Consider the letter unsent

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiMar 25, 2015 | 18:30

Consider the letter unsent

No, that letter I sent from Karachi has not arrived and probably never will. It may as well have been unsent.

This month's submissions are somewhat like that letter. They are confessions made in the knowledge that they are never going to be read; or else, written not knowing whether it will ever reach the person for whom it is intended.


So no letters to nations or leaders, no letters to organisms, objects or unborn children, no satirical letters, no prank notes, no acrostics to entertain an ailing adult, - no one, in short, pushing the (dare I say it?) envelope.

Still, when I offer a prompt, I don't live in the expectation of being entertained. Perhaps what I do expect is for writers to challenge themselves: if the first idea one has is to pour out a confession, maybe there are other ways to approach the subject that are not confessional? If one's first impulse is to write in one's own voice, maybe list out three or four alternative personae one could assume?

This month's entries, while they work within the circle of the letter unlikely to have been sent or received, still have some interesting variations. Anindita Deo's poem, titled "The Unsent Letter", begins very well:

  • Tonight I think
  • of what I was
  • to you, and to myself.
  • I empty my pockets. A torn ticket,
  • a candy wrapper, two coins,
  • a carefully folded paper,
  • moist along the creases.
  • Thumbing the lines
  • you had scribbled,
  • I touch you
  • with my charred finger.
  • Uttering the words,
  • smudged and wet
  • I bleed ink from my mouth.

The unsent letter is clearly a reply, one that tries to answer the questions raised by the person whom it addresses, but find those questions tangling with others until there are no possible answers that can be given. "Do I tell you what I felt,/even if I don't remember/ much at all?" the poet asks but the impact of that plaintive question is lost in the next stanza, which is somewhat tepid, like the excuses the poet finds solace in.

What began as a strong poem loses its way in its unnecessary repetitions; I suspect because the speaker is unable to articulate, even to herself, the reason why she cannot send the letter even if she were to write it. There's a hint in the closing lines:

  • and wonder if I get to keep
  • all the goodbyes
  • I won't get to use.

But it hasn't been articulated strongly enough.

In David Jairaj's poem, which is untitled, the speaker is preparing to write the letter-poem, thus making the poem itself a warm-up exercise. It's an interesting conceit, as is Jairaj's decision to indicate line breaks rather than actually making them; but it would have been even better if he'd taken that extra step and dispensed with the forward slash altogether. That way, the "letter" would look like the piece of prose it usually is, but the reader's attention would be caught by the rhymes in the sentences and hear it as a poem.


Early in the poem, Jairaj makes it clear that he is responding to something the addressee has said:

"The genius of many beginnings": your taunt still haunts me / The same through our silent years, I am still lost in my fears / Except now I am moving, if you must know, freefalling / Listening for that sound, when I hit the ground /

There's a very blues-y rhythm to Jairaj's words and they really don't need more than regular punctuation. There are complex emotions at work in this poem, the fear of never being able to complete what one has begun, the inevitability of failure and the difficult decision to pick oneself up again regardless. At one point, he says, "I don't know what to say, the words still feel wrong". That's a starkly honest line that is an excellent self-assessment of the lines that have gone before. The poem ends, rather cleverly, with these words:

  • But let me begin again, right now and here / Dear,

The speaker has, once again, demonstrated his genius for beginnings and his continuing trouble with seeing a new venture through to the end.

In Swayambhu Sudyut's poem 'Postman of the Past', the speaker addresses an old revolutionary, who is no longer alive to see the fruits of his/her endeavour come to pass. It's a simple, direct poem and I'm intrigued by the subject - why a revolutionary and what has the revolution brought - good things or bad? The poem never says. The most interesting lines are the closing ones:

  • As I write this, I wonder
  • are the stamps
  • of letters posted to dead
  • ever cancelled?

I wonder if these lines might have been more effective if they had opened the poem, and if there had been something to connect the idea of writing to the dead (the line in the poem has the crucial definite article missing in action) with the act of stamping letters. Dead letters and dead people mixed up together would have made for an interesting poem but that promise hasn't been explored here.

The final poem for this week is from Phalguni Reddy. Her poem in full:

  • To a friend on the other side
  • Funny, how time flies away so fast.
  • It seems only yesterday that we were teenagers,
  • bidding goodbye to each other
  • for I was going to the other side.
  • Now I have two grandchildren, two children and a dead wife.
  • What about you?
  • Are you married?
  • Did you marry Leela?
  • Or is it that cousin of yours?
  • The other day I was narrating to my grandson
  • all our exploits in Divakar Uncle's guava orchard,
  • when he expressed a wish to meet you.
  • I am writing to your old address.
  • Hope this letter finds you.
  • Please write back quickly,
  • for an old man has no patience.
  • Your friend from the other side.

There are some awkward phrases - the cliché of time flying so fast, the "narrating to" and "expressed a wish to" - but this is the only poem in this month's crop that is a letter written to be sent. It might never be read, because it's sent to an old address but everything in the poem is meant for someone specific, written by someone with a personality and a history.

The 'other side' of the poem remains mysterious; though its mentioned three times, we reach the end of the poem not knowing what being on the other side entails. Is it a political side? A border across which the speaker writes? We don't know.

Despite the mystery, the poem is poignant for the details it seeks: marriage, the hint of continuing generations, the shared past of "Divakar Uncle's guava orchard" - a detail so specific and weighted with memories that they are now passed on to grandchildren who want to close the circle of acquaintance. The closing lines of the poem speak a truth that the opening lines with the cliché could not: that the old have very little time left and can't afford to wait for news.

For a young person to express that urgency in the line, "an old man has no patience", shows both imagination and empathy and that brings the poetry to what seems to be a simple statement.

Thank you all for your submissions. The Sideways Door will return in the first week of April.


Last updated: March 25, 2015 | 18:30
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