I was born in a country that seems unimaginable today — India before the internet and smartphones. Like many growing up in the early nineties, my pre-teen sources of indoors-entertainment were limited to books and parentally-supervised television (not past 10 p.m., obviously). I’d quickly outgrown the ‘He-Man’ toys and hide-seek games of my childhood.
Noting a penchant for reading, my parents bought me a monthly subscription to the widely loved comic book ‘Tinkle’. Today when I have to describe that series, I paint it as India’s answer to Aesop’s tales padded with educational, humorous comic stories, all hand-drawn and brightly coloured. Marvel and DC had nothing on it! Instead of the usual postal delivery, or ‘snail-mail’ as it was called once email appeared on the scene, a local paperboy dropped each month’s Tinkle copy at our doorstep in New Delhi. In a flurry of few days, I’d read and, during the remainder of the month, re-read all the stories featuring familiar recycled characters: a wise monkey called Kapish with super-powers (evidently modeled on the simian Hindu god, Hanuman), a bumbling forest-guard called Shikari Shambu and an incorrigible simpleton called Suppandi amongst others. On the last few pages of that comic book were puzzles, crosswords, quizzes, letters to the editor and a contact list of children, from across the nation, looking for “pen-pals”.
To the current social-media savvy generation, a pen-friend (as it was also called) might seem antediluvian and arcane. A pen-friend was someone you could exchange handwritten letters with and build a long-distance bond. Today, you can instantly text or video call to any corner of the world. But to many in the pre-tech epoch, pen-friends represented a grand adventure — the possibility of an otherwise impossible friendship across vast, sweeping distances!
The temptation of getting to know a remote stranger, through written words, lay in the promise of novelty, of expanding the narrow scope of one’s monotonous life. The unknown has an easy allure. So when I was around ten years old, I decided to send out short introductory letters to contacts in a Tinkle issue. I tried desperately to sound funny, smart and engaging in the hope that people I had never met would want to befriend me. Back then, the Indian Postal Service provided sky-blue, pre-stamped origami-style paper for routine correspondence. These folded into a rectangular envelope when creased along the correct edges. You wrote your letter on the inner side, filled out an address on the back, licked (and this was the crucial step) the gluey flap-shut and put it through the metal visor of your nearest red, squat mailbox. Then you waited, for weeks, at times months. In my case, the wait could’ve been indefinite. Indeed, I had no idea if my epistolary doves would ever be reciprocated with equal ardour. After long spells of silence, one was.
I was overjoyed to receive a reply, any reply. My euphoria amplified as I read each lovely, neatly written out word in the response. My correspondent had the most exquisite handwriting for any child. Until of course I understood that he was no child. He was older, much older than the average Tinkle reader. A real person, a grown-up, an adult deigned me worthy of his time! R was a businessman. He lived between New Delhi and a small town in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. He was the president of his own company, he mentioned something about owning alcohol distilleries. In his introduction, R also mentioned a wife and two children. His son was nearly my age. R said he travelled often for work, to Delhi but also to far-away wonderful places such as Los Angeles and London! Already in that first letter, I was awestruck.
R disarmed me with his easy charm. Quite quickly, he managed to convince me that I, too, was special. He complimented my writing skills, my way of thinking and expressed a desire to continue our exchange. I felt flattered by the attention and told my parents about my new “pen-pal”. They took it to be a natural nod to my penmanship that an accomplished industrialist should be interested in pursuing a remote dialogue with me. In hindsight, someone ought to have asked why R had advertised his contact details in a comic book meant for children and teenagers. Yet no alarm bells rang, nothing seemed off the mark. In the absence of anything sinister, our friendship began. Unbridled, effusive letters were written in a golden haze of innocence.
R always answered with assured confidence of adulthood and beautiful calligraphy. Over time, we exchanged photos : old-school printed photos taken on film and snuck into a thick envelope along with the increasing number of sheets our letters slowly spread over. I even knew what he sounded like. R had offered to call on the fixed ‘landline’ phone after a few letters. We spoke at length. I took this to mean he was undeterred by the mounting inter-state telephone (STD) call charges. The calls were free for him, he told me, in his casual way of flaunting wealth knowing well that it would entice a middle-class boy. Our friendship, albeit intergenerational, became gradually consolidated and, given my parents’ approval, it felt entirely legitimate. Several months passed before R offered to visit me.
When I told my mother my pen-friend was passing through Delhi and wanted to ‘hang out with me for the day’, she did not mind. R organised it all, he even called ahead and spoke to my mother to get her permission. The day arrived and I had never felt such a rush of excitement. I was to finally meet my pen-pal, in flesh and blood. I’d seen him in photos, a bald, round-faced, physically unremarkable man. R came home on a hot summer afternoon and spoke ingratiatingly to my mother, who was also taken in by his upper-class status and genteel demeanour. We had tea and then R whisked me off in his fancy car to a bowling alley. I’d never sat in an expensive car and definitely never stepped into a bowling alley until then. My mind does not recall the murky details of that day. We bowled, had lunch, laughed and talked until it was time for me to be dropped back home. I had a great time. Then something happened that I blocked out of my mind for years.
On the ride back home, we were stuck at a traffic signal. R grazed his hand over my thigh, touching my inner thigh gently. He was not aggressive but definitely insistent in the way he caressed my childish limbs. Then, before parting, he hugged me for a long time to say goodbye. Later in a letter, he would tell me my ‘tight jeans’ made me very handsome.
With the advent of the internet, our communication switched to email. Although my parents never read any of our handwritten letters, the absolute privacy of email emboldened R and revealed a new side of him. His messages became less obscure, more vulgar. For example, he mentioned sleepovers with his son and his son’s friends, where he’d lay with all of them. He told me repeatedly he enjoyed bathing his son. In one email, he told me he would love for me to visit his farmhouse in the hills, at Shamli, and spend a weekend with him. There were other perverse suggestions that I could not decrypt or even fully fathom at the time. My mind was jolted by the newness of all that he wrote. There, starkly apparent in the hyper-sexualised landscape he drew out for me in each email, lay the truth of R. He was a pedophile. A truth I did not understand until I was an adult. At that age, I lacked the vocabulary, the emotional and intellectual frameworks to comprehend, report, and challenge what was happening to me.
A year after my first meeting with R, my father’s work led our family to a new life in Mumbai. I stopped mentioning R after our move. I never lay eyes on him again. However, sporadic emails from him continued into my early teens. I did not block them, something I regret. They became increasingly vulgar, explicit and pornographic in detail. In some, he forwarded erotic fiction of a particularly depraved and fetishist nature. In others, he simply mentioned things —acts — he wanted to do to me, with me. Things he claimed to have experimented with his son’s unsuspecting friends.
I lived in the silent shame of being the recipient of those lurid emails. At the same time, the precocious sexuality of a confused pre-teen found its trigger and release in those inappropriate exchanges. As I grew older and more uncomfortable, I stopped responding to him. Eventually, we lost touch before I had even finished middle school. I changed my email address but the shame still haunts me.
Years later, I wondered if I was culpable and complicit for partaking in his sick, monstrous schemes. Until one day, in my late 20s, a barrage of repressed memories came rushing back. I was struck with cold terror. I was living in New York and childhood was merely an irretrievable mirage. But as an adult, I now understood what pedophilia was. My brain blurted out in bold letters “You were lucky. You could have been one of those children.” Just like that, the floodgates opened. I had relegated the episode with R to a dark, blurry cell in my mind’s cave. A cell I have avoided visiting, out of humiliation and guilt. Questions crawled out of that cave to haunt me: Why didn’t I stop replying sooner, what did I even write back? Why didn’t my parents seem more concerned? Why didn’t I immediately see it for it was — rampant pedophilia? What would he have done to me had I fallen trap to any of his deviant propositions? How many children has he physically molested in the guise of being a “friend”? Is he still lurking around there somewhere, free to hurt others? Are we all so fragile, unprotected and vulnerable?
I will never have all the answers. But laid bare, I can now live with my truth. Luckily he never managed to get to me although I shudder to think of that version of events. And that, to me, is worth something. For one, I know that I am not the heinous criminal in my story.