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The Mahatma in Maine

Gandhian concepts took centre stage at a recent lakeside retreat for educators, hosted by Seeds of Peace in the US. Meher Marfatia was there

To say we were stumped would be understatement. The three of us, all Indian delegates among 50 teachers and children's writers from eight South Asian and Middle Eastern 'countries of conflict', seemed as adrift as the rest, not knowing what to expect at the first conference for adults, organised by Seeds of Peace, which works with children.


Illustration/ Jishu Dev Malakar

Titled Narratives, Moral Imagination and Educational Action, the conference was unusual by any standard. It was a residential retreat halfway across the world in the heart of picture postcard-pretty pine woods along the shores of Lake Pleasant in Maine.

We gathered, as privileged invitees to this introductory course on raising pacifist awareness in young people, that it was vital volunteering "to make the road to walk on" smooth for future participants of the programme.

My Mumbai colleague Nandini Purandare, who authors scripts for Avehi Abacus, developing the Sangati curriculum used in BMC schools, held popular storytelling sessions for our new friends. From Delhi, NCERT history professor Anil Sethi, specialising in Partition politics, the study of communalism and nationalism, had his enlightened say there. I was present as a writer of children's books and facilitator of reading clubs for middle school girls.

The camp segment of the fortnight ensured that activities like sailing, wire-walking in teams, music appreciation, and song and dance nights (thrown together from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Gaza and Egypt) helped us bond. But it was the conference that proved to be the eye-opener.

American, Arab and Jewish guest speakers addressed issues of non-violent communication, negotiation skills, effective leadership, critical thinking, civic engagement, community organisation and transformative learning as means to a common end: workable peace in native lands torn by strife.

Anil took pains to squarely yet sensitively retell the story of Indian independence, lauding the Mahatma's negotiation weapons of satyagraha and ahimsa. "Non-violence was a deep philosophy Gandhi used to craft courageous struggles against oppression," he explained. "Westerners labelled his strategy 'passive resistance'. This was far from the truth. The Mahatma's non-violence was that of the brave. Qualities of fortitude and endurance were central to it."

While daily workshops offered interesting themes of creative poetry writing, public narrative training, expressing empathy, as well as an outstanding Facing History module, it was the subtext where our real learning lay. To our minds, the memorably best education this experience gifted was the rich personal interaction between us, initially divided in our diversity and ranging in age from 22 to 62 years. These became truly cherished encounters, charged though they were at times with overwhelming emotion, confusion, and even outright anger.

The first week was tough going; too many of us drawn from vastly varied backgrounds thrown suddenly, randomly close over 14 days and nights. With differing traditions and intense political worldviews, there was bound to be debate and heated discussion.

Stormy misunderstandings between countries ran high at the workshop on NVC (non-violent communication) conducted, in all fairness, by both, a Palestinian and Israeli practitioner. The tension provided Anil an opportune moment to project our version of the idea. "Gandhi was a non-violent warrior, never to be cowed," he said. "As a fighter he consistently maintained 'dialogic resistance'. He didn't see opponents as enemies. Gandhi and his adversaries often parted pleased with each other!"

So did we, as boil cooled to simmer some days before we bid mutual goodbyes. Travelling together for trips, breaking bread on the same table, critiquing films, working on assignments in sub-groups, converted the big chill into gradual thaw. The holy month of Ramadan set in, with a majority of campers fasting and praying. It dawned how diversity is worth celebrating. A most positive result has been the cross-border project called Women of Action, initiated between Karen Abuzant from the West Bank and Tamar Gal Sarai of Israel whose grandmother formed the first kibbutz ever.   
 
Everyone sat up to discover each other's roots. As the solitary Zoroastrian around, I was asked to quell the curiosity and talk one afternoon about where my ancestors originally hailed from, before they settled in India. It felt good to dwell on bedrock beliefs of country and faith, warmed by a gentle sun under the whispering pines which swished windswept cones down to our feet on the green forest floor.    
   
International Food Night saw each contingent cook up a flurry of treats from back home. We watched our Masala Chicken platters wiped clean with delight. Equally savouring the sight of us dressed in resplendent kurtas, fellow campers gawped at our churidaar-kurta outfits to ask, "Is that Persian?" Draping my dupatta tighter at the shoulders, I answered with barely concealed pride: "It's pan-Indian."

Meher Marfatia is a freelance writer, editor and of publisher, 49/50 Books

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