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     Volume 7 Issue 38 | September 19, 2008 |

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The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Time was when we used to write letters. It was an era when people made contact with one another, and over long distances, through letters. Something of the intensely personal came with those letters, something of communication between one heart and another. The beauty about letters was that the soul came with it. Feelings embedded in the heart simply poured forth and once they all came to be encapsulated in letters, we felt something of a burden lifting from us.

Those days, of course, are now memory. No matter how much of a positive view you may hold about technological development, about the revolutionary progress brought about by the coming of the internet, there is the unassailable truth that the day we stopped writing letters and switched our attention to e-mails and then this little strangeness called sms, the warmth went out of us somewhat. And with that went away huge slices of intellect. For you cannot but admit that writing letters was always an intellectual exercise, even if it came in desultory fashion. Fathers wrote to their children about the health conditions of mothers in manner that made entire familiar scenes of home come alive. Sons sent off missives to parents, proffering advice on their health and seeking their comments on plans they on their own were making about the future. Daughters went off to distant villages, or small towns, to be part of in-laws' families and from there wrote to their mothers about themselves, about the thousand and one ways they missed home.

When you speak of letters, you realise how much of a role the epistolary has played in the shaping of history. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote an immensity of letters to his young daughter Indira, from prison and outside. Rabindranath Tagore spent an entire lifetime writing letters to other great men and women of his time. Not many years ago, a reputed Indian journal published a series of letters that Buddhadev Bose and his child wrote to each other. There have been instances of writers, men and women, who have written to one another and eventually fallen in love with one another, with results that could only benefit the world. Henry Miller and Anais Nin wrote copiously to each other and bared their innermost desires. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett discoursed on poetry and then discovered, almost to their surprise, that they had become lovers.

In the days when letter writing was an integral part of life, grandfathers living in little villages in Bengal cheerfully showed off the missives their school-going grandchildren had sent them from faraway lands. In the medieval era, as also later eras, monarchs wrote to other monarchs in various manifestations of temperament. Some demanded tribute, some pressed for military aid against their enemies and some proposed the marriage of their children with those of the royalty they were writing to. In the days when the movement for Indian independence began to gather pace, a flurry of letters was observed defining the situation and delineating the parameters of the negotiations that would take place on the decolonisation of the subcontinent. In early 1969, Ayub Khan sent out letters to the opposition Democratic Action Committee inviting its leading lights to a round table conference in Rawalpindi. In the course of the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle maintained necessary contact with one another through dispatching letters to one another. In the year 44 BC, as the conspiracy to eliminate Julius Caesar gained in substance, it was decided that anonymous letters would be pushed through the gates of Brutus' home as a way of convincing him that the future of Rome was in his hands and that he was expected to lead the uprising against the dictator. In 1958, days after being appointed minister by President Iskandar Mirza, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wrote an ingratiating response to him, to tell him that history would record him as a great man, that indeed it would say that he was greater than Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

In whatever way you look at it, you cannot but admit that there was a profusion of rich sentiments that came with writing letters. Letters revealed minds at work, for they threw up images of the people behind them. In letters came a grave attention to the subject at hand, with little or no room for distraction or pointless conversation. Letters have always been symbolic of enlightenment, of a development and enhancement of thoughts in the individual. In the old days, the very young were taught the varied ways of letter writing --- personal letters, letters to newspapers and letters in response to job-related advertisements. And then there were the sad moments of life, when children inhabiting foreign lands or distant shores became recipients of letters informing them of the demise of a parent back home in the ancient ancestral village. Those letters took an hour to be written. It took weeks, sometimes months, for them to reach their destinations.

In 1964, the Labour Party won the elections in Britain and Harold Wilson took office as prime minister. On Robben Island, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela would know about it only in 1980, long after Wilson had come and gone. It was Margaret Thatcher's generation running the show.


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