by Swati Khurana
I love love letters. My first love and I wrote each other a decade’s worth of long, tortured letters.
This was 1992, the end of 11th grade—before email, the Internet, scanners, mobile phones, text messages. For us, the fax machine would constitute “social media”: anyone could read the incoming fax, and often an adult would have to send the fax for you. Codes were used.
In school, friends would pass notes to each other, often on ripped notebook paper, edges frayed. My friends and I were involved not only with the note-passing and writing, but also the elaborate art of note-folding. By looking at some of our notes, you would think we were aspiring origamists hoping to fashion ornaments for the MoMA Store’s Christmas tree.
I must sound nostalgic. In fact, I am deeply nostalgic. These letters, these notes, even the faxes, were objects to hold, smell, caress, lick, fold, unfold, and cherish. The urgency in the letters was an urgency of emotion. My LWC (Letter Writing Companion sounds much better than ex-husband for this particular reflection) and I would often write these letters when he was in India, where it could take a couple of days to get to a post-office, a couple of weeks to receive a letter. In those gaps, we would feel the desperation of waiting and waiting for the next letter, and the euphoria of seeing an envelope arrive.
In the fall of 2001, my world collapsed: literally, the twin towers crashed down; and I, and many of my closest friends, felt a double fear of being killed by another attack while we were on the subway or going to work or school, and of being attacked because our names, skin color, and perhaps religion, was similar to that of the “terrorists.”
The pre- and post-9/11 reality that South Asians have faced in the US is the subject of another essay, perhaps by another writer, but I want to communicate the reality of the particular denial and mourning I felt that fall with my triple burden—terrorist attacks, racial profiling, and, then, the end of love.
LWC had been in England that September morning, and in India for months before then. Two letters were exchanged that fall, after the towers fell. One was a card that accompanied a bouquet of flowers on my birthday. The words inside were handwritten—not by my LWC, the loops of whose “g”s and slants of dotted “i”s I knew like the grooves of his fingertips—but by whomever (I imagined a matronly retired school teacher) hand-wrote cards for people who bought flowers online. The card simply said, “Sorry I couldn’t be there for your birthday. Thank you for being so understanding.” It wasn’t the absence of LWC that hurt most, but the rented handwriting. And the lack of the word “love” at that moment felt like the lack of the presence of love.
In fact, our relationship had been decaying. Shortly after the birthday card, in an attempt to bring back passion, I made and mailed a book—each page an individual artwork, some with drawings, some with collages, quotes, song lyrics; some photographs of us on our honeymoon on the Turkish Riviera. I hoped that the turquoise sea and tanned skin would evoke a younger, happier time than that winter of our marriage’s discontent. I sent it to his hotel, and he called to thank me for the effort. He liked the book, he said, but the pictures made him sad.
In his voice I could hear it; he knew what took me months to know: it was over.
I wonder if he still has the book. I wouldn’t blame him for tossing, burning, or keeping it. All of those reactions would be emotionally appropriate. Isn’t every emotion appropriate after a heart-wrenching break-up?
After he moved out, he returned a few times to get his belongings, most of which I had packed. He never asked for the letters I wrote him. They were still with the letters he wrote me. I kept them. Or I wanted to keep them, not because I thought we could reconcile, but in case someone would want to know about my life. Somehow I knew those letters were bigger than our adolescent relationship and failed marriage.
But I knew myself too. I had seen the episode of “Friends” where the girls burn exes’ pictures and the fire department comes (I also knew that was TV and that if I did something like that, I would not end up dating a cute, single fireman). So I asked one of my best friends to keep all of the letters, which I separated and wrapped in silk scarves, in case LWC ever asked for them back. He never did.
Eventually my friend moved to England. I was well into my thirties, I had fallen in love twice since the divorce, and I felt I had the composure to keep the letters; though they remained wrapped in their silk scarves
In 2008, 10 years after our wedding anniversary, six years after our divorce, I decided to make sculptures out of the love letters and envelopes. I found wooden birdcages, re-purposed them and painted them gold, and tied each letter, scrolled some, with red thread. I had a friend who was assisting me in the studio scan each of them. After a day of scanning, she said “Wow, Swati. These are really, really intense.” (I have the file of letters on two different external hard drives and confess that I have not, to this day, properly opened the files and read the contents).
I made a suite of sculptures called “Ten Years Later.” Two cages contained letters, one with letters received, the other letters sent. In one cage, “Anticipation,” my engagement ring hung suspended by red thread. Another cage, “Promise,” had my munglesutra, a traditional Hindu wedding necklace made of gold and black beads. A final work, “Storytelling,” contained my wedding sari. I had saved all these things, and now they had a second life, a meaning outside of my own experience.
The thing about art—once you make it, once you show it—is that it is no longer yours. I could cite Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, and I could talk about the death of the author, but I won’t. Between the bars of the cages and under the red thread, people could read sentences here and there. And isn’t that what a past relationship is? Pieces, lines, fragments. One thing became obvious as I showed these sculptures: the writing of love letters was a dying art. People who looked at this work lamented not so much the end of this marriage, but rather the idea of two young people in love writing pages of letters, and waiting weeks to receive them. That era, of love manifest in ink and paper, was over.
A new era was beginning. As I finished the “Ten Years Later” series, I started dating a man whom I would end up marrying, with whom I would have a family. Our relationship started with emails, that were read (and reread), and then followed by text messages (that were often reread), and punctuated by actual dates. But what I savored was the first note he wrote, where I could study his handwriting: a grocery list he wrote for a soup he made when I had an hallucinogenic August fever.
If relationships were pieces, lines, fragments, the new platform was the text message. In 2008 I made an art piece titled “Love Letters & Other Necessary Fictions,” where I looked at six years of (post-divorce) dating and transcribed text messages, email fragments, and notes on flowers and gifts that I had received. Making the ephemeral permanent and precious, I also thought about how many times I had saved messages for their sweetness (The pillow smells of your hair. I will use that one tonight.) or their obfuscation (I’m currently earning my ranger credentials in rigorous training program. Rest assured I am the man for this mission). I would pore over every detail—from the punctuation, to what was abbreviated and what was not—as a way to examine something about myself or even our relationship.
After looking at my messages, and sharing the work with others, I realized that I wanted to write love letters. To strangers. From their saved text messages. In September 2011, for the DUMBO Arts Festival, I developed “Scrolling Texts.”
A passerby would show me his mobile phone screen, and I transcribed by hand the text message onto a translucent scroll. My two grandmothers crochéed ribbons for them, and then gave the tied scroll back to the person.
That day in DUMBO, strangers walked by and shared these messages with me:
As formats of communication change, the fundamental nature of love (and loss) remain the same. For better or worse. The act of saving messages is an act of curating one’s own life experiences.
During the ArtInOddPlaces festival, where I again set up “Scrolling Texts,” a woman asked me to transcribe this message:
There is a silence in the saving, rereading, reflecting. As I wrote the message, scrolled, and then tied it, I realized that love letters are not merely declarations of love: even the break-up letters contain the vestiges of love. In loss, in despair, the residue of having lived and felt with fullness is the cruel gift of love.
And if the format is the text message or the tweet or the telegram or the aerogram, the residue will somehow exist, and for some, be cherished. If we will only take a moment to behold what we have saved, what we have curated, of our lives.
Swati Khurana is a NYC-based visual artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited at and reviewed in the following venues and publications: American Museum of Natural History, Art-in-General, Artists Space, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Chatterjee & Lal (Mumbai), Columbia Review, Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo (Costa Rica), New York Times, Queens Museum, ScalaMata Gallery (53rd Venice Biennial), TimeOutMumbai, and Zacheta National Gallery of Art (Warsaw). Her “Unsuitable Girls” collaboration with Anjali Bhargava will be shown at the forthcoming Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, and she is currently an Artist-in-Residence at the Center for Books Arts. Her work can be viewed online at www.swatikhurana.com
Homepage Photo: Swati Khurana “Texting Scrolls” © Amelia Krales
All other images © Swati Khurana