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Category: Reflections Date: 25 Feb 01

A friend of mine told me she burnt all her love letters after marriage.

I won’t, because it will feel like burning the memories of people who partially, along with genetics and books and circumstances, made me into a person I can live with: parents and siblings, friends, puppy loves, and all the passers-by in a life.


There have been many times, as my diaries testify, that I was not able to live with myself, was filled with self-doubt and self-hate, and wished I were invisible or someone else.


But the people you meet, the ones you learn from, the ones who make you bubble, mixing their laughter and thoughts with yours, the kindred spirits, and those that you thought were nuts, are what make you complete.


Here, with my tiny turret smelling faintly of varnish, and heady paint, surrounded by hundreds of letters and diaries going back 14 years or more, I feel frozen in different periods of time.


This yellowing paper with poetry was stuck on my door when I was 18; this passionate letter from a friend who was president of our university student union with fiery ideas of socialism, and eliminating poverty and the materialism of our times was dashed off to me when I was 20; this tender letter, speaking of meeting among the whipping autumn leaves by the lakeside, was received to whooping joy, at 21, and this long- ruminative missive on the nature of men from a girlfriend disappointed in her first love when I was 24.


Here are postcards, faded now, of classic edifices and famous boulevards and works of art, and dangerous beautiful places - student travelling postcards, speaking of lonely train stations in Paris, and the Bedouin they met in Peshawar or Afghanistan. Postcards taking the piss, postcards saying I was here, postcards saying we’ll meet in three days.


The diaries remind me of sleeping on stones outside a Florence youth hostel and being mobbed by child beggars in Paris; of wondering if my inter-rail second-class student card would take me free to Yugoslavia and settling instead for Munich, of meeting people on different platforms of train stations.


We were living on tight student budgets yet we managed to hitchhike, scrimp and scrabble our way around the world. We managed to drink in every bar we saw, and hear every lecture that was on. We managed, at three in the morning, to ask philosophical questions like do we really exist, and wake up with a hangover that convinced us that at least our heads did, and go to class and fudge our way through tutorials for which we hadn’t studied.


It was a time of endless possibility and no fear. Reading these letters is like looking into a bottle-shaped time machine, one eye closed, through a tiny peephole. In the widest and deepest part of the bottle, the world shimmers, points of refracted light on stained glass, words written by the young, earnest, idealistic, absurd in their arrogant belief that they are the first to examine the human condition with success.


Here’s one from Leslie, a girlfriend, who was beautiful, compelling, lit up many libraries with her intense intellect.

“It’s such a dismal day. It’s the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. I am truly depressed. Last night a number of us went out to paint the shadows of human figures in whitewash on the sidewalks and roads. They came out as startling spectres; hopefully causing people to think of the horror of nuclear war - of hate and  the violence and death.”


And its nemesis sent from James, a carefree young graduate (at the time) of Oxford University, on holiday in Israel.

“Generally existential, occasionally metaphysical, never nihilistic, aspiring anarchist often found drunk. Love, James.”


Playful, fearless, fashionable, cynical maybe, but full of promise. Everyone was living as if they would never live again, and in a sense it was true. There’s a kind of dying in being grown up.


As the time-machine bottle got narrower, their letters reflected how life had caught up with us all, our worlds instead of expanding to fulfill the promise of our youth got narrower and we squeezed into our bottleneck of mortgages and jobs and children, not looking up or down from our respective little patches of earth; Hiroshima’s anniversary has passed unnoticed for many years, and a trip to Israel has been exchanged for a packaged deal in Miami.


People write letters to stay in touch, but mostly, I believe because they want witness to their lives - because a life unnoticed is dehumanising. You may as well be a rabbit. Reading and keeping those letters is a reminder that our freshest instincts were outward-looking, life-affirming, that the often sad, tiresome, difficult business of life, even with its rewards of comfort, corrupt and distract the soul, and difficult as it may be, we need to try and keep the hope and promise of our younger poorer, unmasked selves.


Look outward and beyond our little plot of land, continue to analyse, question, risk, care about, and be interested in the world. That’s hope.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur