When Mark Twain set off for a cruise in April 1907, bad weather ensured there was no news of him for a few days. The Fourth Estate went into a tizzy. The New York Times speculated he may have been “lost at sea”. Letters began pouring in to the newspaper’s offices singing hosannas about the man, his work, and his possible untimely death. But Twain returned to the Big Apple hale and hearty. And then offered this gem in the form of a letter to the editor of the paper: He offered to “...make an exhaustive investigation of this report that I have been lost at sea. If there is any foundation for the report, I will at once apprise the anxious public.” The reports of his death, he said, had been greatly exaggerated.
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Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene and Jonathan Swift are just some of the great men of letters who penned their views for the letters pages of newspapers. Greene almost had a parallel career as a letter writer for The Spectator and wrote in from datelines across Africa and Latin America.
At our end of the globe, things weren’t all that different. The independence movement was often inspired by the ideas put out by a fast-growing Indian press. Indeed, journalistic writing—which included letter writing—helped give a voice to many political and literary figures. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were famous for their epistolary correspondences with newspapers too.
Internet, TV and reading-unfriendly activities notwithstanding, our newspaper letter writers are still going strong. If, as Arthur Miller said, a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself, he’d be both happy with argumentative Indians and their contributions to the letters section of papers.
Some of the veteran writers have had up to 6,000 letters published, on topics ranging from politics, economics and human rights to cricket, music, cooking and humour.
Jacob Sahayam, who retired as assistant divisional manager from the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, is one of the most prolific among this group of wordsmiths. Sahayam’s very first letter appeared in the India Today magazine in 1987. His byline count is now “a little more than 6,000, and that’s not counting the rejections”.
“I write due to an unstoppable need to express myself, and quite often I find myself not agreeing with what I read in newspapers and magazines,” he says. Sahayam began by commenting on financial affairs, economic policies and “public grievances” such as insurance and education loan issues. His first published letter was on employees’ dearness allowance. “I heard my then maid speak about her husband’s problem when it came to dearness allowance and wrote about it.” In time, Sahayam began to comment on subjects such as children’s and women’s issues.
But what’s the trick to being published so many times? Over years of writing, publication and rejection, Sahayam realized his word limit should not exceed 150-200. “Earlier, publications took 300-word letters too, but now the word limit has gone down,” he says. This letter-writing veteran reads newspapers and magazines at the Trivandrum Public Library.
Ashok Goswami, a Mumbai-based marketing professional who has been writing letters to newspapers since 1977, understands that newspapers have a space crunch, but also wishes exceptions could be made—especially for ideas that affect the public at large. “I think as a people, we Indians don’t speak out and stand up when we (see) some wrong happening. We’re made to live with certain kinds of realities due to the policies of the government,” he says. “But I see to it I’m saying something on an issue that has not been caught or captured by the reporter of an event or issue.” For Goswami, letter writing is a way to address moral questions.
He recalls his years in Punjab in the 1980s and is still proud of the fusillade he sent to newspapers in Chandigarh almost daily on Sikh militancy and state responsibility for the situation, while pointing to the root causes of the conflict. “I write letters because I don’t want to keep quiet if there is injustice going on,” he says. “A really good letter, I feel, should not conform to the views which we get everywhere. It must add something new, give us a new thought.” Goswami has had nearly 500 letters carried in publications across India, and a slice of them have been about everyday grouses such as erratic water supply, overcrowding in local trains and corruption.
If Goswami has endless problems with the “government of India”, Gulshan Kumar Arora reckons he can give readers an “insider’s insight”. Delhi-based Arora retired recently from the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB). A law graduate, he has had letters published in major newspapers in Delhi over the past 15 years. “I write letters to express my frustration as a citizen of this country,” he says. “I’m more interested in bringing to light the misguided policies of the government which go against the common man,” he says, explaining his latest missive about municipal corporation money being utilized for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. “That is our money, has anyone asked us permission to use it?”
“As common citizens, despite things like the RTI, I feel we have no power over our present and future. That’s why I write,” says Arora.
But this doesn’t mean he cuts an eternally grumpy figure. “I love reading about food,” he says, “and also wrote a letter as a response to one of columnist Vir Sanghvi’s dal preparations. I was delighted when the publication published my recipe of thikri ki dal!”
Like other letter writers, Goswami feels the desire to correct the image about his environment and his country. He was so proud of boxer Vijender Singh winning the Olympic bronze medal that he wrote a lengthy letter on how youngsters from rural areas are winning India more accolades than those from big cities. As he goes on, he feels a pinch of regret that he settled for life in the DVB, whereas “journalism would have been so much fun”.
Fellow tribesman C.K. Subramaniam is a missives man unlike all others. He has an opinion on everything related to bat and ball, and he has expressed them in countless letters to the editor.
The retired Syndicate Bank officer in Navi Mumbai says he has “cricket running in his blood”. Not only has he played the sport, he has umpired in the Times Shield, a club-level tourney in Mumbai. He also has a collection of 600 books on the game.
His views on cricketing matters have a touch of reverse-swing to them. “Yuvraj Singh is not a Test-class batsman,” he asserts, referring to India’s woeful performance recently during Muttiah Muralitharan’s last match in Galle, Sri Lanka. “He shouldn’t have been picked.” He doesn’t like the Indian Premier League and believes Brian Lara is a greater cricketer than Sachin Tendulkar.
Subramaniam has arguments on everything from cricket administration to the quality of Indian pitches, and many of these comments have been published.
The one unifying theme for these writers is their exasperation about daily living in contemporary India. Be it bad roads, corruption, dowry deaths, or governmental apathy, the country rarely makes the cut in their eyes. Says Mumbai old-timer Bhagwan Thadani, who has had around 3,500 letters published since 1980, “I react strongly when some injustice is done.” Thadani, who runs his own cement company, is engaged primarily with the city’s issues. The number of letters he’s written about potholes and open drains can fatten many sarkari files. “If you as the citizen don’t speak up, or write about it, no one will care,” he says. “People don’t realize they can have the power to voice their opinion and be heard too.”
All these writers say they adhere to the dictum of “short is sweet”. The letter should be to the point, and invariably with reference to an article in the publication. Have any of their letters gone on to make a difference to the lives of folks around them? Yes and no.
Sahayam recalls, for instance, a letter he wrote many years ago highlighting the crowding and confusion at the State Bank of Travancore branch in Kundra, near Quilon, in Kerala. “Weeks later, not only did State Bank of Travancore write back to me thanking (me) for my suggestions, but it also opened a new counter to ease the flow of clients coming in,” he says.
But even if the letters don’t make a difference, muses Sahayam, “It’s better to have tried than kept quiet.”
And going by the writings of this passionate group, a good newspaper is a nation screaming at itself.