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What Urdu writers teach us about the art of letter writing

From Mirza Ghalib to Safia Akhtar, Urdu writers have, through generations, elevated letters to the level of literature

Urdu calligraphy and pens.
Urdu calligraphy and pens.

Letters are now a nostalgic pastime. The “art of letter writing”, we call it wistfully, mostly because we detest the brief, auto-prompt sentences we write today. Poet Agha Shahid Ali, in his poem Stationery, reminds us that letters are indeed an art—

The moon did not become the sun.

It just fell on the desert

in great sheets, reams

of silver handmade by you.

The night is your cottage industry now,

the day is your brisk emporium.

The world is full of paper.

Write to me.

Distance is a recurring theme in Ali’s work. Almost every other poem speaks of separated lovers, a fractured homeland, or exile. But Ali also narrows that distance, fills it with words dispatched across continents. His most famous collection, The Country Without A Post Office, literally makes letters into a symbol of healing and hope. As letters and postcards bridge the expanses within his poems, they become essential and inevitable.

But beneath his stanzas, there seem to be the scaffoldings of another form—of letter writing itself. In the Urdu literary tradition, which he drew from heavily, it isn’t uncommon for writers’ letters to be published as literary, rather than archival, works. The letters are more than functional. To me, they seem self-conscious of form and voice, and of the understanding that their appeal might persist through time.

The poetic correspondence between Dagh Dehlvi and his courtesan lover Hijab, or Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s letters to his wife Alys (the latter were written in English), show us that letter writing was not seen as something outside the writer’s “real work”. The letters might have been private, but were penned with attention to cadence, style, structure.

In the Urdu literary tradition, it isn’t uncommon for writers’ letters to be published as literary, rather than archival, works.

The patron saint of Urdu literature, the 19th century poet Mirza Ghalib, was himself an epistolary rebel. He shed the Persian-inflected formality of letter writing and instead allowed his letters to steep in the heat and irrationality of everyday emotion. At the same time, he quoted other poets and verses from the Quran, adding citations and allusions in a manner we tend to associate with the modern essay. And yet, through it all, his letters remain exceptionally funny. Ghalib even holds his reader through his irritations about the way he looks or how he has been plagiarized. Today, his letters—once articulations of his loneliness—are often touted as lessons in how to craft language.

In a letter to the poet Mirza Hatim Ali Beg “Mihr”, Ghalib writes about losing a dancing girl with whom he had an affair: “My friend, we Mughal types are devastating—the one whom we’re dying for, we end up killing. I too am a Mughal type. In the course of my life I too have killed a very cruel dancing girl…Fortunately I’ve abandoned that path; I’ve become a mere stranger to that (lover’s) art. But even now sometimes I remember those coquetries.”

Ghalib’s self-reflexivity is disarming. He makes fun of himself and his past flings, while speaking of a subject as mournful as heartache. He also mocks a culture of men destroying their most passionate relationships—“we Mughal types are devastating.” It’s a fascinating combination of informality and cultural commentary. A little later, he concludes by quoting a Persian verse, encouraging his friend to give up the “turmoil” of worldly passion in favour of God. It’s an instruction that’s meant to last beyond the letter’s intended recipient.

Where Ghalib’s letters give us philosophical lessons, Safia Akthar’s letters, a century later, tell us that the heart is a messy experience. Considered by some to be among the finest works of non-fiction in modern Urdu literature, Akhtar’s letters to her husband, the poet Jan Nisar Akhtar, are astoundingly beautiful. Their literary merit was spotted early on. In 1955, only two years after Safia died, her letters were published in two volumes—Harf-e-Ashna and Zer-e-Lab.

A statue of Mirza Ghalib at Jamia Millia Islamia. Photo: Xangrer Khan/Wikimedia Commons.
A statue of Mirza Ghalib at Jamia Millia Islamia. Photo: Xangrer Khan/Wikimedia Commons.

Safiya began writing to Jan Nisar in 1943. But when he moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1949, to try and make it as a film lyricist, her letters changed. Safia had stayed back in Bhopal to keep her teaching job at a local college. Over the next four years, she wrote to her husband several times a week, giving him advice, promising to send money, asking him to return, confessing her grief that he hadn’t come to see her. Through the course of the correspondence, she also developed a disease (probably skin cancer) and the withering of her body colours her letters with another sadness.

She mirrors her life in the trope of separated lovers that is often found in Urdu poetry: “Come Akhtar! Let me flow in your veins. I have prayed long and hard to make you mine. Seven years have gone by and for the most part we have been separated…Akhtar, I desire your companionship and you want to send me a million miles away! I am truly scared of your lyrical style of love. My very own Akhtar! Come, take me to you, hide me within you in such a way that I may not exist outside of you. Let there just be you and me within you.”

Safia embraces the confessional mode and allows herself to speak in an elevated voice. The prose seems vulnerable precisely because it is intense; it is moulded to actually do something—to bring back her beloved, to convince him that she is worth loving beyond the unrequited “lyrical style” immortalized by verse.

Anatomically, letters are formed of direct addresses—a pact between a sender and a particular reader. In that way, they are perhaps the most intimate form of writing. But in these Urdu letters there often seems to be room for a third person—the unknown reader, us. This isn’t to say that the letters were not written in a cloister of privacy, or that they betrayed the person to whom they were addressed. But they seem to form a tradition in which letters were more than messages, they were literature.

Poorna Swami is a poet, dancer and writer based in Bengaluru.

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