Men of letters

Men of letters
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First Published: Fri, Jan 29 2010. 10 53 PM IST

Pen friends: Natwar Singh (left) and E.M. Forster in 1954. Courtesy Natwar Singh
Pen friends: Natwar Singh (left) and E.M. Forster in 1954. Courtesy Natwar Singh
Updated: Fri, Jan 29 2010. 10 53 PM IST
In the course of a rich and eventful career as a diplomat and then a politician, K. Natwar Singh wrote and received many letters. The selection in Yours Sincerely mostly comprises letters that well-known people, from India and abroad, wrote to him. Among them are Indira Gandhi, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, C. Rajagopalachari and writers E.M. Forster, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Nirad Chaudhuri. The letters offer a peep into some of the more fascinating personalities of the second half of the 20th century. Edited excerpts from an interview:
In one of his letters to you, EM Forster refers to your making a long-distance phone call to him, and says that he prefers letters.
Pen friends: Natwar Singh (left) and E.M. Forster in 1954. Courtesy Natwar Singh
We were trying to bring out a book of tributes on Forster’s 85th birthday, with contributions by Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, myself and others. The publisher said that was not enough and that we needed to include some of Forster’s own writings. It looked like the whole thing could fall through, so I rang him up from New York. He didn’t have a phone in his room in King’s College in Cambridge and there was also the time difference between England and the US. So he was quite irritated; I could understand his irritation.
What contributed more to your friendship with Forster—seeing him in person or corresponding with him?
I saw him quite often when I was in Cambridge. In those days, you wrote letters even if you were in the same town. I was at Corpus Christi College and he was at King’s College, just 5 minutes away, but we wrote letters to each other.
If you lived so close to each other, where was the need for letters?
Forster belonged to a generation where the telephone had just caught on. He never had a telephone, which at the time was true of most people. So letter writing was the great literary activity of the time. After I left Cambridge, we kept in touch over letters.
How was Forster as a person?
He was 75 and I was 25, but he treated me as an equal, which is the way he treated everyone else. Whether you were young or old, or important or unimportant did not matter to him. He was a great company to people he warmed up to. But with those he thought were uppity, he could be quite firm.
In a letter to you, C Rajagopalachari says that Forster and other English liberals held a patronizing view of India.
I did not agree with him. On the contrary, Forster was very warm towards Indians. The English establishment was critical of Forster because they felt that he was anti-empire. He had no sense of superiority and was exceptionally open-minded.
Forster’s novels are set before World War I and he died in 1970. Did he ever talk about the way the world was changing?
In a letter he wrote to me when I was in China, he says that the world is changing and all the values he grew up with are being neglected. And he didn’t want to outlive them.
Do you write letters any more?
People now use mobile phones, fax and email. Even if they do write, it is just three or four lines. Now, it’s all businesslike, all over the world. Letter writing is under severe attack.
Any thoughts on the death of the letter?
It is taking something away from our lives. You can’t arrest the growth of technology, but it is also demolishing a lot of things which are valuable. Letter writing is one of them. Nowadays, you have this abridgement of language in SMS messages and fantastic-sounding email addresses—“yahoo.com”. It sounds weird to me.
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First Published: Fri, Jan 29 2010. 10 53 PM IST