When I think of the queer scene in West Bengal from the past, my imagination centres around the red post box – people posting letters from different districts in the hope of getting connected with likeminded others – people writing letters to a post box number and developing friendships – people in distant areas becoming linked with each other – letters giving them a sense of companionship packed inside small envelopes – smells and sights travelling from one place to another through glued envelopes, perhaps petals and leaves nestling with memories and lived experiences.
The visual emerged from many narratives I heard when I was in Kolkata last year. Many of whom I met, talked about the 1990s with nostalgia in their voice. Some of them were queer activists or peer leaders, who shared, “When people wrote letters to us saying they were feeling down, we replied to them and tried to understand the reason and help them. We often discussed issues like overcoming loneliness, coming out, and pressure for marriage.”
Writing letters, articulating emotions like joy, fear, disappointment, shame, loneliness, or anger was like liberating oneself from prejudice. The responses to the letters gave isolated individuals strength and made it possible for them to begin their fight. A collective emotional awakening was probably the point of coming together through letters.
I did not grow up in the age of letter writing in Bangladesh, but there was no cell phone or Internet either in my teenage. The few letters I wrote and received at that time are still very precious to me. I am talking about the late 1990s. When an envelope used to arrive, I remember keeping it unopened for a while, turning it over from side to side, relishing the incredible happiness of having received a letter. I would be scared that if I opened the envelope, the mystery around it would melt away like a sweet fragrance. I got to know about email after some years. The initial days of sending email were no different from writing letters to friends living abroad and waiting for their replies. The waiting time though would be much shorter.
I came out not too early. When I was in university, I knew there were other queer community members who organised get-togethers, but I never felt a crying need to attend them. At the age of 25 though there was a point when I felt extremely suffocated, and I thought of joining a Yahoo! group of likeminded people. Being open about sexuality was not common in my bubble, but living a life of secrecy was causing extensive suffering. The online group that I joined was one of few in those days where one could join with an introductory email. It took me a while to do that. I used to live outside Dhaka, the capital city, at that time. I was yet to understand issues like class, privilege, and access.
I remember some of the responses I received to my introductory email. Most of the respondents asked for friendship, relationship, or sex. Within a year or two, I had become one of the moderators of the online group. Reading people’s stories and responding to them proved invaluable in overcoming personal limitations.
At that time, I never thought of why people shared their stories. Was it a hunger to connect with people that we all are in search of? Was it for validation that we need to carry on? I don’t have an answer, but the letters and emails were testimonies to a time in which many of us took the first step towards a new and important phase in our lives.
When I look around, I still see the need to connect with each other. This is all too visible on many social media platforms, in video games, or on dating apps. Some of them have even been designed for communicating and bonding with each other. Applications like TikTok or Likee are immensely popular across class, caste, border, and other social backgrounds. Aren’t these also a way of trying to find likeminded persons?
Negotiations for co-existence in a patriarchal heteronormative South Asian society can acquire diverse forms – people strolling in cruising spaces, building a chosen family, getting involved in same-sex flings, affection, or even cohabitation, using dating apps, or perhaps writing letters to each other! There are limitless possibilities of establishing connections beyond the normative. If the existence of these possibilities is recognized and analysed, it could catalyse discussions about access to many such choices.
If I think about the future, perhaps there will be VR glasses soon to communicate with each other. We will converse with others through screens where we can touch them, smell them, or see a visual of what is on their mind. Maybe we will have the options to change the background, ambiance, and edit the entire scene after it has taken place. Maybe there will be alternatives to play the conversation at different speeds. Hi-tech can open many doors, but I have a strong feeling that it cannot fulfil the need to connect at a more emotional level. Something more earthy is needed.
On the one hand digital media tools are becoming integral to exchange of information, news, intergenerational knowledge, ideas for community organising, and even gossip. However, there is no unfettered access to digital media. India banned TikTok in mid-2020 claiming that the app was secretly transmitting user data to servers outside the country. Bangladesh is among the top five countries where authorities shut down the Internet last year as a ‘weapon of control’, according to a global digital rights watchdog.
Moving my eyes from the computer screen now, I look at the colourful pens and pencils on my desk. What if there is no hi-tech in the future? How will it feel if we all move back to the age of writing letters and wait for the replies over days or a week or two? For that slight shuffling sound from the letter box outside once or twice a day at designated hours that can only mean one thing – you have got mail! For the feel and smell of envelope paper, post cards or inland letters that instantly lead to expectations – a faint skip of the heartbeat – of what may be inside?
Artwork credits: All collages by Tanvir