Red Letter Years

Red Letter Years

After her first kiss led to her first love letter, a writer found that over the years, ink and paper would offer her the freedom to love, one word at a time.

It’s a question that has not given me an oddly deep sense of calm. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

I had my first crush when I was 11. We had just moved from Paris to Pondicherry, a startling relocation. Just a few days ago, while sorting through my books, I found my diary from the time, in which, with bitter rage and annoying literary pretension, I lament “the stupidest school in the world” and recall —”oh so vividly!” — the Paris metro.

We lived in a quiet government colony, each house with its own little garden and vegetable patch, and a badminton court. For my 11th birthday, my parents gave me a dog; I promptly named him Balzac. (I must confess I’ve never read a word of Balzac, though my sad-eyed Labrador did try to make up the deficit by swallowing a fountain pen.) Not long after, my neighbour, let’s call her X, sent me a note in school. She was older, 13, so the delivery was an elaborate affair, involving intermediaries from different classrooms across the dusty games field.

The note itself was perfectly direct: X liked me. For months thereafter, X and I, young Balzac in tow, spent our late afternoons wandering through the more obscure parts of our colony. We held hands. I had my first kiss. I composed my first love letter. X didn’t care for it — she may, in her world-weary, 13-year-old manner have rolled her eyes — but I wrote more anyway. I discovered that expressing your love, if only to yourself, is half the fun of feeling it.

In the middle of all this, I went up to my mother one day and asked her, “What’s a homosexual?” I don’t even know how I learnt the word. My mother replied, “It’s when a man loves another man”, so that was that. Neither X nor I were men. A few months later, a half-penny seems to have dropped, at least for my parents. They suggested that I was spending too much time with X, and that I might play badminton in the evenings instead and expand my social horizons. I remember this conversation but I do not remember any acute sense of being caught out, nor of being in any danger of disgrace. And besides, X had flipped the narrative: she had gone to Calcutta over the summer and acquired a boyfriend. Now, they had embarked on a florid correspondence for which she was using my address as her post-box. I was more annoyed than heartbroken and I had an ally in X’s younger sister — both of us being equally disgusted by X’s sudden soppiness. The boyfriend sent regular and earnest avowals inscribed on inland letter forms. X’s sister and I would sometimes peek in, and once, carried away by a particularly strong wave of nausea, we edited one of them to suggest that the Calcutta boy had decided to end the romance.


At any rate, I became quite good at badminton. A year later, when we were moving back to Delhi, I put my collection of love letters into a yellow folder and tucked it carefully in the corner of an empty cupboard. I was not trying to hide what I had felt. At 11, I’d named my diary because I had an idea that this was the protocol to follow if you wanted your diary published. At 12, my ambitions were undiminished: I left my letters behind in the hope that some discerning mind would discover, recognise, and then celebrate my genius.

No such luck struck me through the rest of my adolescence, though it wasn’t from lack of trying. For some years, I’d begin a new novel every summer holiday. If I was reading Ray Bradbury, I wrote of apocalypses and explosions. If I was reading Dostoevsky, I tried to rewrite Crime and Punishment. More often than not, I succumbed to the urge to produce poems. It was only half-way through college that I realised all of it was rubbish. “Why can’t I transcend?” I wrote in my notebook, and to show the world I meant it, I underlined it three times.

Perhaps, the world was listening. Not long after, I met Y. We were on the same bus, going to the same university, and we had the kind of normal conversation anyone might have in such circumstances. It wasn’t exceptional, I do not remember it; but I do know that when I came home that afternoon, I was in love.

This was not holding-hands-after-school love. This was gut-wrenching, pimple-producing, mortifying agony, made all the more so by the fact that it was utterly unrequited. This time, I couldn’t even go to my mother for definitions. I knew this was love, it had to be — even my poems were beginning to improve. But if, really, this was love, then it must also mean… my mind would freeze.

At 19, I did not know Section 377 existed, but I had gathered, with the same intuition that led me to the word “homosexuality” at 11, that I was guilty. So, I wrote a letter. It was four large sheets of paper, full of apology and fear. To write the word “gay” took a physical effort I can still recall — but it was also full of the only word I could lay claim to, the word that had, in fact, claimed me: love.

I was sure it was my best work, and while I was terrified of revealing myself to Y, a part of me was equally certain she couldn’t possibly resist my prose. She took a while to read it; I sat outside, on the steps. I don’t know what I was thinking: it was my house. I could hardly have left her in it and run away. When she came out to join me, I could not look at her. I was staring down the stairwell as she told me she did not feel the same way. Kindly, she added that she liked the letter. Perhaps, she could tell that a bad review, now, would break me entirely.

There followed months of intense conversation and agonising silence. “I’ll never fall in love again,” I would say to Y, but it seemed like I would never stop writing, either. I was scribbling postcards and letters and poems, even a short story, the first I ever managed to complete. When it became clear, however, that no amount of distressed ink would make my love thrive, I asked for that first love letter back. I think I wanted it for two reasons, neither very noble: one, I’d been quite pleased with the letter and if Y didn’t appreciate it, I wanted it for my own records. The other was fear. That letter was the only written evidence, at the time, that I was gay. When I got the letter, I locked myself in the bathroom and read it one last time. Then I burned it.

Twenty years have passed. Despite my dire predictions, I did fall in love again. I made myself stop feeling guilty. I even managed to get published. Y and I, meanwhile, became friends. Sorting through my books the other day, I found one of the letters she had then sent me. It was ‘The Doubter’ by Bertolt Brecht, copied out by hand. “Whenever we seemed / To have found the answer to a question” it begins, and proceeds to question everything. “Always above all else: how does one act / If one believes what you say?/ Above all: how does one act?”

It’s a question that has never not given me an oddly deep sense of calm.