Saturday, 13 December 2014


There was a recent news story on how Charles Dickens had managed to convince the Council to install a post box outside his house and what a prolific letter writer he was.

Letter writing is a lost art now. My children find it difficult to write an application for leave in long hand simply because they generally communicate with teachers, friends and other agencies for extra curricular activities, work experience or retail through email and even if they choose to write a letter, the computer does all the formatting for them.

I recently did the unthinkable. I read the letters which my parents had exchanged over the years. They had been stored safely by my mother. I chanced upon them while looking through her things after she passed away. 

Reading them was a bit like watching an old film.

 A film which starts with two young people getting engaged. There is a separate bundle of letters, wrapped more carefully which were exchanged before my parents' wedding. Mum was in Darbhanga Medical college and Papa was in Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, studying hard for his Mining Engineering exit exam. I remember Mum commenting on the fact that his exam was simpler because of the semester system whereas as a medical student, you cannot not know about jaundice or anemia because it had been taught in an earlier semester!

Dad must have been 23 years old when he got engaged to mummy and started writing letters to her. He addresses her as Dear Miss Krishna and is almost apologetic about writing to her in the beginning. He tries to justify it by saying he would want them to get to know a bit about each other and encourages her to reply to his letters. Initially he requests and then he becomes emotional. When she eventually does reply, he is elated and reassures her that it would be very helpful for future. He says in his letters that "the charm and excitement of first meeting is intact" as they have never seen each other. There is humour too when he responds to her question about hobbies with "Your pen friend has not any hobby in particular except modelling. He takes interest in several things including "none of your business" of course. Rest of them to be named in next letter"

Mummy who must have been 21 years old, resists the urge to write back until finally she does in a very curt letter to say she does not like "courting" and that Dad should not sign his name on the letters as she gets incessantly teased by her friends about it. 

Then there is some discussion about the fact that she would want to pursue a career (going by the video about arranged marriage which has gone viral recently, not much seems to have changed in 50 years)  Dad says-"...I shall like to remind you that marriage is an institution and it stands on the will to get married and to maintain it" He also says "I do not want a marriage which will provide me only with suit, watch etc and to you ornaments, jewellery etc..." There is no mention of house, car, children's education....the main areas people today seem to earn and spend money for. The height of luxury at the time seemed the clothes, watch and jewellery!

Most letters are about normal things, career and travel plans, wishing each other on festivals and luck for the exam. 

The next lot of letters are written after they were married, when mummy was pregnant (she says in one of her letters that she is starting to resemble a drum) and Papa too is busy preparing for an exam. He keeps writing about the oh so familiar episodes of procrastination and lack of concentration with his studies! These letters are love letters describing the anguish of separation and one letter also describes how it was around a year ago the correspondence between them had started.

Then there are letters written from Papa's UK tour, when I was around 12 years old, my brothers 16 and 18. This was just after the time Papa supported mummy to leave home to pursue post graduation and apply for a specialist post. These letters are on letter paper which has Moghul paintings as design on the side and both English poetry and Bacchan's Hindi Madhushala quoted as a header.

He writes on 4th March 1980- "I feel like writing in English, probably because I am in England. However, it is my Indian heart pouring out my passion and love for you...Without you I feel lonely though we are a group of six. Everyone has come with queer idea to enjoy most. I don't know what enjoyment is it which they are seeking. I had my cherished desire to come to the U.K fulfilled. Yesterday I witnessed a scene which seemed to be very similar to one I saw in my dream...While I was going to post your letter in a post office open on Sunday (!!!) near Trafalgar square, suddenly I came across a thrilling scene. The day was sunny with clouds off and on but there was no rain. In Whitehall street in front of Buckingham palace a band party consisting of men and women was playing splendid music and marching in my direction. It was followed by men and women in civilian clothes. They had come to pay their respects to the Glorious Dead....I had my camera and took a lot of snaps. There was only one difference from my dream. In my dream the place was not a street but a palace garden.

We had been lodged in Central House Hotel in Central London. It is a small hotel but very clean and tidy. They serve morning breakfast to my liking, omlette followed by tea or coffee. Breakfast starts with fruit juice.I am in a four bedded room along with others. It is quite crowded. A plastic coated small cubicle as bathroom (en suite???) has been placed right inside the room with hot water. I wish you had been with me and we would have made the most out of it. There is an adjoining room with wash basin only. For latrine we have to go out. Walls and stairs are of wood at this place.Room corridors etc are centrally heated. But wollen dressing gown is very cosy. I have brought sufficient clothing it seems. They say winter has been cold this year. In parks and gardens lilies have started blooming. So I hope winter is on its way out.and I am sure I may not have to purchase any more clothing.

 Things are very costly at this place. ....The day we arrived, we had lunch of bread and milk, 36p for a big large bread which we finished yesterday in three sessions, 16p for 1 pint milk i.e slightly more than half litre, 45p for a bottle of jam,  6p for a pod of garlic but the size of the pod was three times the size of our ones and 6p for an apple of Golden delicious variety. These things are available close to our hotel. ....Sunday lunch was of peas, potato and tomato soup all tinned and bread. We bring the tins and put them in wash basin in hot water and eat them after 10 minutes. Afternoon we went round London on a bus ride spending £2 i.e 35 Rs. Then we saw Blue movie. It was an experience. I shall tell you more when we meet. We had sandwiches and tomato soup at Victoria Terminal Railway Station. Yesterday we were busy with British Council and NCB. Grand lunch was served by NCB and dinner was bread and jam."

The next letter describes a Meat and rice lunch and Dosa and icecream dinner at a very posh house of Indian doctor couple, who Papa suspects will never return to home country as they would have to abandon their luxurious lifestyle. He also writes about feeling out of place as others were drinking heavily.

The only thing which mummy seemed to have asked for, which Papa seemed to be having trouble finding, was a knitting album.There is advise about how to handle my younger brother, the rebellious one and strict instructions for my older brother that he is not, under any circumstances, allowed to drive the car, in Papa's absence. Papa seems to be upset that mummy went to Delhi leaving the kids behind, who he believes are all at an age when they could go astray.

He talks about how young girls and boys in England seem fearless, carefree and happy meeting each other. Often they are seen holding each other close at bus stops. Their kisses too seem very special. It all seems very natural and without any shame or fear. In this atmosphere, Papa says he misses mum a lot. He also says that in contrast to these carefree happy youngsters, the middle aged population looks busy and burdened with responsibilities.

He talks about feeling confident shopping and moving around alone. He also talks about the fact that people are good but don't want to mix around with coloured people. "Jobs of Bus drivers and conductors are not taken up by Britishers and are repeatedly advertised. There is a lot of unemployment, which causes racial tensions. African and Chinese students are quite visible, especially in the library, where I too get news about India from newspapers."

He writes about Barnsley as a small town with a 400 bed hospital, clean and neat roads, public toilets and big shops, all in a perimeter of a kilometre. The later letters speak of homesickness. He remembers the house in Dhanbad, where they (Mum and he) had seen their dreams take shape, where the winter sun was scattered all around the garden. He says in his letters that sometimes he feels the training is futile, as he is unlikely to be able to implement the changes back in India and also it is not going to land him a promotion. He is worried as Mum has not been able to postpone the job switch and house move and is having to cope on her own.

Mummy must have asked him whether it would be possible for her to come to England and do a clinical attachment and Papa responded saying he would have enjoyed the trip much more, had she been there with him and if his stay gets extended, he will work towards it and how nice it would have been if she could have come on a WHO scholarship for 6 weeks. He also wrote his weight and blood pressure for her in one of the letters. Weight was in stones and pounds!

On 21st April 1980 Papa writes- "My love, I thought this is the best way of addressing you in this foreign country. This is the way people call each other, particularly their near and dear ones. The old waitress who used to serve us breakfast in the morning at White Hart Hotel used to call us "my love". During Easter Holidays she was on duty and felt for me that I could not go home to family during holidays. She is a widow. Her husband was a deputy in coal mines. Yesterday we shifted to this place which has a very homely service in the centre of the town. It is  a desolate stretch of green farmland, away from the maddening crowd. Amenities are many. I am drinking morning tea of the hotel, while writing this letter. ....I am looking forward to the day when we will be together. In a couple of days, I will get to know the date of departure....Really we have traveled on this rugged round of matrimony with help of love for these 18 years. I am sorry I shall not be with you on our marriage's 19th anniversary. But I shall be glad to compensate when I return by end of June."

The last set of letters are when Mum and Dad are grand parents, dad is retired and baby sitting my daughter in UK and mum is running her entrepreneurial venture, Mrinalini Nursing Home at Dhanbad.

At some point of time, they graduated to emails. One printout remains

25th Dec 2000-

"...I am reading a book titled The Richer Way by Julian Richer. Author is owner of a chain of 200 shops in UK named Richer sounds selling Hi-Fi electronic equipments and a management consultant. He has wonderful radical ideas of running a successful business. I intend to suggest three ideas for Mrinalini

1) Mission of Mrinalini to be put up at reception on New Year's day
2) Questionnaire regarding suggestions and complaints to be given to each customer to fill out.
3) Name badges for each of your staff.

It has been an emotional journey for me reading these letters and experiencing the bond my parents shared.....But it also highlights to me that the hopes, fears, aspirations and challenges in relationships in every age are similar. The ever dynamic balance between career and family, ego and love, care and discipline, society and individuality... has always been there and the top and bottom line is that love does make the world go around. 

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