Life in mails.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One afternoon, in a raddiwala’s (scrap dealer’s) home in Old Delhi, The Delhi Walla discovered a polythene bag filled with letters and picture postcards. The envelopes had the addresses of New York, Allahabad, Geneva, Dar es Salaam, Bombay, Moscow and Delhi.
There were dozens of letters spanning the period from the 1940s to the 1980s. Each was marked with the date on which it was received and the date on which a response was sent (but a New Year greeting card that bore the signature of the Dalai Lama was undated).
Picking up a letter, I randomly read a few lines: “I still have all the bank work to do. You too have to look after yourself as we can’t afford to lose each other at this juncture. As it is, I’ve been scared to death these last few years about your complaints of your health and your tantrums. It has all taken its toll on me. That’s life—one does the best one can.”
The letter begins with “My dearest …” and ends with “All my love, …”—in fact, most of the letters in the bag were between these two. The writer’s address—Vasant Vihar, Delhi—was scribbled in the top-right corner. The envelope is labelled “personal” and addressed to India’s senior-most representative to a global organization in a foreign metropolis.
The raddiwala, Muhammad Izamuddin, could not tell me which home these letters had been picked up from. “These things are passed down from one hand to another,” he says.
It is always thrilling to read someone else’s letters, especially if it is a collection of mails exchanged between people in love. I acquired the bag of letters for a thousand rupees and over the next few days, was immersed in the lives of this couple—such sensitive and sharply observant people, with graceful writing styles. The world they created in these letters is unique to them, but the emotional component of their correspondence has a universal echo.
There could have been convincing reasons to cast off these letters. Maybe the memories they stirred were too painful; maybe they were the most unnecessary lot of a larger stack; maybe these letters were dumped by mistake. Perhaps the recipients had died and their heirs had no interest in the correspondence, even though it allows profound insight into the bureaucracy of everyday life.
Since the writers must not have considered the possibility of their letters going public, and because they may be well known in diplomatic circles (they both find passing mention in the WikiLeaks disclosures), I’m not naming them, their children or the others mentioned in the letters (I have also blurred the photographs of these letters). Nevertheless, the appearance of these letters on this website may horrify not only the relatives and friends of this couple, but also many of us who cherish privacy. I have only tried to reassemble however—respectfully and with discretion—the fragments of a rich life salvaged from trash.
Here is a poetic and high-status existence shrunk into a little pack. When unfolded, the deeply intimate moments of a bureaucrat and his spouse acquire the sublimity of a period novel.
On 18 April 1976, the bureaucrat writes from his hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to the lady, who is at their home in the US. “We are nearing the end of our work here and will fly tomorrow to Lusaka. President Nyerere remembered me and spoke to the others of my contributions in 1954. He has developed into a first-rate leader with humility, humour and self-assurance. The leaders of the liberation movement for Rhodesia are in disarray and seem to have lost control over the military wing, which has come under the revolutionary inspiration of Mozambique. Armed struggle has become the only credible alternative… It’s getting lonesome and I’m beginning to miss you.”
The days and evenings of an ambassador and his spouse are made of a series of luncheons, receptions, speeches and sightseeing. And if they get around to writing a memoir, expect musings on local cuisines, wars and the weather. One of the best depictions of such an existence is in Ambassador’s Journal, a collection of diary entries and letters that economist John Kenneth Galbraith composed during his spell as the US envoy to India in the 1960s.
Shortly after settling in Delhi, the American ambassador wrote: “In the last two days, we have had two vast receptions—one for the Asian economic planners and one for the tennis team. At these functions, one stands for a terrible hour or two while people file in and then for another hour when they go out. In the interim, they stand around and drink mostly soft drinks and consume the greasy and repulsive objects which our Indian cook turns out under the impression they are hors d’oeuvres. Last night, he had French fried potatoes fried in extra deep fat. My wife, who never eats his stuff, strongly defends him.”
Mr Galbraith’s book gives the reader a glimpse into his delights and disappointments with India—but it lacks the personal spark of the correspondence we started with. In an undated letter, our unnamed bureaucrat describes a dream surreal enough to have come out of an Ingmar Bergman sequence:
“It is dark and I’m alone in a street seething with sweating humanity. There is in me an enormous desire to join the throng and to feel the sensations to which they are subject, yet I feel that I am divided by a wall of loneliness. The crowd walks past me laughing and chatting and in the crowd are many of my friends, and you are there too. I turn my pleading eyes towards you but you look through me and beyond me as if I don’t exist. I gesture vehemently and scream but nobody hears me. I feel I have been abandoned and relegated to a land of memories while the life to which I belong to surges past me.”
Outside of these letters, this gentleman-bureaucrat exists as the prototype of a diplomat who, post-retirement, wrote foreign policy articles for newspapers and academic journals. A brief entry in India’s Who’s Who, compiled in the 1970s, describes him as being born in the second decade of the last century in a temple town in south India. Joining the Indian Foreign Service a year after India attained independence, he began by serving in the capital of a neighbouring nation. The first ambassadorial job came in the 1960s when he was appointed to represent India in a southern European country. This was followed by a stint in a tiny but beautiful central European republic. In the 1970s, he moved to a prestigious diplomatic post in North America.
We have a number of memoirs by Indian diplomats that touch upon the lives of Nehruvian aristocrats such as our bureaucrat. These species were the senior civil servants and their wives who thrived in an era when socialism was a necessity, non-alignment the missionary position and the possibility of a right-wing politician becoming India’s prime minister as far-fetched as an Indian satellite on its way to Mars.
After Nehru’s death in 1964, his aristocracy survived in the form of outward appearances at least. In her 2005 book Raga ‘n Josh: Stories From a Musical Life, the late Sheila Dhar, wife of P.N. Dhar—founder of the Delhi School of Economics and principal secretary to prime minister Indira Gandhi—painted the most meticulous picture of a Delhi bureaucrat’s wife that has ever been printed: “This lady had a well-groomed head of silvery hair with a stylish bluish tinge obviously acquired in a salon. She was draped in an exquisite handloom sari of khadi silk. A string of unobtrusive pearls, little diamond ear tops, and ethnic leather sandals with gold accents, completed the ensemble. Her appearance proclaimed that she combined in herself the best of East and West, that she was the personification of enlightened Indianness, the ultimate repository of good taste.”
According to Ms Dhar, this classical look was modelled after Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and daughter Indira.
The bundle of letters that landed with the raddiwala has a photograph of the bureaucrat and his lady, along with other colleagues—all the sari-clad women appear to have derived their sartorial sense from Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.
In 1979, the lady, who was in Delhi, responded to a rather depressing poem that the bureaucrat had written to her from the US. The letter provides a glimpse into their marriage: “But life isn’t at all that bad; this “vale of tears” can be quite pleasant too. It’s a beautiful day today, bright sun (not hot), with a half-dozen different birds chirping outside and the brightly hued bougainvilleas stirring softly in a light breeze. My blood pressure must be down, if I’m feeling at peace with myself and the world!! I have had a lot of time for introspection about the years you were immersed in your work. Very often I felt you had no soul, that my special mission in life was to help you find it—strange presentiment. The line in your poem “take care not to love yourself alone” brought this back to mind, because very often I felt that you did love only yourself. A couple of weeks back I went through a very bitter mood, which I could not repress. Either it was my BP, or tension, or just years and years of being at the receiving end of anger, resentment, mental anguish and turmoil. It has all left its mark on me—an indelible, ugly scar. I think the last stanza should stand by itself and not be attached to the other two. Sometimes I feel that we in India aren’t doing too badly in our day-to-day lives, in spite of the interim government and all the political wrangling we have today.”
In 1984, our bureaucrat, now stationed in a scenic lake town, received a mail from New York. The envelope enclosed a poem, a regret slip by The New Yorker magazine, and a note from a friend, saying: “I just received this and return it to you sadly. They kept it so long that I was certain they meant to use it.”
The bureaucrat’s wife shared his poetic sensibilities. In April 1965, when he was posted behind the Iron Curtain, she wrote a letter to someone in Allahabad. “It is still cold and the snow has not yet all melted. The trees are still bare—the leaves will begin to come only next month. The days are already long and the twilight lasts till 8 pm. …is extremely busy these days. Prime Minister Shastri will be coming here on May 12, so a lot of preparatory work has to be done. He seems to be bringing his wife too! We have to make a show of our “sati-savitris”—after all they are the real India!”
The letters suggest the couple diligently wrote to each other either when he was travelling on business, or she was visiting India. In fact, most of his mails can be described as the lyrical musings of a frequent flier.
In October 1968, he wrote on the letterhead of Westbury hotel: “The flight to London was so long and boring. I slept between Tehran and Geneva. Switzerland was overcast but around the lake it was clear. We could see all the peaks including the Mont Blanc. The pilot had to circle the lake thrice and each time we saw Montreux at one end. So far I have not spent a penny. It is all on Air India. Do take care of your BP and avoid getting worked up. Hope chaprasis are helping.”
Such were the privileges of the Nehruvian aristocracy. India was desperately poor in the 1960s but it had faith in its socialist prime minister. Nehru set up the Bhilai Steel Plant in 1955 with the help of the USSR. He himself poured the first concrete into the foundations of the Bhakra dam that was completed in 1963. Three years before, the lady wrote to her man from Burnpur, West Bengal, excitedly sharing the wonders of the country’s new temples: “Yesterday we went to see the pumping station and the Maithon hydel project. This morning we drove to Durgapur to see the Barrage—the water on one side is like a wide estuary, whereas on the other side it is a narrow river, 10 feet lower! Remarkable engineering feat! Chotoma has promised to take us in the evening to the fabulous steel plant.”
Dedicated to John F. Kennedy and Nehru, Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal was a gently critical investigation of Nehru’s India, complete with travel tales of dams and droughts. In June 1961, during a tour of the Bhakra dam, he described a side trip that in foresight appears to doubt the Nehruvian idea of progress. Galbraith wrote: “Later we visited a fertilizer plant which seems to be using an inordinate amount of the power from the dam and in all outward aspect appears to set a remarkable standard of inefficiency. The cost of the fertilizer, I was told, is very high. I was puzzled as to how one could know for almost none was being produced.”
As later happened, Nehru’s socialism often ended up creating tragicomedies. In a 1979 letter, the lady warns the bureaucrat about the household items he can get through the Indian airport customs: “You will have to declare the transistor which is more than 10 years old, perhaps also the toaster and iron and hot plate, all of which cost only about 14 or 15 dollars each. You are allowed `1,000 as gifts. They should allow more since we are returning after more than 10 years.”
Today, when most of us have switched to email and WhatsApp, it is difficult to comprehend that the elite segment of an earlier generation would draft its entire private histories by regularly writing letters to relatives and friends. The correspondence between the couple began when he was still her suitor.
In the early 1940s, he posted a letter to her Allahabad address from the hill town of Mashobra: “I enclosed with the letter I wrote to you yesterday some purple flowers and I wonder if they are irises. Perhaps not. The few discreet enquiries that I have made disclose that irises are rather large and since you want the tiny specimens I plan to gather wild flowers. But the weather has been so damnably rainy that it is impossible to stir out and so I sit at home and nurse my secret love for you… (The love letter changes tone midway)… Why don’t you banish the pose you have unconsciously acquired from your English education and become just simply natural? Do not bespatter yourself with the mire of conventionality which has now practically become an essential part of your fibre. Cannot the sweep of a tremendous passion spike your cold dignity? I need your love and all I have is a promise that you may love me.”
The original model of such a romantic man who went on to become an ultra-urbane career diplomat is arguably the late B.K. Nehru, a cousin of Jawaharlal. An alumnus of the London School of Economics, he was our ambassador to the US and our high commissioner to the UK. He later served as the governor of Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat among others.
In her book Kashmir: A Tragedy of Errors, journalist Tavleen Singh described B.K. Nehru, then the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, as one of those “civil servants from a pre-Indira (Gandhi) phase of Indian history who could not be easily persuaded to do the bidding of prime ministers when they felt that the prime ministers were in the wrong.”
Ms Singh paints governor Nehru as “a genteel patrician figure who intimidated journalists even by the manner in which he served cucumber sandwiches in his study” with its “elegant teak desk and its shelves lined with books”.
To get a sense of the society of these Nehruvian nobles, you could read their autobiographies (including B.K. Nehru’s Nice Guys Finish Second). Alternatively, you may head to Teen Murti Bhavan, Nehru’s official residence in Lutyens’ Delhi. The British-built mansion has long corridors, grand staircases, unobtrusive chandeliers, sparse-design sofas and beds, and miles and miles of shelves stacked with books by intellectuals such as Leon Trotsky and Annie Besant. The walls have framed portraits of statesmen such as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Marshal Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia; the two countries today exist only in history books.
By 1991 the bureaucrat, now retired, published his memoirs (they are out of print) and dedicated it to his wife and daughters, “my only links with life”.
Thirty years before, exasperated with their school-going daughters, the lady had written, saying: “All that … and … want to do is to take a story book and read all their waking hours! I have tried to make them realize that they cannot go through life just reading. There are other necessary and essential things they must learn to do.”
The same letter soon turned to the nature of true love: “It is a willingness to give off the spirit on both sides, just as there has to be a voluntary giving of the body on both sides in a physical union. If one builds an impenetrable wall of anger and silence and tries to live in self-centred isolation, then there can be no sympathy, understanding or camaraderie. Tell that fat Muttu to clean all the window panes in all the rooms before our arrival. He can start from now.”
One of the most melancholic letters that the lady wrote was in January 1961, when she was visiting her aged parents in Allahabad. The description of the dilapidated state of the home inadvertently heightened the increasing aloneness of her mother and father: “Everything is full of dust and cobwebs. Mamma, as usual, concentrates intently on her pots and pans and it is impossible to divert her attention. Papa goes about in a moth-eaten pullover and a wholly patched up dressing gown that even a tramp would discard. I’ll have to start probing into his wardrobe to find out if he hasn’t got anything better to wear. The bathroom window has been eaten up by white ants. It is a painful experience, coming home.”
The couple, it appears from their correspondence, always confided in each other their deepest hopes and fears.
In late 1991, a Bombay-based acquaintance posted a letter to the lady: “I’m shocked and deeply grieved to learn from yesterday’s Times of India issue the sudden passing away of dear … and hasten to express my heartfelt sympathies in your sad bereavement.”
This was the year in which former bureaucrat Manmohan Singh was appointed India’s finance minister. One of the first things he did was to end Nehru’s Licence Raj.
The jottings on the envelope tell us that while the lady received the condolence note in November, she only replied to it the following year in February.
We are concerned about Khrushchev’s politburo speech and I miss you