Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A box of letters

Recently, my mom was appointed to be the half hostess of a "family chat show", organized for her cousin's 75th birthday. She was supposed to interview him on his life, while a representative from his wife's family did the same for her. Taking her role as a hostess very seriously, my mom skipped work on Saturday and "studied" for the interview. :)

It was during this study that I accidentally stumbled upon an old box of yellowed letters. These letters were written to my grandma by her siblings, who resided all over India and abroad. My aaji handed that box over to my aai before she died (with permission to read its contents, also extended to me).
First, I came across a neatly written essay, dated 7th July 1933. It was about a caged bird, narrating its story. "I have a lot to eat, no fear of predators, but I have no freedom!", it said, written in a beautiful hand. I don't know who it was. Must have been my aaji or one of her siblings.

The letters that followed, were full of pain. My aaji's decision to marry my grandfather was extremely controversial at the time (it would be even now). Her letters to her siblings must have carried a lot of justification because their replies were full of calm counseling. I read those letters and I could slowly put together the reasons behind their life long chemistry. I watched them too late in life. But even then, the distribution of affection was justified now, that I read these letters.

It is remarkable how this art of writing letters has vanished with my generation. My aaji's eldest brother maintained a letter-log. He made a note of all the letters he had received and replied to, in a dated book, so that none of them were left unanswered. He used to sew together small booklets of coloured paper during his extended stays at various places, and send those booklets as letters. Each letter opens with, "Your letter dated XXX arrived on YYY"". I find that adorable. Who cares about these things anymore? Perhaps these letters read so calm because their writers took their time to ruminate, consult and mull over the situations at hand. Maybe some letters never reached aaji because they were torn between their conception and delivery. Maybe some of them were too harsh, too negative, too disappointed or disappointing?

 It takes so much of "thinking about someone else" to even begin writing a letter. It has something from your side and then it has something for the receiver. You have to take active interest in their lives, their kid's progress at school, their spouse's well being, their marital joy (or the lack of it), their employment and promotions. You have to be polite, use appropriate salutations (especially for the elders in the family), make sure that everyone in their family is mentioned in the letter. It reads like a task that would most definitely help you detach from your own life. And isn't that such a wonderful thing?

In one of those letters, my aaji's elder sister consoled her by quoting a shloka from the Mahabharata.  
God does not protect us like a shepherd would protect his flock, by pushing them forward. He protects us by giving us reason (to act). With that reason (and the subsequent actions), we protect ourselves.
It is a poetic thought for a depressed sister. But over the years, I have come to believe that many of our personal decisions in life are inspired, not by rational thought but by a strong emotion. People are very good at rationalizing their emotions. Sometimes, we rationalize what we really want to do. Sometimes we rationalize not doing what we ought to do, because we do not have enough courage to do it. Sometimes we rationalize our choices because we envy someone who has done exactly the opposite and seems incredibly happy. Sometimes we rationalize because we are tied down by fate. But these rational fences don't work until we are truly at peace with ourselves. And it takes great courage to be at peace. I think towards the end, my grandmother was truly at peace with her choice. These letters just introduced me to her inner turmoil, when she was probably as old as I am now.

Reading these letters made me realize why I wanted to return home. I just woke up on a Saturday morning, already knowing that I wanted to go back to India. I still had eight months in the United States before I could actually return. Nothing changed my mind during that time. I was astonished at this sudden clarity because it had never happened before. But over this past one year, although I have come up with a million reasons why  returning home is the right choice, and, if pitched against someone with an industry job in the US, I would also have a million reasons why this is not the right choice, I know the difference. The difference is that I am at peace here. And any amount of rational thought is ineffective in undoing that peace.