By Kirthi Jayakumar
From where I live, Afghanistan isn’t too far. And yet, my knowledge and understanding of the nation and its painful narrative came from books, films and conversations – some of which were skewed, some of which were purely factual. Nevertheless, it soon became a dream to visit the country, to know and to learn about its people hands on. However, being the conservative family that mine is, my parents were reluctant to let me go to Kabul or Kandahar, much less even apply for positions with the UN or non-profits that might let me work there. I decided that I would still keep at my dream and find a way to make it happen.
Meanwhile, I went to law school and earned my degree in five years, which is the regular course duration in India. When I set foot in the courtroom, I wanted to run out screaming. It hurt me to see the aesthetics of justice being given greater importance than justice itself – and I wanted to be part of a movement that let people enjoy, claim and actually get to enjoy the rights that were theirs to begin with. That led me to become a volunteer – where I spent time teaching, doing research, writing, designing and even writing grant applications, for non-profits. These efforts helped the non-profits tremendously – many of them became financially sound and many of them achieved their goals on specific projects. All along, my dream of being associated with Afghanistan continued to thrive: through the books I read, the stories I wrote, the videos and movies I made it a point to watch.
And then there came the opportunity of a lifetime: to bring a slice of Afghanistan home to me, to visit me without my parents worrying for my safety, right in the comfort of my own room. It left me with a sense of awe at how similar we all are. No matter where we are – in India or in the USA, Afghanistan or Pakistan, Nigeria or Colombia, Spain or Australia: we’re really all just the same. We’re just a bunch of people who want to be happy, enjoy life, and have good food, clothing, shelter and education. This realization drove me to understand that I never want to stop volunteering. If teaching one Afghan student at a time can make his life more peaceful by opening up avenues for a future for him, and if that could happen with my involvement – what more could I ask for?
Thanks to Pax Populi, I got to teach a bright, young Afghan lad to read, speak and write in English. What followed was eight months of pure fun. We bonded over cricket, our favourite actors (Keanu Reeves, can you believe it?), our favourite classic movie (The Sound of Music! Who would have thought?), our favourite food (curries of any kind, with lots and lots of spice!) and our dreams for the future (A peaceful world, built on the foundation of education). In the months that followed, we remained (and still do!) in constant touch. If I had so much as a whiff of news of a bomb blast in Kandahar, my heart leapt to my throat, and I sat praying fervently to my idea of God, to keep Aslam safe. If there was news of a bomb attack in India, Aslam wrote to me within seconds of hearing, asking if I was safe. Here we were. Two people separated by just a computer screen, miles of land and a one-hour time difference. But two people, united by the greater goal of peace through education.
My experience with Pax Populi as a teacher has enriched me. It has made me a better, stronger and sincere person (You should ask my mum that, really, and she’ll agree. Of course she’ll complain that I don’t eat enough, but that’s Rule #1 in the Invisible Handbook for Moms, so we don’t quite argue with that!). My time with my newfound Afghan brother, Aslam, has made me a wholesome and more sensitised person. It’s one thing to learn and know about a country and its people from books – it’s another thing to be there with them as people, and to build a bond with them that you can cherish for years to come. I taught Aslam English. But Aslam? He taught me resilience. He taught me that peace was only a matter of choice.
Can I say this was a fruitful experience? Why, yes. I taught Aslam. He educated me.
Kirthi Jayakumar is a writer, artist, activist and researcher (Peace & Conflict | Gender Studies) based out of Chennai, India.