Indeed, much has changed in the newspaper world today. But no editor worth his salt minimises the importance of the letters column. It is still regarded as a vital link between the newspaper and its readership. For, it is the only indication of a qualitative response to a news report or editorial comment. Several letters published on the same issue offer a more incisive insight into the public mood than 'scientific' opinion polls. No editor I have worked under used the word interactive, but interactive communication was precisely what such letters are all about.
This might sound like something of a fib to those familiar with the workings of the editorial department. In many newspapers, the letters column is handled by a raw or jaded sub-editor. But this was not the case in The Times of India. An assistant editor, fresh from Oxbridge, was put in charge of the column. He had to 'sub' the letters, give headings and check and recheck the proofs. Once he cut his journalistic teeth doing this chore, he graduated to doing the 'current topics', then the edits and finally the best thing you could do in the paper: write the signed piece on the edit page.
The letters like editing were either those which were written nearly and came in an acceptable length or those which began with an opening sentence which heaped embarrassing praise on a piece written by a senior member of the editorial fraternity and, above all, by the editor himself. There was one gentlemen from Bikaner who thus dashed off a missive on just about every article that Girilal Jain wrote beginning with: "Kudos to Girilal Jain on his brilliant analysis of the Shah of Iran's latest proposal for regional security." After that sentence, however, the letter writer went off the tangent to hold forth on Indira Gandhi's authoritarian rule, the lack of discipline and so forth. Woe betide the assistant editor who spiked this hokum.
Going through the section of letters Prafull Goradia has been publishing in newspapers for the past three decades, the first question that comes to mind is: what goads the compulsive letter-writer? There is surely the thrill of seeing one's name in print. But that alone cannot explain the zeal and persistence of the letter writer. To this day I do not really know what drives him to craft a letter on just about every topic under the sun, type it, post it and then bombard the sub-editor or assistant editor with queries about the fate of the letter. I have lost count of the number of such calls I received enquiring, always in an admonishing tone, why a letter had not yet been carried, or if it had been carried, why it had been edited so ruthlessly or carelessly, or again, why it had been given a trite or misleading heading.
All the same, letter writers are an endearing breed. This is especially true of those who use only initials or a non de plume. The very first letter carried in The Times of India -on 10th November 1838-was signed x.y.z. In those first decades of the paper you have letters from 'A Lover of the Public Good', 'Sharp', 'Fair-play', 'Repose', 'Young Lady', 'Reform', 'Trident', 'A Sufferer', 'False Economy' and so forth. A favoured signature was 'Pro Bono Publico'. These early letters, devoted to a range of serious ad trivial subjects, were in the nature of a personal communication to the editor though they were written in an elaborate, Victorian style, replete with literary quotes. The ones appearing in the first three decades of the century on the state of roads, telephones, postal services, drainage,broadcasting and the like can be reprinted in extenso today with just the change of date.
Given its history, reach and influence, The Times of India has been a favourite platform of the country's decision-makers and opinion-makers. During much of the freedom struggle, its leaders resorted to the letters column to vent their opinions which were more often than not critical of the paper. Mahatma Gandhi was a prolific letter writer, as were B.G. Tilak, G.K. Gokhale, M.A. Jinnah and many many others. It is amusing to read today a letter sent b Sarojini Naidu in 1909 castigating her brother for expressing anti-British views in The Times of London-which led to his expulsion from the Middle Temple-and another which spoke of her father's absolute loyalty to the British crown and his disdain for 'Indian anarchists'. Why blame poor Bhabani Sengupta? Political figures today rarely write letters to the editor. They doubtless prefer to give a soundbite to the battery of TV cameras. This is what makes individuals like Goradia so significant. You may not agree with them; you may be amazed at the amount of editing that the letters require; you may be irked by their telephone calls. But in the end, the trouble is worth its while. For, somewhere along the line, you know that debates in print still matter and that sound sense does score over a soundbite.