By Yasmeen Aftab Ali
In the soft sunlight of winters, sunning in the back verandah, one could hear the sharp sound of the cycle bell and the doorbell that sounded as the postman pushed the mail with a promising ‘sshhhhh’ sound from under the main door. The pale blue pre-stamped envelopes or the white ones with square brown stamps affixed to them, lying on the floor and sent from assorted cousins and my father’s brothers, both abroad. In case of the latter, the brighter pink stamps showing the face of the queen with her crown, a half faded stamp across her face. Stamps that I would later carefully take off the envelopes and put away in a diary.
Writing of letters takes my mind to Mirza Ghalib, Jane Austen, Paul of Tarsus to name a few. What pieces of art! I especially love one by Mirza Ghalib, written to Munshi Hargopal Tufta, part of which I reproduce, “There is a new phrase in vogue these days — the newnawabs — and it is in common use for both Hindus and Muslims. What happens is that when a man of means dies, his son inherits his wealth. He is surrounded by sycophants, and these despicable people start fawning on him. They tell him that “such and such courtesan is dying for you, such and such nobleman wants to invite you to his palace. It is but fair that you send for that courtesan and invite the noble to your house. This is how one should live. No one takes his riches to the next world. Did your late father take anything with him that you will take yours with you?”
I used to be a phenomenal letter writer in my young age. My desire to virtuously travel to other countries led me to make pen pals from other countries, across cultures. I remember one pen pal Ann from America with particular fondness; I still have most of those letters. Beautiful glimpses in an unseen world. A part of preserving history. I loved the feel of writing on papers. Either white or pale blue, no margins. A soft gloss to the surface that made the pen flow. Later, to cater to different tastes many types of letter writing pads found their way in the market. These ranged from tasteful variety from the one with white background and a delicate blue forget-me-not at one side to pale pink paper turning into darker pink at the other end, cluttered with flying doves, multi coloured butterflies and in some designs with Urdu verses, the type one usually reads on colourful Pakistani trucks. One verse I recall clearly in spite of the decades that have slipped by:
Kal chodween ki raat thi balti mein tera aks dekha,
Aur phir balti hila hila kar rat bhar tera raks dekha
I never met Begum Hafiza, my paternal grandmother, the granddaughter of the Nawab of Gandara. A woman of reputed startling beauty with a height of five feet and ten inches. She was married to my grandfather Syed Yousuf Ali, a Judge from Hyderabad Deccan, three inches shorter to her in height.
He was the scion of the family of Hazrat Syed Shah Abdul Razaqq Banswi of Bansa Sharif to whom the House of Farangi Mahal were designated Khalifas.
She died an early death, way before my father was married. My father, and his two brothers, were brought up by my eccentric grandfather in a house with no female presence. I came to know this amazing woman through her letters written to my father. At that time, she was still in Hyderabad Deccan with her husband and my father had come to Pakistan to look for a job. A young man in his early twenties. Going through my father’s library, I came across the bundle of letters that revealed my grandmother to me. The family politics. I laughed, I cried and smiled as I read those letters. To this day, they remain a cherished possession, locked away in a box that originally belonged to my paternal grandfather. Her love for my father, whom she called Chand, and Chand he remained for the rest of his life, reflected itself in her writings. Every four days delay from my father in sending a letter to her merited at least two from her expressing her concern at the delay. Though these letters may not amount to much for others, it introduced to me my grandmother, her strong likes and dislikes and the strength of her character.
Jane Austen was a prodigious letter writer. Most of those that survived are addressed to her much loved sister Cassandra. Most of her letters are deposited at The Morgan, and the department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts has nearly two-thirds of her letters. Laura Boyle traces the exquisite history of love letters and talks at length about them in her beautifully written piece, The History of Love Letters. She writes, “The nineteenth century spawned the great private love letters of Beethovan to his “Immortal Beloved”, as well as the literary romance of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett.”
Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s first letter to Jawahar Lal Nehru is a piece of art. I share an excerpt:
“Pundit-ji, this is the season for babbogoshas. I’ve eaten lots of goshas, but I long to eatbabbogoshas. What injustice that you’ve given Bakshi all the rights over them and he does not send me even a few as a gift! Well, let the gift go to hell, babbogoshas too… No, on a second thought, let them be. Actually, I wanted to ask you: Why don’t you read my books? If you’ve read them, I’m sorry to say that you’ve never appreciated them. However, it is more regrettable if you have not read them at all, because you are a writer yourself.
“I have one more grievance against you. You’re stopping water from flowing in our rivers, and taking a cue from you, the publishers in your capital are hurriedly publishing my books without my permission. Is this proper? I thought that no such unseemly act could be perpetrated under your regime. You can find out right away how many publishers in Delhi, Lucknow, and Jallundhar have pirated my books. Several suits have already been filed against me on charges of obscenity. But look at the injustice that in Delhi, right under your nose, a publisher brings out the collection of my stories and calls it The Obscene Stories of Manto.”
The letter is tongue-in-cheek, naughty and pinches where it is supposed to pinch.
As we live in a digital age, the letters are no more. E-mails, WhatsApp, Viber etc have uprooted letter writing. Whereas geographically these forms of digital communication have brought people closer, it has taken away for us a part of our self, our roots. I read somewhere and completely agree with the thought, “Loquacious letters and epistolary exchanges between authors are falling by the wayside in the digital age – and readers and literary estates are all the poorer for it.”