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From One Nation to Another, with Love

Housecalls Magazine - November-December 2005

Text: Smita Jain 
Photographs: Nonika Rajkumar

What do you say of two Americans who are in India with the sole intention of giving back to a country from which the world has received much? Where others come to receive from Indian culture and philosophy, John Silliphant and Mark Peters have wanted to give back to the country. To this effect they have swept the streets of Ahmedabad and are now working on a project that will help exchange letters written by children between India and Pakistan to forge bridges of friendship!

The two tall Americans have been greeted with garlands and huge crowds upon their arrival at train stations, have addressed large gatherings to discuss the importance of amity between India and Pakistan, and have even been endearingly addressed as "angels of peace". A modern day sequel to Attenborough's Gandhi? "Not quite," says John Silliphant with a smile, "but Gandhiji's search for truth has certainly been an inspiration for this initiative." The initiative - taking letters and cards advocating peace from children across India to children in Pakistan - is certainly a unique one, and has been reverberating in the hearts of children across India, as reflected in the thousands of letters and cards they have collected.

Though their aim is greater peace among peoples, the two are not diplomats or ambassadors, and neither are they in India in any formal capacity. They are here, they say, "simply to do seva ; to serve". 

Their idea of seva does not conform to any particular religion, nor are they affiliated to any particular NGO. Their aim, John explains, "is to give all that we have, and make every moment an opportunity for service." Their "giving-in-the-moment" credo often leads to seva activities that cross the lines of social convention for many Indians. For instance, in the city of Ahmedabad, they have often left many a sweeper, and the gathered crowd, flabbergasted by their desire to sweep the streets.

Despite their unassuming modus operandi, the duo has been receiving accolades from Ahmedabad city officials and citizens alike. The municipality has praised them for their work, and has agreed to their innovative proposal to install attractive dustbins throughout the city with the help of well-known architect Yatin Pandya.

John SilliphantIn their six months in the city, the two were involved in numerous activities ranging from opening a Seva Café to tree-planting; until the government told them in early August that they had to leave India within the next few days.  The order stunned the two. They were in India on six-month tourist visas, and hoped to bypass the expensive exit and re-entry requirement by demonstrating to officials their intentions to serve.

John and Mark arrived at a Gandhian solution to their predicament: why not go to Pakistan, carrying gifts and messages of peace from children in India? Within two days, they were able to collect thousands of peace letters and cards from children in Ahmedabad, after which they moved on to Delhi in preparation for their departure. 

Mark PetersIn Delhi, they continued their intensive campaigning in private, public, and slum schools. Children embraced the idea and took to colours and paper with selfless ardour. Teachers and principals lent them unstinting support. Within a few weeks they had collected over 15,000 letters and cards. Says John, "Whether we get 10 letters or cards or 10,000 doesn't matter. What does matter is that, for each and every child who sits down and writes from their heart to another child, an internal connection will be made, and a seed of hope for a harmonious future will be planted." Given the success of the programme and the fortuitous receipt of a three month visa-extension, the two realized that they could take this programme to children across India. 

The two now plan to travel across India until October, spreading messages of peace and collecting letters and cards, after which they will carry them to Pakistan. When asked why they have chosen children to be messengers of peace in a politically sensitive matter, John replies: "The key to bringing change in this world is through our children. If seeds of peace are implanted in them, it is peace they will sow. They will usher in a better, more loving world."

  hearts It may be long before the law of love will be recognised in international affairs. The machineries of government stand between and hide the hearts of one people from those of another. -- M.K. Gandhi