Readers wrote letters to the editor — and they still do — because they wanted to express an opinion, vent or just see their name in print. This was their space. In India, most editors agree, the art of letter writing has plummeted. Perhaps the imperative to win the argument in our polarised times has resulted in communication being replaced by polemic.
My source in this newspaper tells me that it was the poor quality of letters combined with a shrinking pool of letter writers that led to the quiet burial of the letters column sometime in April.
Even though I hadn’t noticed — I was getting mail in my inbox after all — I couldn’t help feeling a little sad.
Call me old-fashioned, or just old, but I grew up at a time when the Letters to the Editor was an essential part of the newspaper business.
My father wrote only once, to complain to the editor of his favourite daily (sadly not this one) about its tasteless coverage of the death of a pilot in an aircrash. The pilot was his friend. The publication of his letter seemed to mollify him a bit, and the paper remained my father’s daily habit until his death.
Readers wrote — and in the best newspapers around the world they still do — because they wanted to express an opinion, vent, complain or just see their name in print. This was their space. Your space.
“I have always played up reader’s letters, especially the negative,” says Krishna Prasad, editor, Outlook, which devotes three to five pages each issue to letters because the ‘reader is at the centre of our universe’. Nor does Prasad mind a good scrap. “From heat and dust emerges light and engagement,” he says.
But letters are just as essential to writers. Finding things to write about is the easy part of a journalist’s life, particularly in India with its unending tableau of stories, both fabulous and fantastic. But when word limits are exhausted and deadlines loom, every writer who presses ‘send’ must wonder: Who is reading me? Who cares?
Letters are what connect writers with readers. Over time we form bonds with our regulars. Mine include the retired Air Force officer who wants me to call him ‘uncle’ (not sure how to respond to that one); the journalist from Dehradun who shares my concerns about what he calls ‘equity, equality and gender issues’ and the charming MPS Chadha from Mohali who informs me that he has, over 40 years, written 25,000 letters in English, Punjabi and Hindi because he has an ‘urge towards observing all-round reformation’.
To hear these voices is proof of human connection. No number of thumbs up ‘likes’ hastily clicked can ever substitute for the care of a single letter — even if it is to advise you to move west since your writing is ‘poisoning the minds of our kanyas’ as a reader recently wrote to me.
Letters are also an exercise in humility. We think we write from an informed point of view, but sometimes knowledge falls short and, well, “your mother might think you’re the next Truman Capote and then you’ll hear from the reader in Patna who thinks you’re only fit to write restaurant menus,” laughs a Singapore-based sportswriter. I certainly thought I was being smart when I once wrote about the ‘cheers from the cheap seats’. My readers pointed out that I was being elitist. They were right and I was shown my place.
Most editors must envy The New York Times, which, says letters editor Thomas Feyer, receives on average 1,000 letters a day and welcomes ‘opinion from all sides: the majority, the dissenters, the contrarians’.
In India, most editors agree, the art of letter writing has plummeted. Perhaps attention spans are shorter. Perhaps writers have newer mediums for self-expression on social media. Perhaps the imperative to win the argument in our polarised times has resulted in communication being replaced by polemic.
I tend to respond to my letters. Unlike anonymous and frequently abusive comments, letter writers use their personal emails (and some will helpfully attach photographs) that tend to give the correspondence a shade of civility, even if they are berating you.
And of course, every once in a while, you will get that lucky gem: Wit.
In response to a cover story in Outlook called ‘God is back’, one reader wrote in: “I was always here. Where were you?”
(The author tweets from the handle:@namitabhandare. The views expressed are personal)