Letters are curious things. Or, I should say, “were” curious things. For they are, as a genre, almost gone now. Like fountain pens have gone, and all the bric-a-brac of a writing desk: the glass ink-stand with two “wells”, one for blue-black ink, the other for red, the boat-shaped blotter, the sawdust pin-cushion with rusting pins sunk deep in them. Letters that used to be written or opened and read on those desks are gone, now.

Those “letters” were, needless to say, real letters from real people. Not the pile of junk that still arrives with a thud at one’s door, bringing impersonal invitations from unfamiliar organisations, magazines, journals I do not want to see, much less touch or read. These and their ilk I bin without even trying to open.

“Letters” meant those folds of paper that came in envelopes or inland letter forms or postcards from people who mattered, whose feelings meant something, whose thoughts and words brought something to cherish or – to sorrow over, lament. These were not written out of some notion of courtesy or formality or compulsion. They in fact wrote themselves.

Are the kind of people who wrote them gone, too? Not so. They are there. One is not friendless! But the mode has changed, perhaps, for all time. Letters have become “mail”, e-mail. They come electronically, with all the sincerity but without the warmth of a pen’s touch on paper, the sharp cut of a word that has been cancelled, the furriness of a word that has been written over its parent to stress something or make the shape more legible, the “me-too” snuggle of a word inserted between two, like a bus-passenger wanting to squeeze herself between persons already seated. These interpolations were vital for the thought they brought in and for the way they came in – like the tip-toe of an afterthought, an after-pulse.

Such letters were preserved for their writers were who they were, for the letters said what they said.

Tearing them up was not possible, at least not for the moment. And so they would stay, placed in some sandook, some drawer or box-under-the-bed. If one received many of those, regularly and abundantly, one even had a shelf of them, with files or folders for each letter-writer.

And so I cannot agree with K Natwar Singh when he says in his Treasured Epistles (Rupa, 2018) “As a people we are not given to preserving letters”. He of course says without saying so in as many words that he himself disproves his statement – with elan. The book has a selection of letters that he received from ten individuals – five writers and five “others”, two of them being former Governors General of India, and three descendants, all female, of Motilal Nehru – Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Krishna Hutheesing and finally, and most significantly, Indira Gandhi.

All the correspondents are now long gone.

They show the strong bond the writers of the “epistles” – an archaism that suits the compiler’s sense of his own chronology – had with the recipient of the letters. He is “My dear Natwar” in almost all of them, when he is not “Natwar dear” or “Dearest Natwar”. And all of them say something about the writer, which trait of the epistles has to be the main justification of the compilation. EM Forster is at his Forster best (“…I am pretty gloomy…Gloomers are bores”…), Mulk Raj Anand boring without saying that of himself, RK Narayan vulnerable in his cheerfulness (“ I have been very busy. Don’t ask ‘What were you busy about?’. I am not able to give a coherent explanation”), Nirad Chaudhuri petulance personified (“English printers have become so illiterate…”), Han Suyin vaporous, vague and vexed by life. Mountbatten’s letters are charmingly full of himself, Rajagopalachari’s replete with his mordant wit ( “…Ved Mehta...filled the whole time with…questions…all based on calumnies he had collected in advance!”). The Nehru family letters show the frailty of fame.

Natwar Singh has written, for each correspondent, a compact and telling pen-portrait that neither glorifies nor justifies the writer. He is a nail-file biographer, in the Jaipur or Basohli miniature style.

The book raises some thoughts :

Should letters written with the nib of trust dipped in the ink-well of confidence be brought out into the glare of a harsh sun?

If, in the interests of hagiography, yes, they should be, should this be done not by the recipient but another?

Perhaps, so, but then…by whom? Would that “another” have the sensitivity, the “connect”, the perspective of the recipient ?

Is a book of letters to oneself ultimately about oneself ?

Through these troublesome questions, K Natwar Singh takes his reader into his animated world. Rather like Mowgli through the jungle with its essentially feckless fauna and flora.