The letter writers

The letter writers

Words can indeed heal. Here’s an initiative taken up to impact lives through writing letters to strangers, writes Ranjita Biswas

Paromita Bardaloi

When was the last time you wrote a long letter, even to a close one? Does a WhatsApp message with a profusion of emojis do the job instead? What if you want to pour your heart out when you suffer and want to cry out, ‘Anybody out there listening?’ Paromita Bardaloi of Assam believes in the healing power of letter writing. She herself has been a perpetual letter writer from her childhood in a small rural town and now in her adulthood, it has bloomed into a platform for letter writers, called ‘Letter From A Stranger, India,’ launched in 2019.

How did the idea come about? Says Paromita, “In 2018, I was going through an immense emotional crisis. After my initial phase of denial and protest, I got back to writing to my friends. Each time I wrote, my heart broke. In each letter, I questioned my self-worth. My friends replied. That was the beginning of my own healing.”

“Then an idea struck me. I have this whole support system of friends, family, therapist to help me to tide over a crisis, but what about others who hardly have this support system? I always live by one tenet — to use my pain to help someone else. So I just put up a status on my Facebook profile, asking for five women who would write letters.”

In an hour she received 14 requests. How does the network function? “We are on Facebook as a group as well as a page, and also on Instagram. Every two months one circle is held. Anyone can ask for a letter, but one has to be part of the Facebook group. That way I know that the writer is genuine.”

Till recently it was open only to women or anyone who identified themselves as the female gender. “But many requests came from men and other genders. So we have opened up to all genders now.” There is no hard and fast rule that one must continue writing. “We have tremendous respect for privacy and consent, so only email IDs are revealed. The first letter is our responsibility, which is always copied to me, but the rest depends on them. If anyone wants to continue writing, it’s the consent and responsibility of both the persons concerned.”

Right now around 75 per cent receivers are women, with requests on issues of abuse, mental health, divorce and so on. Most of them are reluctant to share their addresses fearing that it might fall into wrong hands, and be used against them, legally or emotionally.

“The beauty of this initiative is the lives we touch each season, strangers whose names and faces we might never know, but whose life might have been impacted by our words. For many we have become a safe place to say ‘I am hurting, please hear me.’ 

Talking about her one moving experience, among others, she narrates how a woman who did not speak to anyone for six months, “opened up to us and then had strength and courage to deal with her own life. We never heard from her again, but we hope she is living a better life.”

Another initiative of Paromita is ‘The Empathy Circle, India,’ founded in 2018. It was co-founded with her friend Riya. “We both brainstormed and then created this space where each month anyone can come and sit in our circle and share their life stories like in the olden days. People feel connected. Every story of the online circles has been overwhelming. We listen without judgement. That is the first step towards healing.”

For this, every month an event page is created. Till now, 17 circles have been hosted in Assam and Delhi where Paromita spends most of her time. This initiative came very handy when coronavirus struck India. During the lockdown, the organisation began collaborating with Kat Katha, an NGO that works with the sex worker community of GB Road, New Delhi.

“We have just finished writing them 50 letters of hope and encouragement, which includes their children,” Paromita informs. Besides, when the lockdown was declared on March 25 she also started a group called ‘Let’s Huddle, India’ where group conversations are conducted.

“Five to six people get together and we talk online — on subjects like the stress under the lockdown, the fears and the anxiety, etc.” That completed its 15th circle in the first week of May. “The requests to be a part of the circle have been overwhelming,” Paromita says.

Any future plans beyond this lockdown and pandemic period? “These letters are the collective expressions of grief and wisdom of our times. The first step is to publish a book with inputs from 101 women writers so that it remains a handbook of survival for the next generation.”

Paromita realises that even with a book, “So much will just die in my mailbox. So the final idea is to create a website to make it accessible to as many as possible.”

“We are just another brick on the wall of the people in need, but we hope a brick that will build a foundation for a better choice,” Paromita says.