I DISCOVERED BUDDHADEVA BOSE in a love letter. No, Bose hadn’t written the letter to me. That, of course, was improbable—he died in 1974, the year I was born. He arrived in my life 14 years later with these words:
There are some things one just can’t say in Bengali. ... ‘I love you’ or ‘Do you love me?’... For us, these are phrases from poetry, the language of thought but not of actual speech. There is so much we express through gestures only. Instead of saying ‘good morning’, we just give a little smile. We express our love with our eyes, in a touch of the hand, and through commonplace words that conceal deep feelings. And in a country where even now countless people go for arranged marriages and accept those marriages as permanent for the rest of their lives, the occasion for asking such an absurd question as ‘Do you love me?’ presents itself to only a handful of ill-fated individuals.
The person who had used these words, from Bose’s novel It Rained All Night (Rat Bhore Brishti, 1967), was a young boy whom I’d never exchanged a word or so much as a glance with. He could have been no more than a few years older than me but something significant separated us: the invisible barrier of education. He was a ‘rawk-er chheley’, a boy from the rawk, that peculiar Bengali expression that captures the essence of a life lived without middleclass discipline or parental intervention, a semi-orphan life on the streets. He might have been a school dropout, and in writing a billet-doux to me, a girl he had never had the social opportunity to talk with, he was doing something utterly common to Bengali, and indeed Indian, adolescence: using a writer to speak for him. But even though he hid behind quotation marks, like many shy lovers, he had possibly never read a Buddhadeva Bose novel or poem in his life. I hadn’t until then either. In this, at least, we were equals.