The birth of letter-writing and the squelching into being of its mutant, the poison letter, must have been simultaneous. Or, almost. Just as the start of life on our planet and the arrival of the striped, spotted and sebaceous roach must have been. I have looked for a history of anonymous letter-writing or an anthology of anonymous letters with an enlightening introduction, but in vain.
Who writes anonymous letters and why?
The misanthrope with a noodle for his spine, of course. But anonymous letters are also written by aggrieved people who do not want to risk persecution, who have lost all hope for rectification and who want the satisfaction, at the very least, of having made a fist at the ‘tyrant’. The pity is that when they get to doing that, they fail to distinguish between facts, perceptions, exaggeration, imagination, concoction.
Who gets anonymous letters?
Those who have had the misfortune of being in some position of authority, with the powers to supervise, superintend others, the occasion to promote, to select, to reward and the duty to reprimand or punish. And, unfortunately, their kin. Also, opinion-makers, the media, and the ‘target’s’ bosses.
The anonymous letter is a time-tested weapon of assassination aimed at a peer’s promotion, an alternative’s elevation, a rival’s success in a career or, worse still, in prospective matrimony.
I cannot remember the contents of the first anonymous letter I received but it was soon after I entered the Indian Administrative Service and was posted to a small town in Tamil Nadu. I recall having felt mentally and physically soiled on opening the ‘Inland Letter’ and then having torn it into small bits.
They have continued to come to me, over the years, some directing my attention to others’ misdeeds, some stabbing me straight in the jugular.
A recurring theme in anonymous letters to me has been about how ‘damned’ lucky I am to have been born into a certain family name and how ‘damnably’ undeserving I have been of all the luck that has followed the lucky accident of my birth.
And they have reminded me that while that great soul, the Mahatma, lived in huts among and like the poor, the grandson — “shame on you !” — has moved with effortless ease, from stately residence to stately residence as in India Houses where India’s Ambassadors reside, to the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata.
They do not also forgive me for having served as secretary to the occupants of palaces such as the Upa-Rashtrapati Nivas and Rashtrapati Bhavan. An unsigned letter I received last week expressed great relief and happiness at the country having been spared the misfortune of my moving into either of those last named residences of State as their anointed occupant.
‘Pure’ lies cause no hurt. But when some unconnected facts are mixed with vicious lies and served up in a cocktail of toxic brews they ‘boil and bubble’ as in the spell-inducing curse uttered by the witches in Macbeth (which I quote from memory)
Eye of newt, toe of frog,
Wool of bat,
Adder’s fork, blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, howlet’s wing,
For powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
The letter reminded me of an earlier anonymous or, rather, pseudonymous letter in a rasa of its own that came towards the end of my term of office as the governor of West Bengal. That one, written in a beautiful Bengali hand, connected emotion to the intellect’s most mischievous offspring — Swiftian satire.
After hurling imprecations on me, it prayed for my early quittance from the face of the earth. What gave the letter its unforgettable edge was its most appropriate sender’s address: Nimtola Ghat Road, where Kolkata’s best known crematorium is located. The sender’s name too was a work of creative genius, as creative as the address was and a masterfully delivered swipe at that.
The anonymous writer wanting to see me reach my Nimtola had signed off as ‘Kamana Biswas’. ‘Kamana’ was no name but the letter-writer’s macabre kamana (wish) nor ‘Biswas’ a surname, only the writer’s biswas (faith). This was an altogether brilliant example of true black humour.
Another anon author sent his communications to me in Kolkata in the honest-to-goodness postcard. He too wrote an elegant hand, in red ink, but in English. He must have had a ‘pahunch’ of his own kind in post offices for all the postal stampings showing the place of the postcards’ dispatch were carefully and identically smudged out.
Taking a generally dim view of the financial integrity of life in Raj Bhavans he told me: “Put details of your assets/bank accounts for the past 15 years on the internet… Also… details of your income/property/wealth tax returns.”
The writer had raised an important point and made an important suggestion. Constitutional authorities like governors do not have to declare their assets, while elected legislators have to. This is not how it should be.
If anonymous letter-writing is ancient, it is also immortal. Despite the grievance-ventilation provided by the Right To Information Act, there will never be a time when the anonymous letter will go extinct for five, among other reasons:
- Human errors, including misjudgments, will ever plague the privileged, making anonymous complaints against them, inevitable.
- Inequality in the distribution of good fortune will never go away, compelling those not fortunate, to want to ‘get even’.
- Envy is never going to end, making anonymous letters a deathless method of ‘getting back’.
- Every ‘khush-nasib’ will generate, in those stuck in ‘bud-nasibi’, malice, which is special to human beings. Not every human being can forget and forgive.
- Character assassination has been and will always be a favourite pastime. Nothing substitutes the animal instinct for a one-on-one fight, better.
So, despite its vicious and hurtful nature, the anonymous letter is like the loathsome brew the witches make in Macbeth — not evil, only miserable. One may bemoan it but nothing beyond that, for ‘aur bhi bahut gham hain, asli gham, hamare zamane mein’.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.