logo image Visual & Oral history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

Pen-Pals

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.


76 – “I lied to the Prime Minister of the country.”

A reply letter from the Sixth Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi to me. New Delhi. December 1, 1985

Letter and Text contributed by Swati Bhattacharya, Gurgaon

Blame it on my only child-ness if you must, but I love famous people loving me. I like provoking intimacy. But only from the jet-setting beau monde. I crave intimacy from people who have no business to get intimate with me. After coming back from school (Delhi Public School R.K.Puram), and doing the stuff I had to do, I’d sit down and think of writing to someone.

The first person I had written to was Hiroko Nagasaki, a Japanese 13 year old swimmer who had swept the Asian Games in 1983. She and I became pen-pals for the next two years. She’d send me paper stickers, perfumed erasers and then one day in school somebody stole my Hiroko box.

Traumatic as it was, I quickly recovered because by then I had received a flowery handmade-paper letter all the way from 22, Zaman Park, Lahore, PakistanImran Khan, the famous cricketer, had written to me. The letter became my raison d’etre for a while. The fact that love does find a way, the fact that the letter had 18 red flowers printed at the back, and the fact that it had been signed as ‘Imran‘ and not ‘Imran Khan‘, to me it was a sign of a cosmic connection. We were meant to be and all that…Anyway, I lost this letter in a crowded Mudrika bus, while doing my nth show and tell.

The letter I am sharing with you is one that still lives with me. Born out of jealousy, it got written in the November of 1985, when newspapers were full of Rajiv Gandhi writing to a Sri Lankan kid. The TV cameras had gone loooking for her and captured her big 100 watt grin much to my annoyance!

I wrote a letter then and there. I lied and said it was my 3rd letter to him. I vented…and wrote that “just because I am too young to vote, my letter had not been replied to”. Next I know is this letter arrived, in a huge envelope with the PMO seal. Even though this is a letter from the Prime Minister to a girl in 10th Grade, I found everything in here. Every emotion. Every truth. Later when I made a ‘Thank You’ card for him, Sonia Gandhi, his wife, sent me a note back on that. In one month I had received 3 letters from the Gandhis.

The uncanny thing is, when I joined HTA (Hindustan Thompson Advertising, now JWT Advertising) as a copy-writer in 1992, my first assignment on PEPSI, was to write to Michael Jackson and ask him to come to India. My client delivered the letter to him personally. I was told, Michael had read it and kept it safely with him.