Thursday, 4 October 2012


The discovery of a bunch of letters written in the 1990s brings back good memories of a bygone decade - and offers some lessons about life as well.

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then the one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

Seldom had the the words of the British rock bank Pink Floyd's famous song Time so much personal resonance for me as from the moment I got hold of a bunch of letters that I had written in long hand over a three-year period in the mid-1990s.

The correspondence abruptly stopped just before December 1996, the month the addressee of the letters relocated from Calcutta to Delhi as my young bride and a roller-coaster love story spanning the two cities came to a happy end.

Despite their strong romantic association for me, the letters too abruptly stopped to exist in the deep recesses of my mind, possibly out of relief that a sense of closure had been achieved.

Or so it seemed until last month, when they were handed over to me in a large brown envelope in which my wife found them inside a drawer of what was once her study desk.

It is not that all this while she had no inkling that the letters lay somewhere in her parents' home in Calcutta; other preoccupations simply took precedence over launching an all-out search for them.

Going through the entirely one-sided correspondence during a recent afternoon filled me predictably with nostalgia for our courtship days, though I am not sure I want to turn back time to the phase when a weekly, long-distance landline phone call was the only way to keep our fragile relationship going.

On a more philosophical level, however, reading the letters heightened my sensitivity to two things that are easy to lose sight of amid the daily business of life: the transient nature of happiness and youth and the pointlessness of petty rivalry in the long run.

How time flies!

Most of the said letters were mailed from a small post office tucked inside one of the many obscure lanes that crisscross Connaught Place, a showpiece of Edward Lutyen's Delhi and one of the Indian capital's top heritage structures.

The Inner Circle of Connaught Place was not just my office for three years from July 1994 onwards; it was practically the place where I lived, considering the abnormally long hours I spent in the office, first as a staff writer and then as the copy chief of what was then India’s premier fortnightly newsmagazine.

The phrase "how time flies!" may be a cliché among people in their forties or older, but it is nevertheless the expression that best sums up my sentiments as I ponder the contents of my letters, exactly 18 years after I started writing them.

Looking back, I wonder if there was no way at all to make time stand still, so that my fond recollections of my Delhi days would not have turned so quickly into faint memories of a bygone decade: brisk walks through the Connaught Place central park (under which the metro rail station is now located) to the famous confectioners, Wenger's and Keventer's, for a quick bite; frequent trips in big groups to Delhi Press Club for a delicious lunch of chicken and rice; exploring the monuments in the Lodi Gardens and Hauz Khas area with my mother; spending lazy afternoons window shopping on Janpath or in the South Extension markets.

I am glad that I am able, as a frequent visitor to Delhi and a part-time resident of Gurgaon, to drop in on my old colleagues - the few that remain anyway - in the magazine's office regularly enough.

The face time I get with them, as also with other friends and former colleagues residing in Delhi and its suburbs, enables me to reconnect with a past that is far from dead and which, in the absence of any photographs, I continue to view through rose-coloured spectacles.

Disappearing faces

Eighteen years being a fairly short time by the standards of the rise and fall of nations, one would not normally expect a city to undergo significant structural transformation.

But Delhi's rapid infrastructure development has meant parts of the metropolis are all but unrecognisable to people visiting it after a long gap.

As a result, a journey from the Mayur Vihar township in East Delhi to my old office in Connaught Place in the present age of the Delhi Metro is a very different experience compared with one undertaken in 1995.

That office happily continues to be located in the landmark F-Block building endowed with the famous red signboard on top, the same modest entrance and the same paan seller in front.

However, in keeping with the ephemeral nature of any organisation's staff relative to its geographical location, the old familiar faces inside the building are almost all gone.

I was a callow journalist in 1994 who had just moved from the boondocks of Calcutta to the leafy avenues of New Delhi.

All I was hoping to achieve then was a measure of career stability in order to make the transformation from daughter to daughter-in-law as smooth as possible for the girl I was in love with.

Today, after having worked 15 years in the Gulf and become the owner of a tiny piece of the Indian capital region's real-estate dream, it is hard for me to say that I am ready to trade places with my young old self again.

Still, I cannot help contemplating if there doesn't exist some special magic by which I can be both financially secure and a 29-year-old once again, be the thrifty father of two children and also a carefree shopper, to have a wi-fi-enabled smartphone at my disposal and yet boast a full head of dark-black hair.

Fanciful thoughts aside, the dilemma of how to square the loss of one's youth with the concomitant improvements in one's material circumstances is something every adult inevitably has to grapple with at some point of their life.

Petty politicking

Though the letters to my then college-going girlfriend are, in retrospect, chiefly a lesson in the fleetingness of time, I blush to think about the silliness of embellishing them as I did with accounts of office politics in excruciating detail.

There is no denying that the animosities and jealousies that kept the powerful editors of the newsmagazine in a perpetual state of hostility were the stuff of 1990s' Delhi media lore.

A junior editor like me who had a ringside view of the fierce professional one-upmanship could hardly have been expected to leave these juicy bits out of his correspondence with a girl.

The jousting and sniping of the time strictly followed Sayre's Law, which states that "in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue".

Viewed in the cold light of hindsight, however, my descriptions of the acrimonious debates that characterised the preparation of nearly every issue of the magazine sound comical at best and ridiculous at worst.

For better or worse, the senior editors of the time have long moved on to even more powerful positions in the industry, leaving behind their coveted office spaces for a new generation of journalists to occupy and, for all I know, to carry on sparring.

Coming full circle

Luckily for me, I did not miss what Pink Floyd metaphorically called "the starting gun", be it in the matter of marrying and starting a family or latching on to more exciting job opportunities.

And while it is true that I am now "older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death", there has been no cause for contemplating - at least as of now - my own mortality.

In the mid-1990s, such an outcome seemed plausible but by no means preordained.

Indeed, had the trajectories of my wife's life and mine proceeded in different directions 16 years ago, the trove of letters that prompted me to write this personal essay might have met a quick and fiery end.

I fear they would have been reduced to ashes in the most melodramatic fashion in the event the young girl in Calcutta decided willy-nilly to end our long-distance relationship and become someone else's wife.

Call it destiny or fate, the letters have instead come back nearly intact into my possession, bringing the story of the most exciting phase of my life so far full circle to the present.