how the world sees america

An Indian's Long-Lost American Pen-Pal

backpack.jpg
Kumar still remembers his pen-pals' addresses by heart.
Chennai - As a kid, you may have shared letters with distant strangers to learn about another country -- or just to procrastinate. But did you pour your heart and soul into it? From a small village in south India, Kumar Chellapan spent his teenage years living for his two American pen-pals. Then one day they stopped writing, and it broke his heart.

Why did this 15-year-old boy care so much about these American friends he knew only on paper?

Kumar was always a loner. He did poorly in school and couldn’t talk to girls. He turned to reading, writing, and fantasizing. Surprise, he’s now a journalist.

Back in 1977, at age 15, he developed a keen interest in America even though his communist teachers said the USSR was heaven. Word of mouth and newspaper scraps convinced him America was the “Great Country;” fantastic lunar landings and charismatic leaders awed him.

He only knew tidbits about the country, but that just increased the mystery. He was dying to know more, and especially interested in learning about what “the average American thought about the average Indian…My concept was that Americans always think very poorly of India -- a country of snake charmers and black magic. But it was not like that.”

Kumar wrote two letters asking for a “pen friend”: one to the U.S. Embassy, and one to the Soviet Embassy to please his teachers. Months went by with no response. The USSR never got back to him. But one day a scented letter from Anne in California arrived in the mail. That was the beginning of the end for Kumar. He was hooked.

He asked them for American newspaper clippings about India. “They were talking about space satellites...and the two-party system. It was surprising to know this.” They talked about their families, the weather, soccer and football.

Entranced, Kumar pulled aboard another pen pal, Pamela from New York, and started spending all his monthly bus money communicating with them as fast as mail would allow -- generally two letters per month per girl. Broke, Kumar walked to and from school just to support these pen friendships. This irked his father. But it was worth it, the letters were “what I lived for.” They were the “only thing I waited for…the long envelopes, the stamps, the perfume.”

Word of the letters boosted his stature in school too. Kumar’s classmates “used to hold me in high esteem [saying], ‘This man Kumar is having a pen friend in the United States. Later on we’re going to see this fellow going to the U.S. and settling down there…' They respected me because I had a friend in the United States.”

Things were good. One day he’d meet Anne and Pamela, he was sure. But it wasn’t to last.

All of a sudden, from Kumar’s point of view, the girls stopped writing. They outgrew him, he suspects. He sent desperate letters trying to find out what was wrong. “Had I offended them?” No response.

Twenty-seven years have gone by since their last correspondence. He’s spoken to no one about his pen friends since they vanished. Years later, he thinks he understands what happened: “We started as youngsters; their interest changed….[But] I’m same old person from back then.”

He tells me that even though he covers the science beat for the Deccan Chronicle, he can’t handle all the new technology sprouting up. “The world has become that big and people have become that fast.” He tells me that “passion” and “devotion” to others is gone. “I can’t even remember my wife’s cell phone number.” Not a good sign, considering he’s got the exact mailing addresses of two girls twenty years in the past stored in his brain. He’s tried the Internet chat rooms but they don’t cut it. “The world is strange to me,” he says.

If a kid in India wants an American friend today, he’ll log on to MySpace, YouTube, Orkut, a chat room or he’d join a multi-player video game online. With more access, does passion die? Yes, says Kumar, but….

It certainly doesn’t mean Kumar would pass up on a telephone call with Anne or Pamela. He’d like to find them again (even using the comment thread of this blog) and to finally hear their voices. Giggling at the idea, he says: “I would love it! I would love to talk to Anne and Pamela on a day-to-day basis!"

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Comments (28)

the old days??:

what's great about letters is not only the anticipation of getting one in the mail,or pouring your heart out to someone you like from afar even though you may feel close,but seeing that persons handwriting & knowing its always the same person.

that personal touch is always what i liked best,seeing the penmanship change with their emotions & watching their personality grow on paper.

you have a piece of that person that took time,energy,& probably love and thats the real precious part of it all that touches us so much more than printed words ever will.

no matter who writes them,or about what,the printed word is never as personal.

i wish people still wrote like they used to,letters are things we hang on to for generations sometimes,there are not enough anymore...

Amar:

Jaque, What a wonderful anecdote! Thanks for it! Now you know....

Jaque:

In the 1960's pen-pals activity was common in my school in India. One boy of 13 had a pen pal in America with a name of Marylin Monroe! We young people had no idea that this was the name of a famous actress. The pen-pal also sent color photos of "her" i.e. Marylin Monroe's. The photos were in provocative poses as we know now from various movie posters and magazine photos. We were all impressed (if that is the word!) with the photos. It was only after several years when we went to college we realized that my school friend was taken for a ride!

Peace.

DJM:

This was very interesting. When I was in elementary school, we sent paper tablets with our names and addresses in them to India (back in the 1960s). The boy who received mine started writing to me. We wrote until I was in my late teens. Then my life started changing and so did his. We stopped writing. About 7 years later, his wife called me and we talked for a while. She was visiting a relative in Chicago and wanted to meet me, but I didn't do it. I wish had met her. Haven't had contact for over 25 years now. Am curious to know what path their lives took.

JS:

I'm roughly contemporaneous with Kumar : I finished high school around the same time, in Hyderabad, in south India. I think some readers here don't understand how different and isolated India was in those days.

TV barely existed, and when it did, in the major cities, it was B&W until about the early 80's. India was officially socialist, meaning poor, with no prospect of emerging from poverty. Most of you might have missed the reference to "his communist teachers said the USSR was heaven". This was official dogma.

The occasional exposure that people would have of the US consisted mostly of third rate movies, mostly violent ones. I remember a theater was running Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox. I have no idea what people made of it. Most likely they watched to get a look at some forbidden flesh, because Indian films were heavily censored in those days. Oh, by the way, there was no safety valve in the form of videos, DVD's or the internet, as there is today.

My point ? I think it was just the exotic aspect of the whole thing that captured the author's attention. For example, the scented envelopes. I can sort of see Frank Collins' point, though, it's all a little creepy. I too wondered if Kumar made some Highly Improper Suggestions in his letters, and hence got shut off

Anonymous:

frank collins,

Do you want people to judge how you spend your money? Who do you think you are to judge how Kumar spend his money?

There are books written and films made about fanatical Americans searching long lost girlfriends, one-night flings, ...etc., so these Americans stalkers, insane, and need help too?

paul:

Wait a minute - I had girlfriends named Anne and Pamela, and both dumped me for some guy in India!

Anonymous:

American females is unique in that they have this propensity to scream "stalker" and "creep" everytime they cross path with a male stranger.

Foreign male tourists in America can amuse and entertain themselves by screaming "stalker" and "creep" to her everytime an American female stand next to him or talk to him. Make it more dramatic by taking out your cell phone and tell her to leave you alone or you will call 911. The look on her face is priceless!

Dave:

C'mon, people. Kumar is a grown man with a fond recollection of a part of his adolescence that matters a great deal to him. Calling him a stalker in the making or accusing him of being a misogynist is ridiculous. Who hasn't been in a tough situation or felt alone and not gripped tightly to something outside of themselves? Heck, isn't that part of being a teenager for all of us?

If you want to call him names, I say call him a hopeless romantic. And, frankly, we could use a few more of those these days. Good for you, Kumar. Hold on to those memories. You never know what happened and maybe those two girls think about you too.

furtuna birhane:

i went to pen friend so iwrote about futher plan and ilike swmming, readingfiction, film,& music
and so please write by my E-mail address

furtu_love@yahoo.com

frank collins:

i wrote that note to snap him back into reality. he sounded like a stalker in the making, as if anyone owed anything to him.
if his letters sounded like his post the guy is nuts.
one girl might happen - but both of them said no thank you! you think there might be a common fear the girls had? sure appears to be.
i had pen pals when i was young - sometimes they stop writing somethimes you do. its called growing up and growing apart. they all should end with something like this "i really liked writing to you and reading your letters. i learned a lot and i hope you did too. have a wonderful life - your pen pal - for a while."
if they did not like him they did not owe him any explanation as to why they quit writing.

REALITY CHECK!

De Jong:

I know the feeling of friendship from a distance. You can read about it here:

http://home.planet.nl/~jong9333/ransom.html

Friendships though can slowly or abruptly die. That is a reality that can be hard to live with if it comes from only one side. But I guess Kumar should learn to live with it. Hoping to meet Anne and Pamela shows that he has not yet got over it. I hope he will do so, and spend all his affection on his present loved ones.

De Jong:

I know the feeling of friendship from a distance. You can read about it here:

http://home.planet.nl/~jong9333/ransom.html

Friendships though can slowly or abruptly die. That is a reality that can be hard to live with if it comes from only one side. But I guess Kumar should learn to live with it. Hoping to meet Anne and Pamela shows that he has not yet got over it. I hope he will do so, and spend all his affection on his present loved ones.

a fan:

A moving story about teenage infatuation. USconnect or similar sites should allow you to locate his penpals. Good luck!

JRLR:

FRANK COLLIN S

With compassion, let me ask you: Did writing that cruel note make you feel better?

If it did, you require medical attention urgently.

If it did not, you should seek medical advice before your next one of the kind does.

Emma:

Frank - how offensive to make such stunningly inaccurate judgements against another person. First, to compare the beauty of a friendship unfolding across continents with slavery is ludicrous; second, do some reading on both Indian and American history before you talk about women's rights.

Kumar, I hope you find them both someday. Frank, I hope you find a relationship that holds as much meaning for you as these friendships did for Kumar.

Amar:

VD, I'm off to Malagaon on Wednesday so my post from there will be up on Thursday. Thanks for the advice and check back. I'm spending the day between three madrassahs in the city.

VD:

Since you are close by, you should perhaps visit Malegaon (on NH3 betweek Agra and Bombay according to BBC) and find out what irks them about America so much.

Pradeep Damodaran:

Amar... that was a beautiful post. You found out something so personal about this man who has been sitting next to me for the last three months! Keep the good work going!!!!

Kumar Chellappan:

I was literally shocked to read comments that Anne and Pamela are some fictious characters and they do not exist. But I am so confident that they are real characters.See,friendhips, including penfriendship, were sincere and honest in the seventies. Please do not compare it with chat rooms in the internet. I had told Amar that I visited many chat rooms and i do not remember the names of people with whom I communicated.. I am sure, that sums up the whole story. Yes, Iam sure, one day I'll meet both Anne and Pamela.

Spence:

It wouldn't be hard for kumar to locate these people and find out what happenned...maybe they moved and forgot to tell him. People finder sites like http://www.intelius.com/ have been very useful to me to give enough info to then go to the phonebook, without even having to pay anything. Could be worth it.

Anonymous:

JRLR,
With regard to blind date, pen-pal, internet chat, I wouldn't call it a "relationship" as in friendship or romance.

The point is this: Until Kuamr finally meets the person physically, there's no way to be sure Anne or Pamela really exist, or they are who they say they are.

It's not reasonable to have high expectation of such exchange, be it pen-pal or internet chat. For whatever the reason, the person on the other end could pretend to be whoever they claim to be.

I know, truth hurts.

Aaron in STL MO:

I know what you mean. In junior high (1985 or so) I signed up for a penpal for Spanish class but somehow I got a girl from Norway. We corresponded for years, she came to see me in Iowa and I went to see her in Norway. Somehow she stopped writing (or emailing at this point) a few years ago and it broke my heart, too.

JRLR:

"The whole pen-pal thing is just like writing to someone on the internet. You never know who you are writing to."

Anonymous, I beg to differ. In this case (as in others of the kind), the "relationship" went, every two weeks, for three years, with all the implications of that. Many pen-pals came to know each other very well. Know many similar "relationships" that have lasted that long, "in real time", on the Internet?

Those two forms of communication have little in common. Seems to me that is what makes this story so very interesting.

Like it or not, the times are changing in fundamental ways. So are the types of relationships that can exist between people. Young teachers tell me, for instance, that many many children now have great difficulty concentrating on anything for more than a few minutes at a time.

Amar writes: "Kumar Chellapan spent his teenage years living for his two American pen-pals... pour(ed) (his) heart and soul into it."

Dana:

There articles are great reading. Keep it up.

Anonymous:

The whole pen-pal thing is just like writing to someone on the internet. You never know who you are writing to.

How would Kumar feel if Anne and Pamela turn out to be Albert and Patrick. Seriously, this is not funny.

JRLR:

You are right, Amar.

True love is also the mist lingering in the broken heart-and-soul of an Indian child, still sighing after his American Anne or Pamela, twenty seven years after she simply vanished.

pc:

one misses those days when writing or reading a letter would make your pulse race, somehow the printed word does not quite do the same

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