Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience
To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere, without moving anything but your heart.
— Phyllis Grissim-Theroux
In July 2020, I implemented an idea that I call the “Letters Project.” It is a twist on pen pal relationships of yesteryear. Instead of exchanging hand-written letters, the correspondents exchange emails. Each pair is comprised of an American “aunt” and an Indian “niece.”
I published “Radical Spirits,” a biography of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor, a few months earlier. In the course of my research, I studied the letters that Anandi had exchanged with an American woman named Theodocia Carpenter. Theodocia’s letters were so consistently supportive and encouraging that Anandi requested permission to look upon her as her maternal aunt.
I really wish and feel that I should call you my aunt. There is a saying among us, “it does not matter much if a mother dies but not let an aunt die.” This expression will show you in what respect & estimation a maternal aunt is held among us. If you allow me, I wish to look upon you as such.
Theodocia readily agreed to this request and she made it her and her family’s personal mission to champion Anandi’s success in every way possible. Anandi’s letters show her transformation from a diffident 15-year-old into an articulate and ambitious 18-year-old ready to take on the world.
I became convinced that remarkable personal growth can result when a trusted older person provides unwavering support and acceptance. Letter-writing helps develop the skills of observing one’s circumstances, gleaning their meaning, and expressing oneself through words. Moreover, letters create a zone of privacy and safety which allows each individual to boldly express her closely-held feelings and emergent opinions.
Hoping to facilitate the same dynamic, I recruited the American aunts from among my friends. Shirish Sathe of Saratoga recruited the Indian nieces. About a dozen such pairs were formed and over a year later several of them are continuing despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic.
One such pair is comprised of Michele Zembow of Chapel Hill and Snehal Bhujadi of Musalwadi (a village with a population of just 2,000 in Maharashtra). While Michele is in her sixties, Snehal is just over twenty. Michele is a retired psychologist while Snehal is a college student majoring in Statistics. Michele’s life in American suburbia is a sharp contrast to Snehal’s in rural India. Michele likes to paint and Snehal likes to write poetry.
Their thoughts about their participation in the Letters Project are illuminating:
Snehal: I decided to participate in this project because it would be an experience unlike any other. I knew I would learn about a new culture and be exposed to new ideas. I also expected that it would be a great opportunity to improve my writing skills. Even though I am in college and help my father run my family’s farm, I decided to make the time to write fortnightly letters.
Michele: Having read “Radical Spirits,” I was enchanted by the possibility of facilitating connections between women, across the world from one another, in the present day. I expected to become acquainted with a young woman in India and develop a relationship that I hoped would become an open, candid exchange of ideas—both cross-cultural and intergenerational.
Snehal: My aunt Michele wrote loving and encouraging letters that were easy for me to understand. Having visited India a few years previously, she had some idea about the country. But she was very curious and encouraged me to share my thoughts and ideas about our culture.
Michele: I was immediately struck by Snehal’s gentle good-naturedness, as well as her well-developed capacity for reflection and deep feeling, especially considering her young age. She struck me as a most remarkable young woman, owing to the breadth and depth of her many interests, her knowledge, her thoughts about the present and future, and her regular considerateness of others. While her English was far from perfect, she conveyed her thoughts clearly and with genuine emotion.
Snehal: It was sometimes difficult to express myself fully in English. However, Michele Maushi was patient and encouraging. This made me feel less diffident. I told her about the Maharashtrian dish of Puranpoli and about my interest in agriculture. She shared information about her life including everything from her Holocaust survivor parents to her daughter who is the same age as me. Inspired by her parents’ stories, I am reading the “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.”
Michele: We shared our ideas and experiences regarding family and other important relationships, and their effect in shaping one’s thinking, beliefs, and character. Snehal shared with me her hopes, dreams, and plans for the future. We discussed the differences between growing up and living in India and the US on many fronts, including opportunities, cultural practices/observances, family structure, etc.
Snehal: Over the course of our yearlong correspondence, I feel that I have experienced personal growth. I share many things with her and she tells me her opinion and provides guidance. Letter-writing has taught me to express myself thoughtfully. It has increased my vocabulary and my self-confidence. Most important of all, I have a partner with whom I can have intellectual discussions without feeling self-conscious. During the lockdown, I felt anxiety about my education, family, career, emotions, and health. It was both easy and helpful to share my thoughts with Michele Maushi.
Michele: My correspondence with Snehal has been meaningful and enriching. I feel pleased to have the acquaintance of a young woman coming of age and becoming educated in rural India. To read in her letters about the particulars of Snehal’s worldview, close relationships, future plans and aspirations, and accomplishments (already numerous) has been a true joy. I have a daughter about the same age as Snehal and the maturity difference between them (for example, in the contrasting seriousness of their purposes) is striking; it seems that the cultural influences, as well as economics, in our two countries exert such distinctly different forces in the development of young women. I am so glad to be part of the Letters Project.
I feel immense gratitude for the trust that Shirish, Michele, and Snehal placed in my fledgling idea and for the time and energy they invested in this project. In the process, I gained a niece in Snehal (and the other Indian nieces) as well. The pilot phase of the project has proven the power and life-affirming potential of simple letter-writing.
My hope is to replicate this project by connecting people across geographical, cultural, generational, and economic class differences. The internet has made communication instantaneous and virtually ubiquitous. Connecting people in this way is surely one of the more life-affirming uses of technology.
Real letter-writing … is founded on a need as old and as young as humanity itself, the need that one human being has of another.
— Agnes Repplier
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.