internet culture

You’ve got mail: Two Indian women are putting literature and letter-writing into a nostalgic package

A weekly newsletter, Daak celebrates the written word and the subcontinent’s cultural heritage.

In 1930, Salim Ali, an ornithologist with the soul of a poet, took a walk in a woods in Maharashtra on a Sunday morning and was overwhelmed by this “other world within our world”. He wrote an essay about the natural world and how the birds, animals and trees live harmoniously in the wilderness.

Eighty-seven years later, a passage from this essay was used by Onaiza Drabu and Prachi Jha to inaugurate a project that aims to create a world of its own. Their initiative – called Daak – is a weekly newsletter which celebrates the written word and the lost art of letter-writing. Every weekend a digital postcard is sent to 400 subscribers with a quote, nugget of information or a limerick from little-known stories, artworks and poems by writers, authors and activists who have shaped the Indian subcontinent’s cultural heritage.

Inspired idea

The first postcard, sent out last May, was composed of a single line from Ali’s essay, written in cursive on a background of yellowing postcard: “A monsoon ramble through the woods will delight anyone who has the eyes to see and the soul to wonder at the romance and charm of this other world within our world.”

“Salim Ali writes beautifully about being patient with nature and letting yourselves discover things slowly,” said Jha. “...He has contributed extensively to the study of birds and after we sent this postcard out, we had many people writing in to tell us that they had never even heard of him.”

Humour and Defiance: Ismat Chughtai and ‘The Lihaf Trial’. Image courtesy: Daak.
Humour and Defiance: Ismat Chughtai and ‘The Lihaf Trial’. Image courtesy: Daak.

Jha and Drabu met at the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University, Haryana, in 2013 and a friendship based on their mutual love of literature was forged. They began to exchange emails containing pieces of writing, songs and poetry the other enjoyed.

“For the longest time we had been complaining that there isn’t a place where we can go and find this kind of content, so we decided to start building something ourselves,” said 31-year-old Jha, director at Life Lab Education and Research Foundation, a non-profit that connects students and teachers with scientific organisations. “We kept the core idea, which is uncovering writers, artists and poets from the Indian subcontinent, but added this theme of letters and postcards, [which] we are both fond of, and that became our central theme.”

Jha and 27-year-old Drabu started experimenting with the format and content while sending the postcards to family and friends and a few others. “We needed feedback,” said Drabu, a social policy consultant at UNICEF.

A Colourful But Perilous World: Bhojpuri Sayings from Fallon’s Dictionary of Hindustani Proverbs. Image courtesy: Daak.
A Colourful But Perilous World: Bhojpuri Sayings from Fallon’s Dictionary of Hindustani Proverbs. Image courtesy: Daak.

The postcard is sent with a quote printed in cursive on the left side and a few words on the right from Jha and Drabu, offering the context and a brief explanation. The body of the email is a short note on the writer with a link to the full text of the chosen story or poem.

Starting conversations

Since Ali’s essay, they have sent out words written by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore and author Ismat Chugtai, among others.

“We are not focused entirely on high-brow literature,” said Jha. “We are trying to uncover ideas. We have covered Gandhi’s letters exhorting Adolf Hitler to avoid war, a humourous poem by British-born Indian scientist, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, on living with cancer that eventually claimed his life.”

A Lively Irreverence in the Face of Death: J. B. S. Haldane’s ‘Cancer is a Funny Thing’. Image courtesy: Daak.
A Lively Irreverence in the Face of Death: J. B. S. Haldane’s ‘Cancer is a Funny Thing’. Image courtesy: Daak.

In the letters to Hitler, Gandhi asks the German to shun the method of war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. “Much has been speculated about whether these letters actually reached Hitler. Sadly, most sources point to the fact they never did, most likely because of interception by British authorities,” says the accompanying note.

When they started, Drabu and Jha did not really have a target audience in mind, but over the past few months, they have seen unlikely readers take an interest in Daak. “We had our first event on February 11 at the OddBird theatre in Delhi – a poetry reading session in eight different languages – and the audience that showed up there was completely different from anything we had in mind,” said Drabu. “These were people who were lawyers, or those working in the corporate sector, businessmen and most of them were non-readers who had just come there to experience poetry. They had this sense of appreciation for poetry and regional language but just not the time to read it, so a lot of them started following our blog and wrote to us telling us that it’s easily readable and that they have been looking for something like Daak.”

Postcards from the Attic For the sake of humanity: Gandhi’s Letter to Hitler. Image courtesy: Daak.
Postcards from the Attic For the sake of humanity: Gandhi’s Letter to Hitler. Image courtesy: Daak.

Daak has also found a large audience among Indians living abroad and students of South Asian studies, who have written in with suggestions on who or what could be included in the letters.

“For regional literature we have really depended a lot on our readers and our mentors,” said Jha “It’s not like we already had a big bank of knowledge but are in the process of uncovering writers, authors, movements, artists and pieces.”

Daak has featured posts written originally in Assamese, Kannada, Bhojpuri and Kashmiri, among others. One such post is by Assamese poet Hiren Bhattarcharyya which has been translated by Pradip Acharya into English.

Poems from His Earth: Hiren Bhattacharyya’s poetry of nature. Image courtesy: Daak.
Poems from His Earth: Hiren Bhattacharyya’s poetry of nature. Image courtesy: Daak.

“His poetry brings up the lush imagery of nature; of paddy fields, of waves of green, of ripples in the air and of gushing rains.... The Internet tells us that he added the word ‘shosyoghran’, a beautiful word for the smell of harvest, to the Assamese dictionary,” the post informs the reader.

After receiving many requests for physical postcards, Drabu and Jha sent out around 70 postcards to their readers’ homes in February. “We did it as a thank you to our readers really, but maybe we will continue doing this if there is consistent demand for it,” said Jha.

Longing for the Divine: Manikkavacakar’s Bhakti Poems. Image courtesy: Daak.
Longing for the Divine: Manikkavacakar’s Bhakti Poems. Image courtesy: Daak.
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