Letter writing, an exemplary art

BANGALORE: Lord Byron’s letters with an introductory essay by Prof Saintsbury defines letter writing as a delightful branch of literature.  According to the Professor, this has it’s day;

Published: 31st January 2012 04:10 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:25 PM   |  A+A-

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BANGALORE: Lord Byron’s letters with an introductory essay by Prof Saintsbury defines letter writing as a delightful branch of literature.  According to the Professor, this has it’s day; often and on, during the early times but has its own glory. Present day’s telephone, mobile phone and subsequent hi fi computer technology has positively killed this art.

In most cases, a typed letter is a chilly and repellent substitute for the written word. In fact, in my own working life, I always cherished a great joy, whenever I received a letter written in handsome handwriting particularly from a renowned writer from Mussoorie. In contrast, an Archbishop, Temple received a letter from the official correspondent enclosing two utterances of the Archbishop which flatly contradicted each other and asking for an explanation. The reply was “Dear Sir- Both are right”.

Various titles put under the caption “Life and Letters” always interested me and sometimes baffled me for its outspokeness or aspects of “confession” with all the religious fervour.  In the college days, two writers namely Oliver Screiner and  Katherine Mansfield were towering personalities who influenced me a lot; in fact, I used to often carry their journals and letters during my travel as if  it was my ‘laptop’ as youngsters carry today. Yesterday night, my younger brother from US showed me an electronic gadget depicting certain places of my hero Leo Tolstoy, narrated by his daughter Anya so graphically and inspiringly.  It was an animated narrative but it was so effective and inspiring. Oh! My salutation to modern technology and its inventors.

Biographical data of eminent men and women has invariably  been narrated in any number of literary forms. Some called it ‘Life and Letters’ and some titled it ‘Pages from my Journal’ or ‘Leaves of memory’ and yet others simply ‘Autobiography with Letters’.

While, I was a boy studying in high school, I read Perry’s admirable book , English Literature in the 18th century”. His treatment of the subject produced a permanent impression.  Mr Perry was a great linguist and at the age of 70, he learned Russian and finally read it with ease. He said he thought he had ‘accomplished more than Cato, who learned Greek at eighty’.  

According to SS Koteliasky, who translated the letters of Tehekher says, “the letters of Anton Teheker to his wife have just been published in the original Russian by a publishing company of Berlin; we understand it now as it contained 434 letters, notes and telegrams written between the years 1894-1904. These letters have stood the test of time as significant and charming but most of them were dipped in great humour. Madam Teheker says, “even a few hours before his death he made me laugh by making up a story and I never realised that in a few hours I should stand by Anton’s body.”

Of late, I have been studying various books related to British India, right from the days of  Queen Victoria to special topics on the Indian mutiny.  Some titles written by a few  on the first war of Independence is simply wrong. The title ‘Recollections and Reflection’,  by Bishop Welldon, while referring to India states thus. “Writers from India and writing about Indian affairs are apt to fall into two categories.

Some of them  who spend a few months or possibly a few weeks in the cold weather are the one’s who spend  a lifetime in India. They land in Bombay; they travel by one of the trunk railways to Calcutta; they make brief halts at the historical cities of northern India . They go to a dinner party or a hall at the Government house in Calcutta; they associate for a week or two with a few administrators and merchants in Bengal; perhaps, they make their way southwards to Madras or even to Colombo and as soon as they get home, they expand their diaries in which the names of Indian persons and places are frequently misspelt in books of trivial and ephemeral value.” Several lieutanant generals and  generals of the Indian Army invariably documented their experience in the form of diaries, correspondences during their administration. For example, Shadwell wrote the life of Colin Campbell, Lord Clyde in two large volumes illustrated by extracts from his diary & correspondence. There are many examples like the  ‘Campaign in Oudh’ during the cold weather of 1858-59 and two of the operations against Lucknow during the month of March 1858 by the British Army.

In contrast to the narration of the above gruesome battle, it would be a great relief to dip into a pleasant volume titled “The Letters of Gertrude Bell”.   In this context,  it is relevant to quote two of her observations  during her stay in India. One is a letter written in the train, travelling from Alwar to Delhi.  

“My thrice blessed Hindustan carries us through our travel admirably and here we were able to stop where no one has a word of English without any inconvenience. They send for an elephant which is the most difficult animal to sit that I have ever been on.” The second incident happened at Peshawar while the visitors stop to photograph people who are singing  ‘a sort of hymn in praise of the Granth’, the Indian singing trumpcart being serious worshippers as “I heard them inter-polate into a song and the Memsahib came and took a picture” and  “all at the same time.”

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