If one loved in the Indian provinces, one could only love in English, with “I love you.”
I’d begin to notice it soon though, how love—it was inevitably called “true love”—came to be expressed almost only in English. A friend laughed while narrating how a young man had proposed to her in Bangla, her mother tongue. “It sounded so silly,” she said. If one loved in the Indian provinces, one could only love in English, with “I love you.”
My parents never say—or said—those words to each other, even though they often fought in English. For something she did not like, my mother was fond of saying “Rubbish!” But I digress.
The experts on the English of love in the provinces were shiny new stores that began sprouting in every neighborhood. They were called Archies. They sold “stationery,” though most people I knew—including myself—were unsure about the right spelling of the word: stationery or stationary. We avoided using the word altogether—the franchisee called itself “Archies Gallery,” and both the English words, proper and common nouns, new to our towns, soon became incorporated into our languages.
In Archies Gallery were rows of cards in English for a variety of relationships, including to parents and siblings. This was new to our consciousness—cards, expensive things for students, far more expensive than cards in Bangla, had so long been things sealed inside envelopes with names of streets and postal codes written on them. There were “soft toys” to be bought there, pens and writing stationery, and kitschy things made of glass and plastic—though seemingly unrelated, they were part of the same universe. This planet was, in our head, called Love. Not having experienced it in real life, except through songs and cinema, or in a chance meeting with a stranger’s or classmate’s eyes, we came to experience it here. I read the words in the ‘Greetings cards’ over and over again.
In my English medium school, I had to read the English writers—Tennyson and Wordsworth and Eliot. Even as my teachers explained how wise they were, and how beautiful their words were, their poems and stories were, in the end, “literature” by old men. What would they know of love? I’d find it here, in this Archies Gallery laboratory—I looked patiently, at all the specimens on display.
“You’re my Everything.” “The best thing that ever happened to me is you.” When my friends and I discussed them, we understood these as a more sophisticated version of “I love you.” But we didn’t use either of these sentences. Like our virginity—about which we had no idea, except that it was precious, as precious as the money our parents saved in the bank, and that it was located somewhere inside our bodies—we kept these words for the future. Years would pass before I would ever use these two sentences—adulthood would first make them comical and then unnecessary.
I also remember our common confusion about “thing”—was it right to call a person a thing? It wasn’t the ethics, but the inherited grammar that we considered, all of this while coaching ourselves about love. “I’m glad that you and me are us.” Should it be “me” or “I?” I remember asking my friend Deepa. She’d got one mark more than me in a grammar test the previous week. We were as confused about English grammar as we were about love. And yet both were important to our lives as we had imagined our lives: “Joy,” “Beauty,” “Love,” these occurred in almost every card, and we took them to be romantic—and more necessary—versions of “roti kapda makan” (food-clothes-house) that a politician like Indira Gandhi had made the triangle of our parents’ lives.
What overwhelmed me most, however, was the unabashed use of “I” and “You” in these cards. Not only did my school essays or answers not allow me the glamor and arrogance of the first person singular or the directness of addressing the examiner as “you.” My social relationships, governed as they were by the regime of obedience to an understanding of social units, the family and the nation, the class and the school, had turned me into “us.” Radiant Reader—a book of stories and poems that most English medium schools prescribed for its students—had the national pledge on its very first page:
India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country, and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage. I shall always strive to be worthy of it. I shall give respect to my parents, teachers and all the elders, and treat everyone with courtesy. To my country and my people, I pledge my devotion. In their well being and prosperity alone, lies my happiness.
Every year, we were disappointed to see the same words in our copies of the Radiant Reader. “I” in this note was annoying—only after decades did I find out that it was the “national pledge” of the country, written by Pydimarri Venkata Subba Rao. It was a lie. It actually stood for “we.” Chained by this obedience to the first-person plural, we sought the magnetism of the “I,” and by implication, the “you.” And, though we were scared to admit this to anyone except ourselves in the sweatiness of the night, we went to a place like Archies Gallery to experience in words relations beyond those mentioned in the pledge—relationships besides and outside “brothers and sisters,” “parents, teachers and all the elders,” “my people.”
Language was everything—it also was the only way to experience intimacy, power, and biology. We picked up words from the cards in Archies Gallery that our teachers did not allow entry into our essays, and we used them to lubricate our exaggerated sense of self: “awesome,” and the word “moment.” “Moment” seemed to be a thing of magic, of transformation. We waited for that moment, to be changed.
When we found no person to whom we could give those cards and their words, we moved from that corner in the store to another. In them were cards for people mentioned in the national pledge: brothers, sisters, mother, father. At an age when most of these people seem only annoying, these words made us look at these people as if they were someone else—the words in the cards had changed the relationship.
I was scared of my father, and in spite of his efforts at educating me in sports and music and cinema, our relationship wasn’t what can be called informal. This wasn’t unusual, as I gathered from my friends: with the patriarch, most members of the family only shared information. In these cards, however, was another kind of relationship:
When you need real understanding,
When you need someone to care
When you need someone to guide you
A father’s always there.
I read those words, hoping to find my father in them. I learned them by heart because I did not have the money to buy the card. When I came back home, I did the opposite—I looked at my father and tried to fit those words to him. This match-the-column exercise gradually became a way of reading, not necessarily of looking for words to catch the magnetism of our lives, but of collecting words to fit the collage that was our life. It would come to be the spine of our reading-and-writing technology, but how were we to know it then?
What I took from these words was the charm and thrill of addressing someone directly. Nothing we read or wrote—not even the letters of complaint we wrote to imaginary editors and bureaucrats—allowed us to address anyone with any degree of familiarity. I would, after a few years, meet the “Dear Reader” mode of address, and find it as clumsy and awkward as “Dear Editor” of our “formal” letters, but the ambition to create this intimacy between the reader and writer would be created by these words. “You”—whether father or reader, one wrote for, as the four-line poem reminded me, for “real understanding.”
What I took from these words was the charm and thrill of addressing someone directly.
These cards were meant to be given on days of whose existence we had no awareness. One Mother’s Day card I still remember—it was the first and last one I ever made. Not being able to afford it, I plagiarized from it: “Not always eye to eye/But always heart to heart.” I added two lines to it.
Not always eye to eye
But always heart to heart.
Not always hand in hand
But will never part.
Not emotions but the desire to write like the anonymous people on greeting cards had propelled me to perform what I would later discover was an act of intertextuality. My desire was as limited as the audience I wanted to write for—these were to remain private, a one-to-one, not the imagined audience of writers of books. Cards and letters suddenly became a naturally available arena—it was possible for me to play in them, without ticket and without worry.
A few years later, in the two years, I’d spend in a boarding school in Calcutta, I became a letter writer. Friends gathered in my room, asking me to write letters on their behalf to their boyfriends. I did my best: I changed the weather whenever I wanted to sound romantic, assured that the weather where they were would be different from the kind that I was reporting in the letters. I paraphrased, and I translated, always into English, from Bangla and occasionally from Hindi, and, in the end, I added an imagined piece of detail to make it sound honest. I dictated these letters most of the time—how could they be in my handwriting, after all?
My friends sat huddled around me. They laughed at my fictionalizing of our lives. My friends encouraged these lies—little did we understand that, in the end, all they sought as response from these letters was love, young and fragile love.
Once, Paritosh, one of the letter receivers, told his girlfriend, for whom I’d been the letter-writer: “I don’t understand all the English. But page after page of English—I feel the love . . .”
I wrote a letter once a week to my parents. In it, I mentioned everything truthfully and obediently: the taste of the curry leaves in the dal, the prayer in the chapel at seven in the morning, oiling my hair on Friday night, not fighting with anyone, listening to everything Miss Gray, our hostel superintendent, said. I allowed myself only one lie in every single letter: I was studying very hard.
Now that I had a little pocket money, I sent them a card occasionally. A couple of times every year the hostel matron took us to Archies Gallery on Lindsay Street. I wrote that in my letter when I sent them the card: “New Market,” “Lindsay Street,” “Esplanade.” Those words whose meanings existed in no dictionary, I sent to them, as if almost to tell them, without quite being able to explain it to myself, that they had done well to send me to this school in Calcutta, that experiences that could not have been available to me in Siliguri, the small town where I had grown up for the last fifteen years, were at last now mine. These experiences could only be communicated in the foreignness and desirability of the English language, or so it felt.
Letter writing—in English—connected me to a tradition that I wasn’t aware or conscious of. It is different from being conscious of belonging to a literary tradition. Growing up provincial, without any real sense of an immediate literary culture, this is where words accumulated.
When I was nine, I wrote a letter to my paternal grandfather. He had no English, but he took the letter and showed it to everyone he knew in his village on the Indo-Bangladesh border, where most of his acquaintances thought of English as instruction pasted on medicine bottles. This is now part of family lore, and, many years later, when I’d go to the village, strangers would ask whether I was the same girl who had written an entire letter in English to her grandfather. It seems like a really long time ago—I speak of the 1980s, when I was the little letter writer.
When he sent me to boarding school in Calcutta for two years, my father wrote to me in a blue inland letter every week. It was always in English, though he rarely spoke to me in the language. Our letters were read by the hostel superintendent, and my mother wanted to tell me things privately, without any eavesdropping—she chose Bangla, a language she hoped the Anglo-Indian woman would not be able to read.
My father’s letters could have been addressed to anyone in our hostel. They were like an instruction manual: wake up early, never be disobedient, never skip meals, never complain about the food, study and study and study, “never waste time,” and to write to them at least once a week. Week after week he wrote the same thing. I’d have stopped reading them unless Miss Gray had brought them to me to remind me of how I was failing the good father who was writing these letters. I suspected—and still do—that he wrote the letters to impress the Anglo-Indian Miss Gray with his English.
My letters to him were also repetitive—trying to prove my obedience, even though my marksheet did not necessarily corroborate that. I sent him a slim book of English letters as a birthday gift once—a book distributor had come to our school, and we were given a large student’s discount. Letters from a Father to his Daughter—written by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, from prison, to his ten-year-old daughter Indira, before Indian independence.
A few weeks ago, my father showed me the inscription I’d written: “From a daughter to her father, 10th August 1992.” He never read the book, he told me again, even though he’d taken it to work to show this gift from his daughter to his colleagues.
Some letters, particularly if they are in English, are perhaps never meant to be read.