The only thing more fun than reading a letter is to pore over one addressed to someone else. Like forbidden fruit, it tastes sweeter. This is why K. Natwar Singh’s latest book, Yours Sincerely, is such a pleasure.
It’s a collection of epistles from people as varied as Indira Gandhi, E.M. Forster, Han Suyin, Nadine Gordimer, Kenneth Kaunda and AK Antony. The only problem is that in most cases Natwar’s forgotten to publish what he wrote to them. Even if this makes the correspondence a trifle one-sided, it still reveals delectable nuggets that can add sparkle to a cold January day.
Indira Gandhi’s comments on her contemporaries are a hoot. Of Harold Wilson she writes “I wish he had more sense of humour.” Of Lord Mountbatten, whom she calls “incorrigible”: “he is friends with all the wrong sort of people.” And of Morarji Desai who, at the time, was threatening a fast-unto-death: “Our difficulties are acute and varied enough without having a dead Morarji haunting the scene.”
The description of Subramanian Swamy, written in the middle of the Emergency, betrays as much of Indira Gandhi’s own rancour as it captures something of the man. “In India he has no influence whatsoever,” she starts. “He has not been a success in Parliament and there are often sniggers when he gets up.” Then she adds: “He seems to have a complex of some kind and is aggressive in a defensive way, if you know what I mean.”
The letters reveal Mrs Gandhi’s impish sense of humour. Commiserating over Natwar’s slipped disc, she says: “Do you remember when the same thing happened to K.P.S. Menon? He had to stand in a very artistic Ajanta pose for quite some time.” Of Pokhran I: “Our own blast has been successful…however, the blast from other countries is pretty strong…and one does not know what the fall-out there will be!”
Occasionally Natwar’s footnotes are most telling. In August 1980, just after Sanjay Gandhi’s death, when Rajiv was under pressure to join politics, Natwar wrote to him. Calling him “the senior male member of the world’s most distinguished, durable and famous political family,” he adds “India needs you.”
Alas, the book does not contain Rajiv’s reply but a footnote recounts something he said to Natwar: “I am not Sanjay, besides I have no money, apart from my salary.”
However, it’s the correspondence between Natwar, as High Commissioner to Zambia, and Morarji Desai, then Prime Minister, that tells you most about the author. When Desai failed to thank Kenneth Kaunda, the Zambian President, for the praise he showered on Natwar, this is what the High Commissioner wrote to his PM: “The extreme austerity of your reply must make my task in Lusaka infinitely more difficult. I am sure it was not your intention to belittle or undermine the position of your High Commissioner in Zambia, but such an inference can be drawn and is being drawn.”
Morarji was not moved. “I am surprised you should attach so much importance to certificates from foreign dignitaries... you are needlessly sensitive about this matter and I am wondering how this sensitiveness fits in with the discharge of your duties as High Commissioner.”
Undaunted, Natwar replied: “You say that I am being ‘needlessly sensitive’. Sir, I am glad I do not have a thick skin. My sensitiveness has never come in the way of my duty.”
The views expressed by the author are personal