Qudsia is trying to live above and beyond several clichés in her life, including this one: ‘the only thing constant is change’. So far life has had the last laugh, so she has chosen to just laugh along. By education, she is a psychologist and a social scientist. By experience, she has worked as a broadcast journalist, a development professional and a writer/researcher. The one thing that she keeps coming back to, are words. She loves the art of writing, loves to read and often silently edits text as she reads. Her dreams for the future include building a life around words, storytelling and the existential questions she loves indulging in.
Atoofat Namay: Handwritten Letters and Matters of the Heart
Could an Instagram post replace a long-hand letter? Could you accuse/credit one of more personality than the other? The jury is out. In the meanwhile…
There is a picture on my Instagram feed: two toddlers seated in a shopping cart outside a major American supermarket. The babies seem cheerful and the cart looks full. The woman who posted the photo, talks about celebrating life’s little victories and rewarding yourself without guilt. She dwells on how her life seems like an uphill task without a moment’s rest on most days – as it is for many distraught young parents. The post ends in gratitude for an uneventful shopping trip that gave her the chance to indulge in buying a new dress.
There is also a letter, written several decades ago in a country several miles away from America. A 27-year-old man in Brussels confesses of indulging in similar excesses to his parents,
‘As I told you, about a month ago I bought a pair of trousers and a coat, secondhand. It turned out so well that I bought another coat and pair of trousers from the same man. It’s true that the first suit would have been quite sufficient, but it is much better to have two suits because they last longer when one can alternate them. The things I bought are really not superfluous. Do not worry about these expenses, and do not accuse me of extravagance…I must tell you that those clothes I bought are well cut and look better on me than any others that I can remember.’
Both anecdotes betray strains of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance. If you are an optimist, their indulgence may be interpreted as well deserved. But if you are somewhat of a cynic you may just scoff at their display of dreary vanity. Either way, you have been an audience to their story, and that is perhaps all that was needed.
The two examples may be starkly different from each other – several eras and media apart. The first is a glimpse of life given by a 30-something mother of four children, living in the land of abundance. Using a mobile application to post photos from her daily life is how she chooses to express herself everyday. The second is some neatly cursive scribbling over parchment by a Dutch impressionist painter living in considerable destitution. We know this 19th century European painter better as Vincent Van Gogh. Behind the differences of these two people and their media of expression, lies an invariable sameness – a story that we can relate to.
We read, live, and tell each other hundreds of such stories everyday. We share them with whoever is listening, and at times, even if they are not. Perhaps somewhere within ourselves we are all looking for an audience to entertain. Or we are looking for words of solace, to understand and appreciate life. Either way, life gets lived in between the little snippets we share.
It is easy to forget that we were not always as connected as we are today. Before reaching out to someone became as easy as gliding your thumb across a phone screen, people used to grip quills to form words across a paper. Intimate conversations, announcements of life changes, aspirations, successes and failures were shared through letters. These letters possibly occupied the same space of imaginative conversations that our Facebook statuses, photos or Twitter posts take up today.
However, armed with only words, letters had a bigger space to fill with their need to rely on details. You could not say “it is very cold here.” You had to add a few layers to convey that sensation of cold. Perhaps describe in-depth the gray shade of the clouds and the nippy breeze. You could not merely talk about “how warm your cup of tea was this morning.” You had to detail the palpable warmth you felt as you wrapped your fingers around your mug. The elegance was in the details.
In 2011, Hannah Brencher collected a team of letter enthusiasts to nominate and send out letters of support and affection to those in need, wherever they may be. Their actions were more than just an act of remembrance for cursive handwriting on bits of paper. Hannah wanted her community to celebrate slowness in this ultra-fast world of instant gratification. After all, sitting down with a paper and pen until your thoughts left your mind and slithered onto the page, took a deliberate amount of effort. As did posting the letter and then waiting for a reply to arrive in your mailbox. An excruciatingly long while if you consider the pace of electronic communication today. For handwritten letters, there are no blue ticks.
But even though times may have changed, the stories have not.
Back in 19th century Delhi, a mango stimulated the same level of delight and joy in the unforgiving Indian summer as it does today. Apart from his legacy of Urdu and Persian poetry, Mirza Ghalib was well known for one thing, his unabashed love for the king of fruits. Perhaps one of the most gifted letter writers to have lived in the subcontinent, Ghalib can be often found having elaborate discussions about his favourite fruit in his correspondence with friends, colleagues, and even foes. Several of his personal letters to rulers reigning at the time were filled with brazen requests for baskets of mangoes from the royal orchards. In a letter to the caretaker of Calcutta’s Imam-bargah ahead of his visit to the city, he wrote:
‘Not only am I a slave to my stomach I am a weak person as well. I desire that my table be adorned and that my soul be comforted. The wise ones know that mangoes can satisfy both of these cravings’.
Ghalib was of the view that “there are only two essential points about mangoes: they should be sweet and they should be plentiful.” Even in the depths of his impoverishment and starvation, the thought of mangoes ripened to a crisp sunny yellow would bring Ghalib respite. Today we have merely replaced the same appreciation with visual reminders of our love affair with mangoes – with bites of playful nostalgia and sultry seduction.
The stories we keep returning to are those that give away fragments of what we believe in, what we aspire to, and what we fear. We come back to them, because they speak to us. For Ghalib, letters were a way to not only connect with friends, but also collect his musings – his stories – as he dealt with isolation, loneliness, and poverty. They reveal his attempts of making peace with the life he led, or was forced to lead in his mind. In the often-wearisome streets of Ballimaran, where he lived, these letters gave Ghalib the chance to find and keep friends even as he was incapable of being overly social and felt drained by the immediate company surrounding him. As he writes in one letter,
‘Mein iss tanhayi mein sirf khato’n ke bharosey jeeta hoon. Yaani jis ka khat aaya, mein ne jaana ke woh shaksh tashreef laya…Aisa bhi din hota hai ke do do baar daak ka harkara khat laata hai…aik do subh ko, aur aik do shaam ko.
Meri dillagi ho jaat hai. Din unke parhney aur jawab likhney mein guzar jata hai.
Ye kya sabab, ke das das bara bara din se tumhara khat nahi aaya? Yaani tum nahi aaye! Khat likho sahib, Na likhney ki wajah likho’
However, these letters had a higher purpose in Ghalib’s life as well. They advanced not just his thoughts and camaraderie, but his language as well. He often used them to discuss the various elements of Urdu and Persian syntax with his peers and get feedback on his work. His choice of words in several of these letters intentionally plays on the nuanced rhythm of composition and expression. Ghalib created his own rules, freely broke pre-existing structures and yet never ventured too far from them. His style remains simplistic and informal yet never conventional. A wonderful example is his oft-used signoff: ‘Nijaat ka Taalib, Ghalib’.
Perhaps it is this meditative quality that gives letters of creative artists the aesthetic appeal of an art form. Their reflections often betray a sense of humanity that has the power to not only lend a beautiful voice to more intense human experiences like agony, suffering or even exhilaration, but also engage the reader with life’s more banal moments – seemingly unimportant day to day exchanges and inner monologues. To this day they may provide a perspective that extends beyond nostalgia across eras and individuals.
Lessons in these letters may well have the power to play the roles of confidants or even spiritual advisors. For this reason, while he was alive, Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke felt that his correspondence had become an almost moral obligation. His recipients depended on him for sage insights on love, life, sickness, loss, and adversity. These interactions became a significant part of his life and his work, a source of his ‘healing’:
‘This is one experience that has been confirmed repeatedly…I have progressed to it slowly after a fearful, despondent childhood: that the true advances of my life cannot be brought about by force but occur silently, and that I prepare for them while working quietly, with concentration on the things that on a deep level I recognize to be my work.’
Somewhat ironically, Rilke felt that his letters gave him the opportunity of imparting something significant and intimate in an ‘artless and simple’ form rather than adhere to the complexity of literary verse. Early on in his life, he had realized the value of true fulfillment that came from working relentlessly, in solitude, in self-indulgence or in rage. His maxim was to ‘work, work and do nothing but work, and have patience’.
Creative pursuit is a brave and at times even arduous life choice. Tales of writers, artists, and musicians dealing with years of tumultuous moods, terrible uncertainty, intense periods of poverty and a myriad of mental health issues are not uncommon. Perhaps that is why for artists, letters hold an opportunity to interact with a world that is exclusively and intimately theirs. Letters attest to an almost unspoken longing in the artists to let their innermost stories be known to an audience. Where their struggle may have been well documented through their work or via their biographers, their letters give us a more humane and personal means for connecting with their guarded souls – and an opportunity for those who are intrigued by the curious labours of a creative mind.
During the time when Van Gogh was going through the most prolific period of painting in his life, he was also combating paralyzing anxiety and long periods of depression. His only tread away from the crippling isolation his mental anguish brought him were the letters he wrote. It is in these letters that he described his psycho-emotional distress in detail. He writes:
‘Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.’
Van Gogh’s letters are intensely reflective, baring a sliver of a tender and thoughtful soul that was almost invisible under the eccentric, unkempt, and odd exterior that the world around him accepted as his reality. He was very aware that his neighbours and friends saw his eccentricity as madness. Tedious as it was trying to disprove these embellishments on his character, he struggled to maintain his own self-belief despite:
‘I really want to improve. But it’s precisely because I yearn for it that I’m afraid of remedies that are worse than the disease.
What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed, but it’s not to be done in public, however; it’s scarcely entertaining, it’s not cheerful, so it’s a matter of making oneself scarce.
For example, you know that I’ve frequently neglected my appearance, I admit it, and I admit that it’s shocking. But look, money troubles and poverty have something to do with it, and then a profound discouragement also has something to do with it, and then it’s sometimes a good means of ensuring for oneself the solitude needed to be able to go more deeply into the field of study with which one is preoccupied.
It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things…Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.’
For Van Gogh, his despair underlined an almost desperate urgency and a strong willingness to keep his head above the water and carry on creating, especially when his depression overwhelmed him and made him unable to work.
Creating art and throwing themselves into their work is the body and soul for artists – the very source of their vitality. This is a very noticeable refrain in the letter records of several writers, poets, and artists. In one of her early letters from Smith College, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother about the joys of being in a space where she is expected only to write:
‘At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street. Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively…The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work and work to justify all of my opportunities.’
This is a sentiment shared by Ghalib, who confessed to a close friend that ‘the love he had for poetry, he brought with him from eternity.’ Growing up in highly class-conscious society, Ghalib accepted those values as his own and subconsciously even clung to them, even if he found them stifling and never fully integrated with them. He felt a sense of helplessly being at the proverbial mercy of those he was dependent on – family, his mohallay dar, and rulers of the time. His yearning to excel and strive for perfection in his prose and poetry was his only way to ensure his true worth was recognised, even if in posterity. Maybe that compelled him to pen down the following verse, also quoted in one of his letters,
Dard minnat kash-e-dua na huwa, mein na acha huwa, bura na huwa
Kuch tu parhiye, keh loag kehtay hain, aaj ghalib ghazal sara na huwa
(My pain did not seek favors from any opiate; I do not mind the fact that I did not recuperate.
Please recite something at least, for people are remarking that Ghalib did not recite a ghazal today.)
Perhaps the more laborious the efforts of creation, the more fickle its subsequent pleasure becomes. Several artists admit to eventually falling victim to circumstance, often trivializing their creative efforts. Hence a lot of their musings deal with maintaining a transient state of happiness. In one of her journals Plath penned down ‘Perhaps some day I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.’
Van Gogh ponders along similar lines to Theo in one of his letters;
On the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.
Ghalib’s letters coped with adversity or unproductivity in a slightly different way – with sarcasm. In one of his memos exchanged with a close friend Ghalib spoke of his struggles with abject poverty during the month of Ramazan – when he could not get a single wholesome meal on the table for his household. But unlike Van Gogh and Plath, he uses the irony to feel adequate in times like these:
‘…ye mera haal suno, ke be-rizq jeenay ka dhang mujh ko aa gaya hai. Iss taraf se khatir jama rakhna.
Ramazan ka mahina, roza kha kha kar kaata, aainda khuda razaaq hai.
Kuch aur khanay ko na mila, tu gham tu hai!
Bas sahib, jab aik cheez khanay ko howi, agarche’ gham hi ho, tu phir kya gham hai?’
The medium of letter writing holds a certain permanence that electronic communication may not. Van Gogh wrote over eight hundred letters to his friends and family during his short, tortured lifetime. More than half of these were addressed to his brother, Theo Van Gogh. The only gap in correspondence came when Van Gogh lived in Paris for a few years. As Theo also lived in the same city, the brothers had no need to correspond through letters during this time. Perhaps this ‘no need to correspond’ has become our perpetual state in the modern world. We may always be connected, but are hardly “in touch.” Yet, the hope remains that even without the nuanced expression of handwritten letters, our methods of shorthand texting, talking in pictures, or emojis may still bear a torch to our deepest, innermost personalities – albeit one that may need to be decoded somewhat differently. The way we tell our stories may have changed, but the stories don’t have to. Our conversations may be fleeting but the longing does not have to be.
‘Kaghaz nibar gaya, warna tumharey dil ki khushi ke waastay abhi aur likhtay.’