Sunday, November 13, 2016

Letters from Balipara

The room opened up from the mouth of a dark corridor and light streamed in through frail white curtains. Reaching out to the roof stood makeshift shelves lined with books. Against one of the walls, a rectangular wooden table was buried under stacks of dusty diaries, glue sticks and stamp pads. It was in this room, my grandfather’s study, that I first discovered the love of letter writing.

The room was the only space in the entire house where I could do something without being interrupted. Others had people dawdling in during any time of the day. The door had a makeshift latch which needed to be pulled laboriously to fit into a hook. But even when you latched it, it would leave a wide gap. On occasions when my little cousins were in a particularly intrusive mood, they’d push against the door until the gap widened and the middle of their faces jutted out like a bunny rabbit jumps out of a magician’s black hat.


I remember it was a winter morning when I wrote my first letter. Sitting on a large wooden chair with a netted back, I wondered for the longest time what I should write about. The letter was supposed to be for my cousin who lived faraway in a school tucked away in the hills. I’d promised I’d write to him the very day he left home. It was already ten days since.


With legs dangling in mid-air, I tore out a sheet of paper from one of the writing pads lying on the table and gave in to the flow of blue ink. I wrote about how grandmother prepared his favorite meal and how we all missed him. How Bo, our dog’s new pastime was to scare the milkman each morning. I wrote about school, art lessons and how we could take a trip down to grandfather’s farm across the Brahmaputra when he came home for winter holidays.


That morning, it took me over an hour to write that letter, but as I was sealing the envelope and pasting the stamp with sticky fingers, I knew one thing. I didn’t want it to be the last time I was writing a letter.


During the spring of 1995, I moved to a boarding school in a sleepy town in Assam called Balipara. Life in a boarding school can be much like living in a world where the sun never sets. During the time, mobile phones did not exist. Landlines did, but phone calls were reserved for emergencies. The only way to communicate with your families and friends from out of school were through handwritten letters.


The school was amidst Balipara’s lush tea gardens. The corridor had tangelo-colored benches on which we could sit astride such that one foot touched the warm grass and the other, the cold marble floors of the corridor. After lunch breaks, the girls would sit here and unwind before wretched classes began. Some would listen to the Walkman, some would play five stones and others prattle blithely.


During weekends, the same corridor would become a quiet space where we wrote letters back home. Hunched over writing pads, some would scrawl while others poetized with ink pens in hand. Many girls used humor in their letters and others reported the day-to-day activities in a factual manner. More pages would turn out when something eventful had happened like a new student or gap teacher had joined school, a gymnasium had been built or fervent inter-hostel competitions were running.


We wrote about lunches at the hostel, sports and most importantly, grades that semester. My parents were never too concerned about grades. They just needed to know that I was well-fed and happy. So my letters mostly circled humorous incidents at school, extracurricular activities, art classes and cultural evenings every Sunday. My mother kept some of my letters in old trinket boxes and during my trip back home last winter, I found one that dated back to the year 1996.


August 12, 1996


“Dear Mama,


Last week, as a part of our community service work, we were taken to a school in a village not far from our campus. We met a bunch of five year olds and taught them the alphabet. You should have seen how gleeful they were throughout the class! We also helped them draw pictures of their favourite things and most of them drew a brightly coloured sun shining down on green hills much like those that we see from our classroom windows. We had such a wonderful time that we didn’t feel like coming away even though it was getting dark and we were soon to return to school.”


Writing a letter was, well, one part of it. But the best part of it was when you’d receive one back from whomever you’d written. For us hostelers, this meant that the matron would walk into the hostel corridor with a bundle of brown colored envelopes and call out names one at a time to whomever the letters were addressed. Some of us would try to droop over the bundle and get a glimpse of the handwriting to see if we’d received one for ourselves.


Many girls not able to contain their excitement, would stretch out their hands and turn over some of the envelopes on top of the bundle so they could get a peek at the ones below them. This would result in the matron slapping the hand in question and mutter in admonishment, “Wait your turn, will you? No patience, this young generation has!” Those who’d receive a letter, would shriek in a state of frenzy.


Often, after receiving a letter, I would hold on to it until dinner time, dying to open it and at the same time, not wanting to get it over with. The anticipation of reading a letter sometimes can be similar to a child waiting to open the grandest present from a box of other little ones.


As I moved out of boarding school, some of the people I grew up with became a hazy memory that breezed in each time I opened my tattered slam book or listened to music from the 1990s. And similarly, with time, letter writing became a lost art.


Recently, as I was going through my shoe box of mementos, cards, old notes, song dedication books and cassettes, I came across a letter from a boy named A. At the very end of the letter was written, “On our very first date! Here’s to a lifetime more of dates to come. Yours forever and always, A.” I went to the next room and said to my boyfriend of five years, “Do you remember this letter?” He smiled wistfully and then A and I crouched side by side on our russet couch to read the two-paged letter from the summer of 2003.


*First published by The Aerogram, August 2016

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