Lettered Dialogue. What a delightful name for 30 years’ correspondence between two indefatigable writers — Krithika (Mathuram Bhoothalingam, 1915-2009) and Chitti (P.G.Sundarararajan, 1910-2006) — sharing their incredible range of interests from Alsatians and Amrita Sher-Gil to Adi Sankara and Angola tribes. Their time and space travel features trekking, bird watching, photography, anthropology, tribal lore, Chola bronze, Chalukyan art, Kandinsky, Freud, Picasso, Martha Graham, Balasaraswati, J Krishnamurti, Madurai Mani, Herbert Read, Kamban, Valmiki ... it is a daunting list. And for Tamil aficionados, the ambience of the golden age opens up: Va Ramaswami, Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan, Na. Pichamurti, T. Janakiraman, Chi. Su. Chellappa et al.

Nitpickers would note that the few facsimile letters are not wholly legible. The absence of an index of names is irritating. You wish the letters had been juxtaposed with introductions and footnotes rather than excerpted, leaving you freer to interpret. But KRA Narasiah’s commentary is certainly useful, admirably empathetic and unobtrusive.

Serious Tamil readers know both writers from their path breaking work. Krithika’s debut novel Puhai Naduvinil was followed by novels, plays and short stories in Tamil, their psychological layering and mythic imagery empowering her iconoclastic critiques of easy cant and growing spiritual sterility.

From humour sketches to film/book reviews in English (he enterprisingly corresponded with PG Wodehouse and Upton Sinclair), Chitti gained stature as a member of the formidable Manikkodi coterie of writers who blazed their own trail.

Mutual respect

The two voices resound with intellectual curiosity, incisive honesty. There is genuine emotion here, no discernible romance. And through the years, we watch their friendship ripen from mutual respect to mellow affection. A double consciousness tints their discussions. The letters also indicate how foresight coupled with insight lead to both being misunderstood by their contemporaries. Undeniably, there is an enticing voyeurism here. Meant for only one pair of eyes, the word gains a peculiar intimacy in the letter, a no-holds-barred flow. But such uninhibited outpourings can and do reveal not only the personal, but take in the social context and the spirit of the times, as here in Narasiah’s savoured selection.

As the wife of a senior bureaucrat in Delhi, Krithika’s upperclass Delhi world is high powered, cosmopolitan. “Your humour is dry, but rejuvenating, like old Burgundy,” she writes to Chitti, in a revealing simile. But she too can puncture hypocrisies, as in her description of responses to her talks at women’s associations, or a visit to a steel plant, the Nehruvian temple of modern India.

Chitti’s satire is no respecter of idols. “To prove the antiquity of the Tamilian, they buried him (CN Annadurai), showing that fire had not even been invented when they disposed of their dead.” Admitting that Krithika’s Puhai Naduvinil made him revise his opinion about women writers being merely peddlers of sob stuff, Chitti continued to praise her content and style, though never uncritically. He supported her through conflicts and controversies — as those provoked by her unflattering interpretations of deified archetypes from Kannagi to Rama. He introduced her to Tamil writers, proofread/edited for her, staged her plays, and wrote a 68 page review of her oeuvre.

Krithika’s admiration is no less marked. “A chit from Chitti is worth working for.” His Swiftian vision and Shavian repartees astound, his intellect stimulates, but what Krithika treasures is his rejuvenating presence, “Your visit was like a whiff of pure air … True friend!”

Finally, Lettered Dialogue interests the reader not by its arabesque of allusions, sharp-toothed wit, or sardonic lens. Here the self and the other come together in an uncategorisable bond. Each incurably alone, as all writers are, Chitti and Krithika became free to grow as they recognised their kinship. Lettered Dialogue makes you want to read Krithika’s books. It also makes you long for the perfect friend, Chitti.

LETTERED DIALOGUE — Correspondence Between Chitti and Krithika: Commentary by KRA Narasiah; Palaniappa Brothers, 25, Peters Road, Royapettah, Chennai-600014. Rs. 175.

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