Human Interest
Every letter has a context, but when looked at many years later, they can actually stand for more than the purpose they were originally written to fulfill.
  • Thursday, November 22, 2018 - 17:11

We live in an age when technology drives most of what we do in our day-to-day lives. And blessed as we are with tech boons such as smartphones and instant messaging applications, the subtle art of writing letter may seem outdated. But when it comes to giving expression to your deepest thoughts, words pulsing through electronic cables seem inadequate -- which is perhaps why letters retain their relevance and may never go out of fashion.

And two timely offerings -- one by former Indian minister, diplomat and parliamentarian K. Natwar Singh, and the other by prize-winning international bestselling author Simon Sebag Montefiore -- rekindle the joy of writing letters and bring to fore the nostalgia associated with this timeless practice.

In "Treasured Epistles", which released in late September, Singh, a man of many distinctions, states that his life has been enriched immensely by his gift for friendship and personal relations.

The letters also convey more than they were actually meant to. For instance, the letters written by Indira Gandhi, whose image in public memory today is largely based on the Emergency, reflect the kindness with which she addressed Singh.

Singh mentions briefly that he does not want to give the impression that she was soft or unaware of what was happening around her. "She was alert, vigilant, tough -- a state that could make one shiver. Her displeasure had a near paralysing effect on those who attempted to (double) cross her," he writes, acknowledging that life at the top can be lonely and describing Gandhi as one who enjoyed close friendships.

But there is a greater worry that Singh is preoccupied with.

"As a people, we are not given to preserving letters. Our indifference to history is one of the reasons for this shortcoming," he maintains.

His book features letters written to him by E.M. Forster, C. Rajagopalachari, Lord Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru's two sisters -- Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesing -- R.K. Narayan, Nirad C. Chaudhury, Mulk Raj Anand and Han Suyin.

On a witty note, the former External Affairs Minister in Manmohan Singh's cabinet, shares that for some strange reason, he got along "exceptionally well" with older women.

"Not that the younger ones were neglected. Far from it. This is not, however, the place to elaborate on my love life," he states in the Preface.

"Written in History: Letters that Changed the World", on the other hand, opens with one of the most famous love letters of all times.

"My mistress and friend: I and my heart put ourselves in your hands, begging you to have them suitors for your favour, and that your affection for them should not grow less through absence. For it would be a great pity to increase their sorrow since absence does it sufficiently, and more than ever I could have thought possible reminding us of a point in astronomy, which is, that the longer the days are the farther off is the sun, and yet the more fierce," Henry VIII wrote to Anne Boleyn in May 1528.

By 1528, Henry was in love with Anne, 11 years younger than him. Although their affair had not yet been consummated, he was utterly enraptured by her, which is evident in his words.

Montefiore, the author, has been published in 48 languages, and in this volume celebrates the great letters of world history, creative culture and personal life. He has selected letters from ancient times to the 21st century and the writers vary from Elizabeth I, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela to unknown people in extraordinary circumstances.

In his note to the readers, Montefiore maintains that nothing beats the immediacy and authenticity of a letter and says that letters are "the literary antidote to the ephemerality of life".

All in all, both of these volumes are precious collectibles. Every letter has a context, but when looked at many years later, they can actually stand for more than the purpose they were originally written to fulfill. As is said often, sending a letter is the next best thing to showing up personally at someone's door, and reading these offerings may inspire a reader or two to actually write one to a friend or beloved.

"Treasured Epistles" is published by Rupa, and is priced at Rs 500. "Written in History" is published by Hachette India, and is priced at Rs 599. They are available both online and in bookstores.