Navtej Sarna

Second Thoughts: Grace of the unspoken

Vanishing past: Letter writing has fallen under the juggernaut of technology.  

Floating thoughts, an intercepted glance, a snatch of a conversation overheard, a book picked at random from an apple box outside a second-hand bookshop: in such things, given the right moment, often lie the seeds of an essay, a poem, a short story and — for the fortunate few — a novel. And so it seems is the case for this column. A yellowing news cutting in my files about the lost art of written correspondence, a few old Hindi songs at dusk and a news item mourning the closure, in a small border town, of the municipal library with a picture of the crestfallen faces of helpless children and elderly citizens. Alone, each of these is just a stray event, at best a sentimental paean for a vanished past or a grudging salute to the juggernaut of technology. Taken together, especially on a windy night when a lone lit-up boat is the only thing that breaks the inky darkness of the sea and sky, these things fall into the finality of a pattern, reminding us of all that has slipped unknowing through our fingers while we were looking elsewhere, signalling a loss that has already become irretrievable even as we become aware of it.

The news cutting is just a book review, but the book is enticingly called Yours Ever, Written over several years by Thomas Mallon, during which our hesitant handshake with e-mails over screeching modems has turned into a 24-hour addictive embrace, it is an elegy to the art of letter writing. Among those whose letters make up the meat of the book are several writers including Flaubert, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nothing reveals better the mind of a writer, or for that matter, of a president or a king or a lover, than a letter written by him. Separated by decades or by centuries, the reader can feel the writer's torture congealed in the long dried ink, the passion in the folds of carefully chosen paper, the hesitation in the little post-script, the doubt in the scratched out sentence... Seen in this manner these letters become the lifeblood of historical research, the insight that brings biography alive.

When writing my own novel, The Exile, I searched for, and found, Maharaja Duleep Singh's voice in a handful of his letters that I read one stolen afternoon in the British Library. His handwriting, his phrasing, his choice of words — all became windows into his mind and then his soul. I wonder what the biographers or writers of historical fiction will do when they have to reopen the secrets of our digital age. What will replace these letters? Where will they find the cache of personal e-mails, the confessions, the fears, the advice, the justification, the evasion that will give the third dimension to their subjects? Which spouse, or child, or one-time sweetheart will keep these e-mails tied up in a ribbon or carefully folded into an old tin candy box?

The loss is greater than simply the difficulties that will be faced by the researchers of the future; no doubt they will invent some virtual bank where it will all be archived. Perhaps some imaginative minds and sensitive souls will reinvent the postal system as a speedy and safe courier service and even find ways to retain the old colonial buildings that were our best post offices, turning them into philatelic museums and internet cafes.

But how will one ever explain to the next generation the anticipation that rose to fever pitch as one waited for the tinkle of the bicycle bell of the khaki-clad, peak-capped postman in the hot summer afternoons. Or the disappointment that his consoling smile never quite wiped out on the days that brought no letter. Or the smell of sealing wax when sending a birthday parcel, or the glue-laden brushes that covered not only the back of the stamp but also the thumb and forefinger, or the rush for putting a letter at the last minute into a stunted, red pillar box marked ‘late fee delivery' or the sight of the huge bags being thrown into red vans in the gathering dusk behind the post office as if they were being sent into nowhere, or the pleasure of walking a mile on fallen pine needles to the little hill post office and finding a letter with your name waiting there labelled ‘Poste Restante.' Something has vanished in this trade-off for instant communication, some romance, some mystery.

Or quite simply, some grace.

Perhaps it is the same vanished grace that haunts the old songs that burnished the edges of the twilight today, breathing in the lilt of those melodies or the obliqueness of the lyrics. The same wordless quality that could suffuse Waheeda Rahman's eyes with loss and regret in a haunting shot in a deserted film studio, lit only by a strobe of sunlight from an open skylight. Or that enabled Meena Kumari to convey passion, intoxication, taunt and promise in one look as she fought to keep her zamindar husband away from the dancing girls. Or that lay, like his rough coat, on Guru Dutt's hunched shoulders, with all the heaviness of defeat and frustration. Nothing much needed to be said after that, the unspoken said it all. It is not mere sentimentalism or nostalgia when one fails to find this grace of the unsaid, the romance of the unspoken, the passion that smoulders, in a world in which Shah Rukh Khan acts as Shah Rukh Khan in movie after movie, where Salman Khan's shirt magically unbuttons itself and falls off to reveal the rippling stuff and Munni competes in a torso-twisting tussle with Sheila.

The battle is already lost, but there are consolations in minor acts of rebellion. The use of a fountain pen, a soft creamy paper diary, an occasional letter written on an inland letter and posted to an unsuspecting friend from a remote post office, a walk through the shelves of an old library inhaling the smell of old books and talcum powder….Perhaps all these put together will form another pattern: an old-fashioned salaam to times that were.



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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 8:24:20 AM |

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