Faced with some uncomfortable questions at a slum in Chennai, Pakistani journalist Desiree' Francis finds parallels... and makes a resolve
I felt like a tsunami hit me when nine-year-old Karthika asked, "Are you here to bomb us?" when I told her I was a Pakistani. Her sister Preeti, older by a year, quickly corrected her, telling her that it was television channels that make all the headlines to get countries to fight.
I was visiting a slum called Nochikuppam in Chennai, by the Marina Beach (known as the world's largest urban beach). Nochikuppam is a fisherman's village, similar to Ibrahim Hyderi on the outskirts of Karachi. I was visiting India through a training programme about covering poverty.
Karthika and Preeti study at the St Thomas school, in the fourth and seventh standard respectively. I asked if they have a TV set in their home. They said no. So where did Karthika get her perception about Pakistan from, I wondered.
She said that she had read in schoolbooks that Pakistan is the enemy and she also hears this from people in her family and community, mostly fishermen.
It struck me that such perceptions, viewing India as the 'enemy' exist in Pakistan too, fed by textbooks, with sentences like "The Hindus always desired to crush the Muslims as a nation. Several attempts were made by the Hindus to erase the Muslim culture and civilization" (M. Ikram Rabbani and Monawar Ali Sayyid, An Introduction to Pakistan Studies, The Caravan Book House, Lahore, 1995, p 12). Hardly geared towards fostering tolerance between the two communities.
Still, it is impressive that ninety percent of the children in this coastal community go to school. The education revolution in Nochikuppam came only after the 1990's, a villager told me. The children studying in various missionary schools in the vicinity are the hope of the community. Seven out of eight young boys between the ages of 15-18 told me they wanted to become chartered accountants, computer and electrical engineers, communication specialists with the exception of one who just wanted to become "a daddy"!
Some girls also wanted to become engineers. With the five rupees each child gets as daily pocket money - an incentive to attend school - they usually buy almond milk or save up to help their families. Sometimes they buy toys for themselves.
While I was speaking to the two sisters, their friends gathered around us excitedly. From there the conversation took another turn. The training exercise on covering poverty in a slum turned into a cultural exchange. The children and I spoke about what they wanted to be when they grow up.
We spoke about what the people in Pakistan were like. They wanted to know more about my country. They could not believe I was from Pakistan.
They were awestruck to when I told them I had my roots in Madras. They were excited to appear in a Pakistani newspaper and posed for pictures. In that all too brief half hour, we spoke, we laughed, we exchanged jokes.
Yet their notions about Pakistan were so strong that even after I explained to them how the people of the two countries had nothing against each other, they asked a local journalist accompanying me to confirm, "Is she here to bomb us?"
I hope these perceptions change one day. I hope I can contribute to that change.
The writer is a journalist with The News International, Karachi. She participated in a two-week-long Summer Academy on Freedom and Responsibility in the South Asian Media for young SAARC journalists, jointly organised by the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, India, and International Institute for Journalism (GIZ) Berlin, Germany. She can be
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
By Asit Jolly
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