Intimate Archive of 26 Romantic Letters between Two Young Indian Women, 1935-38

Archive

Intimate correspondence of 26 letters totaling 78 handwritten pages spanning 3 years from 1935-38. The letters, written in English, are between Ruth E. Bergevin and Avarani, shortened to "Rani." Bergevin was a teacher at a Presbyterian mission school for girls in Dehra Dun, India, and Rani a teacher training in Lahore, Pakistan, 234 miles and a crowded train ride apart. Ruth's letters frequently feature the Girls’ High School Letterhead. The letters are heavily romantic, filled with lovers' endearments and private references to a probable secret love affair between the women. Rani, frequently concerned about her lack of privacy, tends toward restraint, but Ruth is fervent, at times even reckless, calling Rani "beloved gypsy," "mio diablo," "my own mine," "lit'l sweetheart" and so on.

The letters are unusual not only for their romantic nature but for the level of education displayed. In 1931, Indian female literacy hovered under 3% making these women incredibly rare. Their love story highlights the expansive potential within female education. Rani's education and Ruth's profession build an open door to new experiences, to personal growth, and ultimately, to each other. "Thank you for your letters of yesterday and the day before. I needed them so much to lull my yearning for you and to warm me inside but especially to restore my confidence in myself," Rani writes. Her burgeoning independence mirrors the social change sweeping India during the time. Prior to Indian independence from Britain, Gandhi called for uplifting the status of women through education and recognition of their inherent worth as human beings. Determined to promote equality between the sexes, Gandhi publicly did household tasks traditionally considered women's work, declaring "the future is with women." Other activists also equated India's independence with new freedoms for women. On the cusp of vast cultural change, educated women and female schoolteachers and professionals were the rare exception. "Your letters are such help. They put new life and hope and courage into me. Beloved I am so grateful to you for your love-specially when it is so unmerited. I often wonder how I did without it all these days," Rani writes.

Ruth was either an American missionary living and teaching in India, or a native Indian woman like Rani. We found one record of a "Ruth E. Bergevin" who was an American missionary in India during the time of correspondence. Dehra Dun is often called the “school capital of India” and the Girls’ High School is one of the oldest hubs of female education in the nation. Both women express a painful desperation to cross the physical distance between them, reminding one another of past moments spent alone together, private references rich with subtext despite carefully omitted details. "I'm fairly reeking with the perfume and the memory of Kashmir...It's all over my hands and face right now...and in it I find this relic of our wild joyous adventure...now all of me is yours in Kashmir and all places are where you are!" Ruth writes. Rani tries to conceal her own longing from others, writing, "Oh my big room and warm broad bed are so empty without you. Can you really be gone?...I dare not even cry properly because my eyes will betray me next morning! I think they have already aroused some suspicion."

Under British colonial rule, homosexuality was criminalized in 1861 under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code outlawing sexual activities "against the order of nature" and making homosexual activity punishable by up to ten years in prison. This correspondence speaks powerfully to the private pain of hidden identity. In one letter Rani writes,"Beloved if you were here you could keep me steadier and more truthful." In another she raptures, "I am so glad I have found you whom I can love without reserve with the whole of me. Darling is it wrong for me to live so entirely for you." In another Ruth responds, "Oh Rani-I love you-I wish I didn't!"

Colonial power depended heavily on codifying Western norms into law including those related to gender and sexuality. Ruth alludes to those who would keep them apart, writing "Yes every day and every experience tells me in new ways, Beloved, that what God and love and need and yearning and Kashmir and understandings and all other mutual eternity's has joined together no man and no other friend can put asunder. We belong! Mrs. R.M.A-do you hear? We belong-and so no one else can claim. Hmm-m-there is going to be no divorce." Pre-colonial Indian culture celebrated human sexuality in its many forms with same-sex acts recorded in the Kama Sutra and memorialized in the 1,000 year old erotic sculptures still standing in Khajuraho temples. Depite the danger, the letters are fervent, "You're big enough for all the insides of me and outsides can't touch us. I'm terribly in love with you-terribly wrapped up in you--wonderfully satisfied with you, beloved. I feel frightened at times of so many 'ifs'"

The affair seems to play out in rare stolen moments, in one trip to Kashmir, and in these letters that explore the depth of connection as well as its impossibility, an increasing source of distress. "Come, Beloved, I'm losing you these days-I can't find you and you evade me when I hunt for you-and I want you-and this distance inside and outside is getting too much now-I can't stand it!...Even in a dream last night you left just when I reached out for you. I loathe you, Rani my Beloved! I do," Ruth writes. Another letter from Ruth reads, "My sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart, do you remember me? Do you remember last week, when we were happy this day?" The archive includes more of Ruth's letters than Rani's, though they are written as responses suggesting a correspondence more extensive than has been preserved.

Ruth frequently writes of Rani's mother who she sees socially often and whose closeness is a proxy for Ruth's love of the daughter, "Your mother came in right in the midst of my writing...to show me some of the books you read and reread as a child-books all worn and needing binding (which to do so would be to desecrate them!) and we sat together loving and laughing and almost crying over what they spoke to us of. When I handled the French Revolution one I felt like crushing it to my undraped breast! What a book for a child! What a child!! What a Rani I am privileged to hold in just such nearness!"

The combined pressures of family, society, religion and law would have been enormous, but the women's letters are often playful and sweetly romantic. "Must go to work. Who writes to a sweetheart at 10 o'clock on a work day! The idea! But can I keep away from you anywhere anytime? No gloriously no!" Another reads, "How I've longed in these last few days to be able to jump into your hole with you-and the smaller the better!" In one charming excerpt, Ruth writes "But I do see that my gypsy sweetheart still leads me on tiptoe and with sparkling mischief through many adventuresome forbidden ways! The Rogue! The Darling! For me always and in each others' arms and to so joyously comfortable a place to find oneself!"

Section 377 was finally overturned by the Supreme Court in 2018, but the long legacy of homophobia which began with British rule remains.  A rare archive of letters which stand as moving testament to gay love under colonial rule in 19th century India. .

Item #17984

Price: $2,800.00