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105 – “A friend from my childhood I had never met”

My Letter to Jean Christophes. Bombay. August 10, 1972.

My Letter to Jean Christophes. Bombay. August 10, 1972.

Letter & Text contributed by Denzil Smith, Bombay

This letter carries with it an amazing story that always has me grin ear to ear with joy.

My family are Anglo Indians and until a few years ago lived in a family bungalow in Ville Parle in Bombay. My father Benjamin John Smith was a Customs officer in Bombay and perhaps one of the few honest black sheep amongst the white embroiled in dishonest deeds. To get relief from tough days at the office, my father would find release with music. He was adept at both reading and writing music, played several instruments and when opportunity called he even travelled with the famed Paranjoti Choir all over the world.

At one such opportunity he travelled to Tours in France with the choir in 1966. The members of the choir were usually put up by local classical music aficionados at their homes in each city; and a certain Dr. Boulard and his family were to be my father’s kind hosts in Tours.
The day my father reached the Doctor’s mansion, eagerly awaiting him at the gate was the Doctor’s son, a 6 year old French boy, Jean, who had waited for my father in anticipation of seeing an Indian for three whole days. 
At first sight and to his shock the boy ran inside and wept copiously to his father, complaining “Where are his feathers!?” Clearly my brown father in a suit and tie was not the “Indian” he was expecting.

Despite the initial disappointment, my father and Jean became very fond of each other and when he returned to India, dad told me that Jean reminded him of me, that I would really get along with him, and Jean would write to me and I should reply. Jean and I soon embarked on establishing a pen-pal relationship writing letters to each other. I was curious about France and he about India and our lives. He would write me in French and I in English. Finding a french translator in Bombay at the time not an easy task but I had one at home, my father. Later Jean began writing in English which he was learning while studying to become a Doctor.

Over the years we wrote several letters to each other. In some letters I would find that Jean had packed in half used pencils and I always wondered why he would send me those as presents. As time passed, somewhere through those years our letters became infrequent and we lost touch.

Many years later in early 2011, I was travelling with a theatrical production all over Europe and also to Tours. I remembered Jean and pestered my manager to trace his whereabouts. All I knew about him was that he had become a Doctor and his parent’s address that was well etched in my memory.

Before our performance in Tours, my manager took me aside to say he had a surprise. Back stage was not Jean as you would expect but his mother, Mrs. Boulard who spoke with me in French via a translator. I could tell she was cautious about me and wasn’t about to start believing my stories about some letters and my friendship with Jean until I mentioned a family fact that very few people knew about. Astounded, she suddenly broke into English, albeit still a little cautious. She wouldn’t reveal her son’s whereabouts; instead she insisted that I leave my number with her, for her son to return the call.

With no news from Jean, and ready to leave to perform the play in Le Mans, a city 200 Kms away from Paris, I finally received a phone call and was completely overjoyed to hear a voice that said it was Jean. For two whole hours we chatted away excitedly, catching up on our lives and he was going to drive down to Aulnay-Sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris where I was performing two days later, with his girlfriend to meet with me.

It was one the most emotional and joyful moments of my life, to meet a close friend from my childhood I had never met, in our conversations we also discussed our letters and I asked him the question I had wanted to for years. “Why the half used pencils?” His answer was that he was told that India was a very poor country and he sent me the pencils because he assumed I couldn’t afford them! We laughed a lot and recollected much of our childhood and news of our families. It was simply a great great day.

A few months ago, Jean sent me this letter that I had written to him when my father passed away. It immediately reminded me of the time that was indeed very vulnerable, and the person I knew whom I could express it with was Jean.
The personalised letter-head this letter and many others were written on, was an earned luxury. It was a marketing promotion of a very popular chewing gum brand called A1, whose exchange offer was – personalised stationary for filling up an album with their wrappers that had images of country flags, cars, ships and aircrafts. It was a huge rage at the time for children my age in Bombay.

It is incredible how life is dotted with amazing presents, be it with a great father, incredible music, theatre, half used pencils, personalised letter-heads, chewing gums, and most magnificently an unexpected reunion of a grand friendship with Dr. Jean Christophes Boulard; with whom I am in touch yet again, on email.

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Responses (19)

  1. Crystal says:

    Denzil and Jean,
    Amazing story, what a lovely reunion, so happy it had a happy ending.

  2. Mahesh says:

    Hello Denzil,

    I was looking at flags of newer countries on the net and i recollected i knew most of the flags associated with their countries thanks to the flags i used to collect printed on the wrappers of some confectionery and paste them in an album, to get a gift eventually.

    And in my search i found only one picture of the actual album on eBay, and the other was a reference to your article. Thanks to the A1 keyword you and provided, i found the amazing letterhead we got as a gift. It brought back fond memories.

    Thank you for the memory.

  3. Hi Denzil,

    Beautiful, the letter, the memories, the nostalgia and reunion!
    I wonder if you remember me, I am from Virendra, you used to visit so often. We once went on a camping trip to Matheran.

    I only saw you as Robinson Crusoe years back…
    Regards,

    Edwin Fernandes

  4. H says:

    Denzil,
    It conjured up a number of pictures through the voice in the letter and your text. I’m trying to historically research children’s lives in India and possible transcultural connections between their worlds. It would be good to know of more letters or pictures like these.

  5. […] India Memory Project: 105 – “A friend from my childhood I had never met” […]

  6. Joe says:

    A very interesting and exciting story. Well written Denzil.
    Yes those were the days of pen pals – writing and waiting for a reply was the best part.
    I remember the A1 chewing gums :-)
    I hope you still have the pencil stubs.

  7. Leenata says:

    very beautifully written article, Denzil! And what a touching letter.
    Love
    Leenata

  8. Sylvan says:

    Inspirational Denzil. absolutely.

  9. nigeljude says:

    touching story and to meet the person after ages

  10. Nigel Foote says:

    Denzil, a tear sits in the corner of my eye – just beautiful. Thx and Cheers, Nigel

  11. Manju Sampat says:

    Such a heartwarming story, and beautifully written. It is indeed a tale of affirmation!

  12. Vasant says:

    What a touching letter. Thank you for sharing it.

  13. Jung says:

    I tend not to comment, but after browsing through a bunch of responses on 105 –

  14. Antares says:

    Hee hee. You’re every bit as mushy as I am, bro. Warmed the cockles.

  15. Kerry Edwards says:

    What a lovely story with a wonderful reunion at the end. I wonder where my pen pals are now?

  16. lillian khan says:

    Just loved this story!

  17. Kelli says:

    Jean and Denzil,This is absolutely fantastic. Soul touching ! Quite a story i must say :)

    • Peter Samuel says:

      Jean and Denzil,This is Amazing how life turns out the way that it does for 2 friends living in different parts of the world extraordinary life story I must say …..Certain things in life simply have to be experienced -and never explained

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