‘Words not yet uttered are sweet. Sentences yet to be written are pregnant with meaning. Letters unwritten are perennial sources of unadulterated bliss. This came in Whatsapp last week and I sincerely believe this to be a Zen saying. Even If it were not, it would be one by now through repeated sharing on the social media.
If awaiting the delivery of letters being written is an act providing immense thrill and delight, hunting for old mail is equally so. Pursuit of vintage correspondence sent and received aeons ago with entities at both ends long since dead qualifies to be categorized as a feat of the same noble kind. The single-minded pursuit often provides Satori to the seeker. It is an enlightenment of a different kind.
I was rummaging through the attic at my ancestral house, years ago. The house was one constructed when attics were must-to-have unlike the ‘attached bathroom with a shower’ and ‘Bombay latrine with a commode’, both being novelties and were nice-to-have then. There was no standard procedure to define what all could be stored in the attic. One could find for sure old earthen pots, brass tumblers, wooden ladles, lyric books of movies released sixty years ago when Indian talkies were ‘sing-ies’ with more songs and less dialogues.
To a fortune hunter with a missionary zeal and monk like patience, the attic would also yield treasures of the unexpected kind like late Victorian erotica in chaste English, with the characters addressing each other ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ and profusely thanking each other on completion of the intended amorous act, strictly according to the book.
I chanced upon a closed antique casket in the attic. My father who was alive then immediately identified it as the one he used to carry surreptitiously pieces of sweetmeats to school, as a kid. When he was in class three, aged seven, he lost the casket on the day fresh laddus were prepared at home for the ensuing festival of lights, Deepavali.
‘The laddu may still be there inside’, my gentle father said as he snatched the apparently hermetically sealed box away from me, with a little force, we never associated with him. He made no attempt to open the casket though. He had it in his proud possession until he breathed his last many years afterwards.
Another gift of the attic was old mail. This was of the vintage post cards kind. Many such yellowish brown rectangular cards were there, all addressed to my grandfather who was the head of a large joint family living together in peace at our ancestral home. The cards were all covered in a coat of dust that somehow acted as a deterrent against their getting decimated and devoured by pests. Fifty odd antique mail were there, impaled on an evil looking steel spike with a flat cast iron bottom.
All the letters I retrieved were written by a single person; perhaps the first writer in our family. I was given to understand this one was a great grand cousin of mine.
It appears there prevailed some unwritten code of conduct which would have dictated that at least one person, male only that is, from each middle class joint family at some point of time in his life should renounce the family ties and walk out unannounced of the household, mostly by night. He would in all probability be taking such an un-ceremonial leave of his close relatives that included his wife and children as well, only to return after a decade or more. My great grand cousin (GGC in short) was found to abide by this, by and large.
The most interesting thing about this GGC is that he was a confirmed bachelor who went out at noon on a hot summer day, never to return. He left in a huff after someone hinted half playfully at lunch time that he did not make any attempt to settle down in a job even three months after passing his school final examinations but was settling down to a life of lunch – siesta – dinner – slumber.
The immediate provocation I learn was that there was a job vacancy for a bookkeeper in a hotel that sprang up near our place. The GGC was deeply hurt that he was expected to take up the demeaning job of a hotel clerk doubling up as a cashier and in all possibility as one waiting at tables downstairs, when the occasion demanded. All these happened in early 1940s and the letters were penned by him to my grandfather, the fugitive’s uncle who brought him up, being orphaned at a very young age.
I removed the bunch of letters from the spike and pulled out an epistle from the collapsing card pack. It was dated 1st April 1941.
‘I am not fine but am suffering, here, in Alappuzha’.
The letter writer began with an ominous note, quite unlike the conventional letter writers. Having set a wailing tone, he proceeded to elaborate upon his hardships. These prima facie were the cascading effects of his unscheduled jaunt to the neighbouring state of Kerala from Madras presidency, though not appropriately acknowledged by the writer. Having arrived at Alappuzha, the coastal Kerala town by train that reached the destination late by a full ten hours, he attempted to procure a decent boarding and lodging. As luck would have it, all he could get was a bed bug infested lodgement to stay at a very high tariff and insipid, stale food that had grounded coconut added to all food items, even to fish and chicken, as the GGC claimed.
He blamed my grandfather squarely for his plight. The latter, he accused, did not arrange for his study in college but wanted him to be an accountant in a wayside hotel and that was the source of all the GGC’s misery. The patriarch was requested to send at least twenty rupees by Telegraphic Money Order to the GGC’s hotel address immediately on receiving the letter, to tide over the crisis.
The next letter I pulled out did not open on similar lines. Rather, like a post-modernistic work of fiction, it began – ‘Kelu Nair’s eatery worst… in the entire world … and beyond…serves lentils under-cooked; steamed rice a lump of coal… soup with foul smell …like a stagnant sewage stream. My hardships … getting still worse. I hereby lay the blame squarely at your doorsteps. Please send me Rupees Twenty immediately for the last time’.
I would assume that such stern language and stucco sentences would well constitute a parting shot and perhaps would have marked the last of the unfortunate correspondence between the family letter writer and the patriarch. Interestingly that was not the case to be, I found.
The fugitive continued his tragic monologue on his painful existence, from Kochi, Hubli, Puna, Agra, Hardwar, Delhi and Kolkata. All these post cards had the photograph of King George VI of England solemnly looking at the reader, perhaps in total sympathy with the writer. He would have set the grievances for redressal had he been addressed to directly in any of these post cards, he appeared suggesting.
Another post card started with a matter of fact information sharing –
Annapoorna finds it difficult to cook south Indian food though she can prepare Bengali fish curry very well. I married in June and am trying to like Bengali fish curry. I taught her how to prepare tomato in lentil soup. Though she could prepare it, she is careless in adding salt and always adds much more than adequate. It is my destiny to eat salty food day in and day out. I find it too difficult to adjust my tastes now at my twenty-eighth year of existence. I commute to office in a crowded slow moving tramcar. Everyone speaks Bengali here and I cannot understand even a word of it. Annapoorna speaks Assamese at home, which also I cannot fully understand. Her English is faulty yet we communicate in that language only. As she is in the family way and this is the commencement of pregnancy, I am forced to do all domestic chores. Working hard at office and working at home make me fatigued. All these troubles I have to experience are because of you, my uncle. If any of your friends or relatives is on a visit to Kolkata, send through him lime and mango pickles. I have not tasted even a small piece of home made south Indian pickle in the last 8 months. Life is tedious and is not worth living. All because of..
I came down the attic after glancing through a few more letters randomly retrieved from the spike, again, by this much-suffered great grand uncle. One of these listed complaints about the rickshaw puller who, looking always inebriated, taking Partho, GGC’s ten year old son to school and about the school teachers who could not impart education to him properly as they themselves were ignoramus but were always demanding tuition fee payment for extra classes. So much hard-earned money and time went down the drain, all because of… (Well, you know who is to be blamed).
With an excuse of getting mildly reprimanded at home, the GGC left home and had an extensive Great India – Bharath Darshan tour before settling down in Kolkata with wife, family and a job. The last letter from him complained about his new house leaking on the terrace and the resultant seepage of water in the ceiling making him lose sleep and wander in wild search for masons to address the problem, when it continued pouring cats and dogs all day.
As his Himalayan hardships that never showed any sign of getting melted down stood rock study and went on multiplying, the world was experiencing a minor misery that affected most of the global population, namely World War II. Yet, compared to what GGC experienced, the bombing, concentration camps, death and destruction, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Indian war of independence under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership et al paled into insignificance. My GGC never made a mention of these, in any of the agony letters he wrote home.
Receiving letters is more a fulfilling experience than reading them. The very act someone somewhere has sat down with a singular purpose to contact someone else through correspondence is gratifying immensely as the craving to be noticed is addressed by such an act. As a schoolchild, it was my permanent lament, ‘No one writes to me’. This being the common complaint of all the students at Class 8 A, we ensured we received our letters regularly and in plenty.
Those were the days in which, the embassies of most countries were working overtime to enlighten the people of the nations where they function, on their culture, history and regular diplomatic happenings. We boys obtained most embassy addresses through a wide variety of contacts and wrote each embassy a post card. With 20 odd boys writing individually to each of the 50 odd embassies in New Delhi, the financial outlay at the rate of 15 paise per card was quite formidable as cash inflow was always sporadic and was in a trickle.
This problem was more or less resolved brilliantly with aggregation becoming the pure play strategy to be employed. Each of us wrote to the same embassy on pieces of paper torn from our notebooks (never a mathematics notebook with its odd size). The format of the letter would be the same. Commencing with promises of eternal friendship and best wishes to their nation, sharing our delight at the fast growth of that country in all respects, mentioning about our keen desire to know more about the country and people and then, in the last part, placing a request to send us books and periodicals about the country so that we would be kept consistently enlightened and finally wishing them more growth and prosperity. The postal address of the letter writer would be furnished in all these letters prominently.
All the correspondence would be placed in a large sized thick envelope and sent to Ghana embassy or American Consulate or any particular country we fancied at that time. The expenses for forwarding would be shared among the participants, which would be only a fraction of individual correspondence cost.
The thrill in receiving huge parcels from most of these embassies and consulates in response to our letters is something that begs adequate description and could not be comprehended; unless you too have experienced it. Most of us received those brown paper parcels from the postman at totally unexpected moments. The postman for our area was more dutiful than the honourable minister of posts and telegraph in the central government. He would strive to deliver even if the address was inadequate, based on logical presumptions and with a thorough knowledge of the micro history of the streets under his command and the inhabitants. Thus, he knocked at the backyard door one afternoon and delivered me a thick brown paper envelope from the Hungarian embassy.
The ambassadorial gift consisted of books printed in the best quality paper with a soft smooth silky texture and the fragrance of the printing ink hinting at the greatness of country it was printed. There were lot of photographs in each book showing the people happy wherever they were and whatever they were doing. In all those books, old women would recline in armchairs sipping fruit juice while elderly men would sit relaxed along riverbeds with their fishing gear in full display. The fish sometimes would be seen diving out apparently eager to get in sync with the hook, line and sinker. Everyone including the fish would be smiling.
The African countries preferred sending regular newsletters than forwarding books, which was mostly the practice of the European nations, and were strict one off deliveries. Chinese and Japanese embassies never replied to us, as they would have expected mail in their native languages. The USA was another chronic defaulter, perhaps thinking it was well beneath their dignity to engage in correspondence with schoolchildren.
Ghana Newsletter, Uganda Review, Benghazi Journal and numerous other African newsletters were regularly sent to us mostly every month. Without fail, all these newsletters would sport in the first page the photograph of the president or prime minister of the country smiling and addressing a crowd partially shown in the photograph. The same gentleman would be seen playing a huge drum in the fourth page and holding the hand of a child in the sixth, which would the last page. Sometimes the photographs would be replaced with those of someone else playing the drum, addressing, or kissing the infants. We understood that a change of guard had taken place with the previous drumbeater already been shot dead or escaped to another nation seeking refuge. Of course it all made little difference to us.
Some of us were more ambitious and requested information to be sent not only to them but to their close relatives as well. Thus, Jewel of Africa Newsletter was sent by a tiny African country, every month without fail, to a friend’s grandmother, for ten long years. She used to sit in the front yard of the house, with a persistent cough. The tiny African nation thought it was their top priority duty to keep the old Indian lady, hard of hearing and partially blind notwithstanding, updated with the latest happenings in their tiny nation. The senior citizen, perhaps energized by the Jewel of Africa Newsletter correspondence had a hale and healthy existence until she was 92.
She breathed her last a month after the embassy pulled the plug on despatching the Jewel mail to her.
That is about the delight and thrill in receiving letters, mostly unexpected, when the information technology revolution was yet to happen. We seldom write or receive those conventional mails nowadays. Instead, we are into emailing and internet based chatting for information sharing. The frontiers of correspondence have extended to include video and audio touch basing with almost everyone armed with a smart phone. It is zero delay correspondence as things stand.
The charm of old world correspondence is passé with most of the technology driven correspondence turning to be a source of trouble, especially unsolicited mail. All sorts of entities shoot emails to me to induce me try their product to make my nose one full centimetre long or reduce my waist by five inches in two days. Or it is to increase my height by two inches in three months. Sometimes it arrives with promises of happy sexual life with cheap and effective Viagra clones. I just delete these mails having been perfectly satisfied with my nose or whatever-it-is, in its present status and form. As regards to height increase, I have absolutely no agenda to walk tall, having ordered three pairs of trousers and shirts at the drapers only last month. They would be rendered useless and so, no, thank you, my tall, unknown friend.
Another type of unsolicited correspondence solemnly declare that my close relative in an African country has passed away in an accident and has bequeathed me an estate of a few million dollars which I can claim by making a payment of the equivalent of 10 US dollars to the person emailing me.
I do not intend spending 10 USD to claim that inheritance in an African country. I have all the old issues of Jewel of Africa newsletter I received as a boy, safe in the attic. I shall gladly part with these with the letter writer in exchange for the African treasure.