Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Letters of desire

Essay, From the Archives Oct '13
Zaid Al Baset pens the first essay in a series which intends to create an archive of the queer movement in Bengal and India. It is not a chronological narrative of the movement, rather anecdotal histories capturing the little voices that are often lost in general historical accounts – to begin with, voices from thousands of letters received by Counsel Club, eastern India’s first queer support group, in the period 1993 to 2002.

The third fold of the inland letter card states “From a friend to a very close friend”. He calls himself John and makes a sincere request at the end of his letter. He writes “I will ask the person involved to meet me at Cossipur Club Gate, a little away from Dum Dum Junction station at either 10:30 in the morning or 4:30 in the afternoon. There’s a cobbler’s shop near the gate. Please wait there with a coat in your left and an unlit cigarette in your right hand. My password will be ‘John’”. He initially writes the name ‘Jay’ then strikes it with three fine strokes of the pen. The last two lines on the aging blue paper with paler edges read, “NB: Please send my partner as quickly as possible, please”. It’s a delightful sentence expressing a yearning so urgent, so precisely. The letter was sent through the Quick Mail Service to P.O. Bag No. 10237 (now not functional) and was received on March 11, 1996.

He did not receive a reply unlike most letters that were received at the same postal address. One wonders how long he had to wait to find a male partner who he had suggested in his letter should be “handsome, macho” with “hairless body” and without flab! He was a young man, when he sent this letter – 17 years old, like other young men his age, brimming with desire and sexual expectation. Just that he craved for men. He had to be ‘John’ on paper to express that desire. I won’t know his real name and many others who know it may not have known about this letter. He had described himself as “quite handsome and macho so all the girls tries to make friends with me, but as I am shy towards girls, I cannot make friends with them”. If alive, he is 34 years. Still young. Times have changed though. No one writes letters anymore and there is the World Wide Web to find men. This man, unknown to us, is an anonymous participant and a witness to the unfolding of the movement for sexual rights in India in the last two decades. It’s been an exhilarating journey but I guess the thrill and devastation of waiting for a stranger with a coat on one hand, and an unlit cigarette on another, in Calcutta’s summer, is lost forever. Only, the letter remains.

Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

P.O. Bag No. 10237 belonged to Counsel Club. Established in 1993, by five individuals – two journalists, one engineer, one fashion designer and a student, supported by a lawyer and a businessman, Counsel Club began as a friendship group. It soon grew into a full-fledged metropolitan alternate sexuality support group. A former member of the group told me, “The founders felt that isolation around one's sexual orientation maybe a good reason to come together, but one has to look beyond to stay together”. John got to know about Counsel Club through the AIDS, Sex, Knowledge (ASK) columns which had appeared every third Thursday of the month in the Voices section of The Statesman between March 23, 1995 and June 6, 1996.  The ASK column was created by Thoughtshop Foundation – a social communication organization which aimed to motivate and empower young people.

This interactive column provided a space to discuss issues and provide information around sex, sexuality and sexual health. The column lasted 21 issues after which it had to be discontinued. The reasons for the termination of the column were at once tentative, and yet obvious. The column attracted the attention of individuals who weren’t necessarily as young as Voices would have appreciated. Also, discussing sexuality in a supplement targeted at the youth was bound to invite censure. That such a column did last for 21 issues in a mainstream English daily and received a stupendous response is noteworthy.

In the 17th issue, ‘a young friend’ had asked in the ‘Your Questions’ section of ASK, “I would be highly obliged if you could send me the names and addresses of ‘gay’ organizations and clubs”. Four addresses were provided, that of Counsel Club, Bombay Dost, Saathi and the NAZ Foundation (India) Trust. Thereafter Counsel Club received innumerable letters, mainly from men wanting to become members of Counsel Club, enquiring about the rules and regulations of the club or simply asking for sex. Most of these letters were written by men living in the city but some letters were sent from other districts of West Bengal, some even from Bihar. Most of them were penned in English, others in Bengali. Most were handwritten, some typed to ensure greater anonymity. Many of these letters survive in neat files carefully preserved by a former Counsel Club member.

Though John’s request, sadly, remained unanswered, the fate of other letters was infinitely promising. The Counsel Club members replied to them with much enthusiasm and what ensued were rather exciting exchanges between men who were strangers, brought together by the compulsions of their ‘strange’, unspeakable desire. Each file is a memoir of these correspondences. At the end of each letter in the file, one is able to take note of the date of receipt and the date when a Counsel Club member answered the letter. Some letters lead directly to phone conservations whose dates are also duly noted, others resulted in face-to-face meetings straightaway.

The files don’t simply contain letters, but greeting cards and postcards as well. These files are an archive of memories of desires, of testimonies of friendship, often forgotten and erased. As one opens the files and flips from one letter to another, one is overwhelmed by the voices speaking with each other; voices desperate to be heard; voices that refused to remain silent and yet voices shut inside a file.

One particular letter by King has a quaint map drawn on it. The map is a guide to a Counsel Club member who had expressed intent to meet King in a previous letter. In a world without mobile phones, each meeting appears serendipitous. “As for the date of the meeting we can meet at . . . on 11th September or 16th September from 4 to 4:30,” writes King. The map suggests that the meeting was scheduled near an ‘island’ in Salt Lake with a bank, a restaurant and a fish stall in the vicinity. There is a perverse pleasure in imagining two men meeting before twilight sets in, amidst people going about their mundane lives, clueless about how momentous this must have been – a stranger meeting another to find himself, to find a community not defined by a territory but by desire.

Many such letters speak of such innumerable meetings. They mark the moment of the birth of a community. These collections of letters are a map in themselves – a map of an invisible city; a city that cannot speak its name. They represent a cartography of desire built by anonymous men who walked the city streets to find comfort in each other’s company. It’s a map, obliterated by official maps, encapsulated inside files of letters. Each letter, an excerpt from a story waiting to be told.

Note: Names and other identity markers have been modified to protect the identity of the letter writers.


Zaid Al Baset is a doctoral student at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. He can be contacted at zaidalbaset@gmail.com

5 comments:

  1. Zaid, thanks for this article...It is absolutely important that we properly archive these letters, reflect on their contents and circulate the stories of lives lived on the periphery....believe me, I had goosebumps as I read through the post...these letters seem to belong to a prehistoric past, although in reality they are only 17 years old...the revolution in IT has brought such a dramatic change in the way we understood life, and lived it, that letters only 17 years old seem to reveal a faraway world...but it's a reality a lot of people had lived through...and these lives on the fringes, these invisible libretto of desire....the narratives of sexual cravings that ran below the surface stories of heteronormative romances....need to be archived...very well-done...am proud of you!

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  2. Counsel Club has supported people like me to do re-search. Letters are a good source of primary data for they intents to communicate feelings and expressions. Now a days, writings are more on Walls and mails.

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  3. Within a short span of time we seemed to have lived in two different worlds.

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  4. " – a stranger meeting another to find himself, to find a community not defined by a territory but by desire"

    Beautiful!

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  5. OMG really Interesting. Reminiscing my old memories of Councel Club days and my letters to Ranjan da.

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