THE LAST LETTER
The most ephemeral feeling a person can experience in the world is that of hope. As a millennial who loved phrases like ‘changing times’ or ‘the progressive new world’, I was so lost in the excitement of new found liberty that I forgot that there was a time when all this was a dream. I was living in a time of pride parades and women marches across capital city markets, of open online confessions and Supreme Court libertarian judgements. Lost in the beauty amidst the rubble of ancient social pillars, I had forgotten that we were here because of the unbearable toil and will of those who came before us.
This was the year 2019 and I was a 27 year old journalist working for The Indian Express. I remember, it was a rainy September night and I was rushing towards the metro station platform, fighting with my mother in Bengali on the phone.
“I’m only 27, Ma. Plus, the boy’s family has already told you they want somebody fair.” I said, exasperated.
“Yes but you are successful unlike all the other girls they will meet. You work for one of the biggest newspapers in the country. You shape the opinion of the masses...” My mother said, sitting on the veranda of my ancestral home in Kolkata.
“I am a journalist at the lowest level possible. My articles are published once a week...”
“And,” My mother screamed in her high pitched voice, “we don’t have to necessarily tell them that. We should also keep shut about you being anti national or anti government or whatever that is.”
“Ma! I am not anti... Do you even know what that means?” My mother was a thorough saffron government lover unlike me.
“You have become a liberal communist living in Delhi. The other day I was scrolling through your facebook profile with my friends and it was so embarrassing! You wear clothes like a hippy.”
Unable to take it anymore, I jerked my hand forward towards the platform so that the sound of the coming metro would give my mother a hint.
“Ma, I have to go now. I’ll call you later.” I said and ended the call before she could protest.
I entered the compartment and to my surprise it was barely occupied. I moved inside and noticed two middle aged women, sitting next to each other, giving me a scrutinising stare. Well to be very honest, I had taken the bohemian writer vibe too seriously. I had a nose piercing with an oxidised ring along with multiple piercings on my ears. I quietly sat down and began rummaging through my bag. I had to attend a five minute phone call with the editor of the news paper who had quite a lot to say about my opinionated reporting skills. After that, I took out the day’s morning edition of The Indian Express and began underling a few headings which had to be repeated the next day when I felt somebody tap on my shoulder. My big city girl instincts kicked in and I immediately distanced myself from the unknown person.
“Oh I am so sorry! I did not mean to startle you.” The man sitting next to me said. He looked about forty five years of age with gray hair and a beard. I knew him from somewhere but I could not put my finger on it.
“I heard you talking on the phone with your colleague and I wanted to say that I really liked today’s piece on the recent mob lynching in your newspaper.” He said in a confident unwavering voice. I was speechless for a few seconds. I was scared to death by the unexpected compliments of an obviously educated man on the on an almost empty metro at nine at night but also pleasantly surprised.
He introduced himself, sensing that I was taken by surprise.
“My name is Ram. I am an activist and an author.” He looked at me and smiled. Then it hit me.
“My God, I have a horrible memory. You are Ram Chatterjee, the famous queer rights activist. I have seen you on the news so many times. I couldn’t recognize you.” I said shaking his hand.
He laughed. “Well I know, I don’t look gay or whatever that is supposed to mean. A lot of people have told me that.”
“That’s not what I meant...” I began saying, my cheeks flushed red.
“Oh don’t worry about it.” He kindly said.
Ever since college, I had developed this habit of interrogating people. It ranged from their life stories, their childhood experiences to their political views or anything else I could think of.
“So, sir, are you from Kolkata?” I asked him. The best way to make a person comfortable and to slowly ease them into opening the treasure box of the experiences and stories they have to share was to ask them about their home town. This was a trick I had learnt over the years.
“Oh yes. I am from West Bengal, the home land of Rabindranath Tagore. I spent my early childhood in Durgapur then lived in Old Kolkata for about fifteen years before I left for Delhi to attend college.” He said reminiscing about his life.
“Oh really! I attended college in Delhi too. Which college did you go to?” I asked him. Maybe I was being obvious but at that point I did not care.
“I went to Ramjas College, Delhi University. I did a course in Accounting.” He said.
“I had no clue back then what was going to happen next. 1991 was a time of political instability. V.P. Singh had lost the position of the prime minister because of the Mandal commission and the arrest of Lal Krishna Advani.”
“But you’re not a politician. How did you become an activist?” I said.
“You really are a journalist.” He said and laughed.
“I was in my first year when a group of seniors from my college asked me to join them for tea and cigarettes at a famous tea stall outside the North Campus entrance. The atmosphere was tense as there were multiple rallies constantly going on. Political parties had deep rooted connections in the colleges and mostly fixed the student elections. Delhi University, during that time, was an arcade of political uprising and rebellion. Now these people who had invited me were my seniors so I couldn’t say no. I wore my everyday red checked shirt and went along with them. They had just tagged me along for fun, I knew that. I was growing restless by the minute when another group of boys joined us. These people looked much more sophisticated than the people I was used to seeing. Later I realised they were coming back from a rally conducted by ABVA, AIIDS Bhed Bhav Virodhi Andolan. ‘So are you a chakka too?’ One of my seniors asked them. Post independent India in the 1990s was not as liberal as it is now. I thought they would move away but instead they fought back. They began quoting great leaders and authors like Churchill and Dickens. All the references were out of context but little did my buffoon like seniors know. There was one boy in particular, almost my age then, who stood up against them. He was wearing a khakhi shirt,I still remember. There was something about him. He earned my admiration almost immediately. See growing up, I knew I felt differently about boys than the way I should but I never had the courage to tell anyone. Seeing them stand up for their identity was one of the most profound moments of my life.”
“Why didn’t you say anything? We need to learn to support those who are different from us to grow and move forward.” I said quoting a Pinterest post I had seen a couple of days back.
“It’s easy for you to say now.” He said with a sigh. “Those were difficult times. Most students had guns with them and the police could pick you up and maim you for life without a warrant. I was a simple Bengali boy who wanted to earn his degree, hopefully fix himself in the process and return back to his homeland.”
“Did you ever meet them again?” I asked him.
“I was fascinated by the group, that one boy in particular. I would watch them from afar as they held public meetings and gave speeches. He would wear the same pink kurta every Saturday and sit in the library next to the veranda door writing slogans. Watching him immersed in his work, oblivious to the world with paper sheets flying around in the summer breeze was my favourite time of the week. I met the group again while going back from the library to the hostel one winter night. Communist party workers were sitting on the main field with tents and banners planning to launch a strike and had requested students from other organisations to join them in exchange for future security. They recognized me instantly and convinced me to join them. Now I was a simple student, little did I know that the police would show up.” He said bursting into laughter.
“What happened then?” I asked him, my face as serious as ever.
“I spent the night in lockup with Aamir, Kishan and Dharam. ‘I am sorry about what happened today. We shouldn’t have involved you.’ Dharam told me inside the cell. Being outspoken gays, they were a target of the police who had refused to accept the bail money when their friends came to the station. ‘Sorry about what? What he did was courageous.’ Kishan, the boy wearing the pink kurta said. ‘He’s not one of us. We should tell the police that. Hopefully being a normal straight man will make them more lenient towards him.’ Aamir said. Kishan simply looked at me. At that moment I knew that he knew. After we were released in the morning, I mustered up some courage, walked up to Kishan and told him that I would love to talk to someone about, well, my peculiar preferences in life. He agreed and we then started writing each other letters.”
“How long did this go on for?” I asked him.
“Well, we decided that would write letters and leave them inside Gitanjali by Tagore in the literature section of the Commerce College. Being acounting students, no one ever ventured close to the fiction section. He told me about his own life struggles and slowly we grew fond of each other. For the first time in my life I could strip my heart bare in front of someone. It was for the first time that I opened my mind to the possibility of accepting my identity. But letters just weren’t enough. I was afraid to be seen publically with him so we decided that we would meet outside the New Market after midnight once a week. This went on to become a daily ritual. Both of us would glance and each other and smile during the day, not letting anyone know our secret. Strangely enough, our letter system continued despite us meeting almost every day. I was happy during that time. Life ahead was going to be full of difficulties and trials, I knew that but I had three years to myself that nobody could take away. Or at least that’s what I thought.”
He shrugged then continued.
“This went on for a year and I really thought we had a future when I got a phone call from my mother informing me about my father’s sudden demise. I was called back home to Kolkata to help my grandfather and uncles in managing the family business. I told Kishan this a day before leaving.”
“What did he say? Where is he now?” I asked him.
“Well he did not react for a moment and then said, ‘I understand. Family comes first. You have take care of your mother but promise me that you will keep writing.’ I smiled at him and said, ‘You will have time after becoming the student committee president. I saw the flyers they are handing out. They have very strong messages written on them. Just please stay careful.’ It was the last time I ever saw him. We decided to write to follow our letter tradition one last time before I left for Kolkata. I wrote everything I had always wanted to tell him. I took his letter from the library and went straight to the train station.” He said.
The metro reached Vaishali and the door began to open.
“Well what happened then?” I asked him frantically.
He looked down at his palm and then began to gather his things to get off the platform.
“Kishan died a week later by injuries he suffered while campaigning for student president in a rally. Most people can’t tolerate anyone who isn’t like them. Being different was a crime back then.” He said and walked towards the door.
“What about the last letter that Kishan wrote? What did it say?” I yelled.
He turned back and smiled.
“I don’t know. I never had the courage to open it.”