One Future Inspire I Chintan Modi: Storytelling for Peace
One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.
Team One Future interviewed Chintan Modi — a writer, educator, researcher and teacher trainer based in Mumbai. At present, he consults with the Prajnya Trust in Chennai on their Education for Peace initiative to work with teachers as potential peacebuilders, making a difference in the world beyond their immediate subject specializations. He has worked with the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, Seeds of Peace, the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Kabir Project, the Standing Together to Enable Peace Trust, and the Red Elephant Foundation.
Chintan has designed and facilitated workshops to strengthen critical thinking related to issues of communal violence, caste privilege, gender discrimination and being queer. He has contributed to a guidebook for textbook writers that focuses on how to integrate peace, social justice, global citizenship and sustainable development into subject-specific learning materials.
He is the founder of Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, an India-Pakistan peace initiative that focuses on storytelling, peace education, and creative use of social media to strengthen counter-narratives to hateful media propaganda.
Please tell us a little about your personal journey. What made you establish Friendships Across Borders?
Personal journeys are difficult to sum up because they are fairly non-linear. I visited Pakistan for the first time in 2012. It was intense and magical. I was a school teacher back then, and the school I used to work with was participating in an Indo-Pak peace initiative called Exchange for Change. The five-day trip to Lahore lit a sort of spark in me. I wanted to transition from being an English teacher to a peace educator. I wanted to use my facilitation skills for something that I had begun to care about so passionately that I could think of nothing else to devote my energy to. I began to visit various schools and colleges in India and Pakistan to initiate dialogue to get students to think critically about war-mongering narratives spread through textbooks, media channels and platforms available to politicians, religious leaders and terrorist outfits. In 2014, I decided to streamline my efforts. On Valentine’s Day, I launched Friendships Across Borders — also known as Aao Dosti Karein — as an initiative that would focus on peace education, storytelling and social media advocacy to break if not demolish the walls between Indians and Pakistanis.
We understand that you work extensively towards creating more space for conversation. Could you tell us about your work with Mardon Waali Baat?
Over the last few years, as I began to deepen my involvement with peace education, I found that had not addressed how the patriarchy informs the discourse around war, security and nationalism. These are not topics that most people think about on a daily basis, so I felt the need to anchor the discussion around patriarchy in something more immediately relevant.
I started facilitating conversations with men’s groups, hoping that we could unpack what toxic masculinity has to done to our relationships, our capacity to feel and express emotions, our negotiations with gender roles, the way we think about gender identity and sexual orientation/preference, how we talk about intimacy and sexual violence, and our ability to seek support.
Mardon Waali Baat is a jibe against the bro-code that dehumanizes women, upholds heteronormativity, and makes invisible the everyday violence that the patriarchy makes possible. We must actively resist the idea that the world is made up of two halves — women and men. Development sector discourse around gender equality, especially in India, is often ignorant of intersectionality and reinforces binary ways of thinking. It creates the impression that intersex, trans, queer and non-binary persons do not exist.
What are the challenges you face at work? What kind of resources do you require to work in this field?
My work is a labour of love. It is an expression of what matters to me and how I want to lead my life. However, I have not invested time in registering a formal organization, setting up a team or instituting an annual calendar of programming. I focus my attention on small projects, and collaborate with a variety of people. I have been fortunate to come across individuals and organizations with shared interests, and this has expanded the joy I find in my work.
Being an educator can be emotionally exhausting, especially when one is fighting entrenched forms of violence such as Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia and bi-erasure. Every time I facilitate a group, I have to prepare myself, listen with full attention, and later create the time to unwind because it is intense. Self-care demands time and resources. The work I do is valued by a lot of people but those who seek it are often reluctant to pay for the time and skills I bring to the table. They seem to think that I ought to do it for a noble cause. I have stopped working with people who come with this mindset.
What is your concept of a mentor?
I have benefited hugely from the guidance of my teachers and colleagues but I don’t think anyone in particular took me under their wing and offered to be my mentor. My personality is such that I tend to seek out different people for different things instead of having one go-to person who is expected to know all the answers to all my questions. I also enjoy inter-generational conversations — there is much to be learnt if people stop fussing over the age difference, and keep their focus on what one person can offer the other.
Describe a day in your life.
I live with my parents, so the day is often organized according to the rhythms of the household. I work mostly from home, and travel only for meetings. There are times when I want to be left alone, so I head out to a coffee shop that will allow me to linger. A typical day in my life is filled with reading, thinking, writing, eating, sleeping, tweeting, watering plants, listening to music, and being occupied with email correspondence. My days look different when I am facilitating workshops or training sessions. I tend to prioritize self-care, before and after. I used to spend a lot of time writing letters by hand, zen doodling, going for walks, meditating, and watching films on Netflix. I haven’t done any of those things in a long time. I need to change that.
Why is storytelling important?
It is through stories that we make meaning of life, which might be an entirely meaningless unfolding over time and space if we did not have poetry, relationships, philosophy, science, mythology, history, religion and so much else. All of these are made up of stories. Notions of time and space, too, are stories. My understanding of who I am is a story. My perception of the value of what I do in terms of peace education is also a story. It is through stories that we get to narrate our own life experiences, learn about the journeys of people whose circumstances are different from ours, and also find common ground.
What would you like for people to understand better about your work?
I would like them to know that I see myself as a facilitator, and not as someone who has sorted out all the dilemmas of life and is now here to ‘fix’ people who are struggling. Sometimes, people come with such high expectations to a workshop that they forget about their own agency. A facilitator can only catalyze your awareness, and work with you to access opportunities for learning. It is not their job or their place to take responsibility for your learning. That is your task and your commitment.
Which country’s policies on community living and equal rights are worth learning from and why?
I wish I could have answered this question but I have not spent enough time researching policies on community living and equal rights in various countries. I think there is often a tendency to look towards Europe and North America because they are assumed to have the best of what is possible for human civilization but we need to learn from the global South as well. It isn’t enough to have policies that sound good on paper. They must be implemented in order to be meaningful. Apart from policies, it might also help to study traditional practices and community mechanisms that have evolved organically without the explicit intervention or decree of the state.
Describe 3 books or tell us about three people that have impacted your life.
The first book that comes to mind is Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window, a novel about a little girl who loves climbing trees, staring outside the classroom window, talking to birds, and playing with her dog. After being expelled from a school that has no appreciation for the gifts she brings to the universe, her mother finds her another one where she flourishes. The headmaster of the school is a kind man whose unusual ways resonate with the children, and with me. For him, education is not about stuffing a child’s mind with knowledge that will be summoned up in a distant future. He is in tune with their needs and questions, their dreams and struggles. No wonder I love that book so much!
The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron are my other two favourites. I seek refuge in them when my barrel of love needs a refill. They help me drop the inessentials that block my view of how things really are. They hold me when I am exhausted, have my back when the humans around me are utterly disappointing. They restore my ability to rejoice in my own power — a power that is born of compassion, not of domination.
What is your advice to the youth?
Stay young in your thoughts. Dogma is easy to fall prey to. There will be people who do not take you seriously just because you refuse to nod in agreement with the flavour of the season. Your conviction in your own truth can see you through some really difficult times. It might get lonely, but that is better than being in a party you cannot stand.
The universe will respond to your sincere intentions, and support will come from unexpected places. Do what you need to do to keep yourself sane and strong. It doesn’t matter if people scoff at you for seeking peace in a shrine, a spa or a shopping mall.
You will find what you seek if you keep at it.