When Pakistani journalist Desiree Francis visited India for the first time in 2012 and wrote about her experiences for Aman ki Asha, it led to some unexpected outcomes.
After Aman ki Asha published Desiree’s articles about her transformative journalism training trip to Chennai and its coastal villages (she herself has Chennai-Tamil roots) and the restrictive visa regime between India and Paksitan, Ishan Modi, a banker in Dubai, connected with her. The two corresponded for a couple of years before they finally met. In a real life #PyarBorderPaar scenario, they got married in Dubai in October 2015.
Moving to Dubai exposed Desiree (on Twitter at @dfrancis86) to a large expatriate South Asian community. A former sub-editor and reporter with The News International, Jang Group of Newspapers, and radio presenter at FM 101 and FM 105 in Karachi, Desiree hung out and sang with friends at a small café in Dubai. “That got more people coming to the café, some of them bands, some music lovers,” she says.
These interactions in turn led to her music video released on August 10, 2016 just ahead of Independence Day — the “DJ Dez Show – Aman ki Asha”.
What started casually for a lark ended up changing perceptions, forging close ties between former strangers, and fast friendships between the Pakistanis and Indians involved. Besides music, they share a desire to counter the negativity visible all around and, “as humans first… foster love and not hate”.
Desiree got a particular kick out of people initially mistaking her for an Indian. “A Desiree Francis from Pakistan is not something they expect and I just love shattering that impression of people,” she says.
“They would sing and interact with me, then be surprised to find out I am a Pakistani. It really excited me to realise that I was changing people’s perceptions, one person at a time.”
These interactions led to the “DJ Dez Show—The Aman Ki Asha series”. Released on Youtube, the series features interactions with people at the café focusing on peace, music, and views about India-Pakistan relations.
The café owner, an Indian, was very encouraging and allowed them to use his space to shoot the episodes. The first one, broadcast on February 14, 2016, aimed “to celebrate love and coexistence between the two countries,” as Desiree put it.
Inspired by the response, the team decided to culminate the series with a song to reflect how they felt. Varun Dharmarathnam, whom Desiree had met at the café soon after moving to Dubai, composed a melody to which Desiree quickly wrote the lyrics under the title “DJ Dez Show – Aman ki Asha”
Like Desiree, his family is from South India — they are Malayali, from Kerala, whereas her father’s family is Tamil, from Chennai. A customer service executive by profession, Varun was born and brought up in Dubai. The Aman ki Asha song is his first recorded composition. He is also one of the lead vocalists.
All those involved in the project contributed time and talent on a voluntary basis, including Nepali cameraman Jayram whom Desiree met through the DJ DEZ show – “unity across South Asia.”
Desiree refuses to be provoked by bigots back home in Pakistan who try to question her nationality and patriotism — their narrow-mindedness, she believes, stems from ignorance and lack of exposure to Indians.
And she feels “blessed to have supportive friends who understand where my thoughts come from and why this is important for me.”
In Dubai, Indians and Pakistanis co-exist harmoniously, as they do in other countries. Desiree says she has “received tremendous positive feedback” for her efforts for peace.
The Indian and Pakistani diaspora communities’ support for peace initiatives is visible back home too. But due to visa restrictions, Indians and Pakistanis in their home countries rarely have the opportunity for cross-border interactions.
When are the governments going to realise the importance of people-to-people interactions? Isn’t it about time they allowed such interactions to take place on home ground?
— Beena Sarwar