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Treasured Epistles review: A life in letters

Technology has speeded up communication. But it has spelt the death of the art of letter writing. Instant messaging can, however, never replace the pleasure that letters give. Nor can it become a record of the past as, say, the letters that leaders of our freedom struggle wrote to each other. They shed light on personal relations and also on the most significant events of that historic period.

In his pre-politician years, as a diplomat and writer, K. Natwar Singh received letters from several well-known people who “extended and enriched” his “Weltanschauung”, as he remarks in the preface to Treasured Epistles. Those whose letters feature in this volume include Indira Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, distinguished writers E.M. Forster, R.K. Narayan, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Mulk Raj Anand and Han Suyin — and even, Jawaharlal Nehru’s two sisters Vijaylakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesing.

Though these letters are not as substantive as say the letters Nehru and Gandhi exchanged, there are some that provide us with a glimpse of what Singh’s correspondents were thinking at a crucial period. For instance, shortly after Indira Gandhi returned to power after the Lok Sabha elections in 1980, she wrote to Singh, then India’s High Commissioner to Islamabad: “The real difficulties now begin. The people’s expectations are high but the situation — both political or economic, is an extremely complex one... I cannot help being an optimist and I have no doubt that if only our legislators and the people as a whole have the patience and forbearance to climb the steep and stony path for the next few months, we can get over the hump and arrive at a place from which progress is possible once again.”

We are also given an insight of what she thought of India’s last Viceroy: in a letter dated January 4, 1975, she wrote, “Lord Louis is, as you know, incorrigible. He is friends with all the wrong people and presumably believes what they tell him about me and about India.”

Some of the most interesting letters are those from Singh’s literary mentor, Forster, and the other writers, providing the reader with fascinating glimpses of what they thought of each other’s work — not always complimentary!

The fact that Nehru’s two sisters disliked each other comes through vividly: in one letter Krishna Hutheesing writes of her sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit, “My sister has played another foul trick on me and stabbed me in the back…(I) am going to have it out once and for all with PM” (their brother).” This collection is a must read, guaranteed to give reading pleasure.

Treasured Epistles; K. Natwar Singh, Rupa, ₹500.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 4:44:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/treasured-epistles-review-a-life-in-letters/article25071478.ece

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