Letters: Shashi Padha

Shashi Padha

Translated from Hindi by Susan Nadolny Nath


Letters are the door to life for soldiers, with one end being the soldier stationed in distant lands and the other being his loved ones. A small envelope is sent with deep love, tears, instructions, promises, and blessings. Today’s younger generation cannot understand its importance, because today is the era of email and WhatsApp. Today, moment by moment, news reaches beyond the seven seas and even crosses mountains. Now, there is neither the agony of despair nor the endless moments of waiting. Whenever you want, the mobile phone button joins you with a loved one.

I am talking of a time before the arrival of mobile phones, when soldiers stationed on the far northeast border or battling the cold peaks of Siachen had only one means of contacting their loved ones—the letter. This letter used to arrive either as a military-blue Inland Letter, on the outside of which was the army stamp, or in a sealed envelope. It is said that both incoming and outgoing letters were reviewed many times for safety before being sent. Receiving letters in the military was like listening to several songs and watching several short dramas being played out. A family with no members in the army could not know the importance of letters.

Soldiers have many stories to tell about their letters. At the time of my marriage, my husband was posted in the Shugar Sector, located on the Indo-China border, which was difficult to reach. Army vehicles crawling along the snowy hills ahead of Shimla used to spend several days reaching their camps. In such an icy state, letters were also transported by helicopter and, that too, only once a week if the weather was permitted. My husband used to joke many times that those who built the helicopter must have been inspired by messages tied to the feet of pigeons. Otherwise, letters would have had to be sent off on the wings of clouds. I knew I must have told him about Kalidasa’s Meghadutam (Cloud Messenger). Otherwise, where would this soldier have acquired such a beautiful imagination?

Here is an idea of the excitement of receiving a letter, in my husband’s words: “Once a week, when the weather was clear, we used to hear the noise of the helicopter coming from far away. The heart rate of perhaps all the soldiers increased on hearing it. The helicopter was on its way not to us but to the base camp, but there was hope that it carried our letter. From the base camp, separate bags of letters for each unit were sent out by military trucks to different places. Sometimes the post arrived in the morning, several hours after the helicopter had been heard. Sometimes the post did not arrive until late evening. While waiting ,the soldiers would do  their daily exercises or listening to film songs on the radio or peeking out of the window for the post’s arrival. In these moments, the black-and-white photograph placed on the chest of drawers in front of you knew all the secrets of your mind. Finally, it was evening and the letters arrived at the camp. Army letters were brought to the officers by their Sahayaks in  their bunkers. God knows how many times they were read by the light of a kerosene lamp!  How the hands of the soldier trembled! After reading them two or four times, or even more than that, he would immediately start the process of sending a reply. Because the fear was that the fabric of the love-dialogue should not break.”

Other soldiers had a different process for receiving letters. In the evening the soldiers would gather at one place, according to company, for roll call. They formed two lines, and the Havildar Major would bring the bag of letters to the front of the lines. The young soldiers would stare up the aisle, closely watching the letter bag with great enthusiasm. The Havildar Major would take out the letters one by one, and a soldier whose name was read would come forward and take his letter. A profound sense of disappointment could be seen on the faces of those whose name was not called. After distribution of the letters, all returned to their bunkers as soon as they got the order to break the line. Some held joy in their hands, whereas others had sadness in their eyes. How many poets must have been born on the mountain peaks at that time, and how many love stories must have been woven! Only the sender and the recipient of the letter would know. Replies to the letters were written right away so that tomorrow’s post would not be missed.

This is the story of “that side.” Now for the story of “this side,” in my words—

The postman who brought letters during my childhood was called Maniram. But in our house we used to call him ‘Uncle’. When Uncle rode his bicycle to the gate of our house on sunny days, we knew that the post had arrived. He would often throw the letters into courtyards or over gates, but the rule of our house was different. It was my responsibility to call him inside and give him a glass of cold lemon water. After drinking the water, Uncle gave me   many blessings. This pattern continued for years. Then, I got married to a military officer. I was still studying in graduate school, and my husband was posted on the Indo-China border with his unit. The only means of contact between me and my husband was—letters.

After my marriage, Uncle’s work had increased a bit. My husband wrote two or three letters a week to me. My letters were never thrown over the gate. Uncle used to ring his cycle bell, and I would run to get my letters from him. Uncle would very fondly say, “Daughter, write our love to Captain Sir.” I listened to him and took the time right then to write my reply. Sometimes Uncle would say, “Today there is no time for lemonade? No problem, even plain water will work.”

Even helicopters could not come every day to those remote mountains to collect the letters, so perhaps the post would not reach its destination for several days. How, then, did the staff of the postal department trim the number of times that two or three letters would come in my name in a day? The irony for Uncle was that he had to come to our area twice a day only to deliver my letters—that is, two different times, at twelve in the morning and three in the afternoon. In the beginning, Uncle would gladly hand me my letter, but when this started happening three to four times a week, many times Uncle would get annoyed and say, “I don’t know what he writes every day. I only have to come so far on such a full afternoon to deliver your letter.” In those days, I could hear little annoyance in his voice. Perhaps the sun god’s wrath was also a little to blame.

I would quietly take the letter from him and give him a glass of water, and he’d say in the same old style, “Please write my love to Captain Sir.” This went on for about two years.

During the Indo-Pak war of 1971, my husband was battling an enemy on the border near Jammu. By then, Uncle Maniram had retired from service. But he used to come to our house every afternoon on his bicycle, sit near me, and say comforting things to me. He used to draw out my worries. Our letters had created such a sweet relationship between the three of us.

Whenever I remember my early married life, Maniram Uncle’s affectionate face comes into view. And I think—

Where’s the sweetness of those relationships in today’s WhatsApp or email?

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