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With love, from India to Pakistan

By Sumit Bhattacharya
Last updated on: January 13, 2006 16:33 IST
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Imagine. A gigantic letter -- 240 by 360 feet, to be exact -- signed by thousands of Indian schoolchildren, to their friends across the border in Pakistan. With the message of love, peace and brotherhood.

Imagine a Guinness Book of World Record entry for the largest letter, from India to Pakistan.

No need to imagine, actually. Because on January 16, in Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium, that's exactly what is going to be unveiled.

Designed by artist John Devaraj -– students of whose Born Free Art School are putting the letter together at the St Joseph School ground's tennis court -– the project is the brainchild of two Americans.

And those two Americans -- John Silliphant and Mark Peters -- came to India with friends, initially just for a year.

"We came with no real plans," says Silliphant, 35, who used to design web sites, and was "mostly into volunteer work" in the US. "We came to look for something to do, because every moment there is an opportunity to be of service. We just wanted to look around for those opportunities."

After working in Ahmedabad with slum children and on environmental issues, the time came for the philanthropist friends to leave India to renew their visas.

"We thought it would be a wonderful thing to do -– to carry letters from schoolchildren in India to their friends in Pakistan," says Silliphant, whose partner in charity Peters runs a small software business and a transport firm in America.

But when in just two days they collected 3,000 letters, the scale of things changed. "The kids just lit up at the prospect of the assignment."

No thoughts of rivalry and enmity in the fledgling minds? "Not at all," says Silliphant.

"Those mindsets, you sort of grow into them. You adopt them. Kids just want to be friends. They know kids in Pakistan are just like them -– they just want to play cricket, be friends. That's what's amazing about it."

"Every child we come into contact with, without exception, they all love it. They all have the same innocence and hope and positivity."

"If you can just connect to that purity and make those connections. Then a whole generation grows up and takes over -– that has those connections."

To connect with that purity, Silliphant, Peters and friends travelled to Delhi, Chandigarh, Ajmer, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Pondicherry.

In most places, friends and connections helped their cause. In Chandigarh, for instance, the organisation Yuvsatta set up their appointments with the little ambassadors of peace.

"In three days, we went to 20 schools and met 20,000 students -– all on bicycles!"

In the capital, Silliphant, Peters and friends, who call themselves Friends Without Borders, had no such help. They physically "went to the school gates, asked to see the principal."

But Silliphant is quick to add that be it parents, teachers or school authorities, everyone helped their cause, everyone encouraged what they were trying to do.

The Friends Without Borders campaign marched on from city to city -- battling only a bad bout of jaundice that struck Silliphant -- "empowering the children to be the change."

"It really is going to change the world because you have such an extraordinary outpouring of goodwill. I don't think the world has seen anything like it."

With a documentary by Mumbai-based filmmaker Gopa Desai on the anvil and a bigger Mumbai event -– "with some Bollywood celebrities and even more children" -- planned a week after the Bangalore unveiling, the outpouring of goodwill continues.

Friends Without Borders describe themselves as '99 per cent children and some grown-ups who are working to let the children's voices be heard'.

Are the powers that be in New Delhi and Islamabad listening?

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Sumit Bhattacharya