patted down: security is taken very seriously. The trains were busy: “Just get on and push,” I was told.
Another auto-rickshaw ride took us to the New Aruna Nagar Colony (or Majnu-ka-tilla) a Tibetan refugee colony tucked away beside a busy main road. We strolled past a Tibetan Buddhist temple (sadly, closed), complete with prayer wheels, and entered a maze of narrow lanes. Market stalls sold spices, clothing, prayer flags and fabric alongside bookshops, travel agents, souvenir shops, cafés and restaurants. We enjoyed a delicious meal – ridiculously cheap, wonderful service. Back outside we passed traditionally dressed Tibetan monks – it really didn’t feel like we were in Delhi at all.
In the afternoon, we moved from Buddhism to Islam as we headed to Jama Masjid – India’s biggest mosque and one of the largest in the world. The mosque was completed in the 17th Century and features three great gates, four towers and two 40m high minarets constructed of strips of red sandstone and white marble. The vast courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 people.
Having removed our footwear, it was wonderful to stroll among the visitors – tourists of all religions mixing withe Muslims there to pray or pay homage – as Chintan shared some of his knowledge of the faith. Like the Tibetan colony before this, it was a place of peaceful reflection and difficult to believe that, beyond it’s fine walls. were the bustling Delhi streets where rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes and cycles all vied for road space with pedestrians – some carrying huge loads on their backs, shoulders or heads.
With more travelling through the city, I witnessed cows walking at the side of the road, laundry hanging to dry over the barrier that ran down between carriageways.
The India International Centre was our third stop off of the day and turned out to be another oasis of calm. Situated in the more modern, and slightly less busy, New Delhi, the building was designed in the Sixties and it definitely had maintained that feel. It was a great place to meet Ravi and Devika from Aaghas E Dosti (“Beginning of Friendship”). Their organisation does brilliant work to create friendships, and break down prejudices, between children in India and Pakistan. It was wonderful to meet and discuss our work which shared many similarities. We left hoping to collaborate in the future.
After that busy day, it was time for me to head back to my hotel for an evening of rest and reflection.
The next morning we headed to DAV Pushpanjali, a large school on the outer ring road of Delhi, that had taken part in our Postcard Exchange Network in 2017.
Once past the armed guard on the gate (as mentioned earlier, India takes it’s security seriously) we were met by two teachers. I honestly felt like royalty as we were led into the school to be met by the school’s principal and a photographer. A handmade sign, on an easel by the reception desk, welcomed us both. Taken into the principal’s vast office, we had a short conversation over coffee where she informed us about the history of the school and how it is run today.
With a knock on the door, a teacher informed us that the children were ready for us. Around fifty children awaited us in the auditorium, each one stood as we entered the room. All of the children we met were very polite addressing me as “Sir”, “Mr Martin” or “Mr Martin, Sir”.
Taking our seats in the front row, some of the children performed a wonderful song they had learned about how, although we all have our differences, we are all actually the same:
People come in different sizes,
Colors shapes and names
Though we’re different on the outside,
Inside I think we’re the same (Repeat)
Sometimes happy, sometimes sad
Scared or silly, mean or mad
Feelings you have, I have, too
We’re not so different, me and you
I bet you have ideas like me
Our brains are built the same, you see
And if I understand you right
We both love peaceful sleep at night
Every day we share the sun
We love to laugh and play and run
Through fields and trees, beneath the sky
We love this planet, you and I
We were born with different names
The words we speak are not the same
Around the world in every land
Peace on earth we understand!
That was right up my street, exactly the same message that was the basis for my own Human, Like You talk a few months earlier.
Three children then took to the stage to tell us what the word “peace” meant to them – amazing speeches were given confidently and full of passion and belief.
After that, myself and Chintan were invited to the stage to address the children. What more could I say to them though? They had already shown that they knew what peace was, what their role in society had to be if they were to create a safer and more united world for their own and future generations. Instead, I thanked them for their understanding and belief.
We were shown a video of some of the work they had been doing at the school, before som echildren performed a short play. At the end we were presented with a huge bag of gifts. Visting some classrooms afterwards, the children asked me lots of questions along the likes of, “What food is eaten in England?”, “What sports do they play in England?”, “How many languages do children learn in England?” (some children at the school, I was informed later, can learn as many as eight different languages).
Some of the questions I just couldn’t answer in the time I had there: “What is the history of England?” (where would I start?) and “Does England have a constitution like India?”. Written in 1949, the constitution of India is the supreme law of the country and something many are very proud and while aspects of it are very important, many people feel that other parts should be updated the reflect the times.
We finished the visit by holding further conversation with the principal and some teachers while we were served some Indian food.
From the school, a taxi drove us through heavy Delhi traffic, past groups of men sheltering (often around fires) from the rain. Our destination was Gandhi Smriti – a museum dedicated to the life and death of Mohandas “Mahatma” Karamchand Gandhi – but the driver hadn’t heard of it and didn’t know where he was going. It transpired that he didn’t have much time for the activist either: “He ruined our country!” I found that Indians have varying opinions on Gandhi with rumours and allegations coming to light. Even so, his portrait adorns all bank notes.
The driver wanted to know more about us and why I was visiting India, Chintan translating for me. He told us his dream was to save enough money to be able to fly to Mumbai and Goa.
The museum, when we did eventually get there, was interesting. Whatever your opinion of the man is, there is no denying the influence and inspiration he has given to many. The museum is housed in the site of Gandhi’s final residence and it was interesting to see where he lived and slept. Footprints are built into a footpath trace the final steps he took before his assassination on 30th January 1948.
We were joined at Gandhi Smriti by Vishakha Bhanot, another Postcards For Peace Ambassador. It was good to spend some time with her, find out more about her and discuss how she might be able to help the organisation in the future. We were also joined by one of Chintan’s friends for a bite to eat before I headed back to my hotel to pack again. The next leg of my trip started the following day, onwards to Jaipur.
*Kid’s Peace Song by Peter Alsop