The shock came at the end of four months of animated exchanges. Mother called me to the living room and introduced me to a young woman, who, she said, was the elder sister of my second correspondent. There, next to her, sat smiling a young girl of my age, in a yellow-white dress, toying with a book – which turned out to be a gift for me. I had admiringly mentioned an up-and-coming author in a letter, and she had persuaded her escort to buy his latest novel on the way to my home.
An unheralded encounter! That, too, with a thoughtful gift! The cricketer in me mentally labeled it as an Overdrive and I was bowled over. Mother got busy to make a suitable response by giving them tea and snacks, leaving me to the fearsome task of dealing with two unknown women. The elder sister, who had possibly capitulated to an impetuous younger one, was very kind and tried to help two awkward kids initiate a halting chat.
I mention this episode from my school days because it echoed years later when I worked for a UN group while my wife, Jane, served as a diplomat. We both traveled, but if I went to Switzerland, her work took her to Egypt; at the least, when I rushed to Thailand, she hurried to Singapore. We spent so much time apart that, in the absence of WhatsApp and Skype, we had to write copiously to each other to stay in touch. We needed to write, and we wanted to write. The letters were a vibrant link that made two lonely people, at two ends of the earth, feel that we weren’t quite lost in the overwhelming tide of distractions.
But at least we saw the other after a while. My parents lived thousands of miles away, almost on another planet, and it was impossible to visit them in the initial years. Father wrote a beautiful firm hand and his letters – though he was too diffident to speak his heart – conveyed his longing to see me. In the pain of finding my feet in an alien world, away from all relatives and long-term friends, those letters became my timely assurance that his affection was both profuse and perennial.
Then came the unexpected and devastating blow: in a bungled surgery, he died suddenly. Unknowing, I was traveling for work and came to know days later, after the last rites were over. Thus began a new epistolary episode with my mother. While my brothers took care of her immediate needs, I began writing regular letters from wherever my missions took me. These were not postcards, but long, detailed letters every other day telling her whatever was happening with me and my family. I wanted her to feel that she was a part of my family and could participate in every one of our decisions and choices. I told her whatever I saw in different cities, whatever we bought or did in Washington, whatever new words the baby was babbling. Often the days were packed with visits and meetings, and I would struggle sleepily at night to update my reportage and make sure that mother knew exactly what was happening in my life.
I told her what was happening in my work, what I had achieved, and where I had flubbed. I told her of new friends I had gained and old friends I had lost. I described the color of the new curtains we had acquired and the metallic-gray look of the new car. I spoke of the Bedouin camps I had visited and said I would like to show her those. I wrote of the royal gardens and said I would love to take her there too. I narrated the naughty things my little daughter did each day and said how much I needed her to keep the child in line. I wrote detailed, descriptive letters, the best I could write, to make her feel near me, share my joys and regrets, become an intrinsic part of my life, and know for sure that she wasn’t alone, but close to me, however remote I seemed. I wanted her to sense that I was in touching distance.
Three years later, I was working in the Abu Dhabi emirate and I finally persuaded mother to visit me. A thinner woman, her hair turning gray, she was now getting adjusted harrowingly to her widowhood, and could at last bear to speak quietly of the murky days when she lived from hour to hour – and did not know how to live through those hours. Then, unexpectedly, she turned to me and said something that suddenly made my midnight toil over long letters all quite worthwhile.
“I did not know then how I could continue to live, but your letters kept coming,” she said and paused. “I read them. I re-read them, again and again. They were my lifeline.”