It was 1975. My cousins were visiting with their parents (or should I put it the other way?) and the house was full of conversation, laughter and play. My visiting uncle, Hanumantha Rao (aka Sab), was a geologist by training, a planner by occupation and a fabulous co-conspirator with children and pranksters.
“World peace” has always been a hobbyhorse of mine. Working for world peace was all I wanted to do apart from write. (Still true!)
I cannot remember how this happened, but my uncle suggested to me that I write to world leaders, advising them to work for world peace. I had just turned 11. He told me I should write to them because people listen to children. “You will get a reply.” (Worst case, you won’t. Does it matter?)
Sab wasn’t mocking me. He was completely serious. Like a good government planner, he helped me draft a letter template and must also have helped me buy aerogrammes. With his guidance, I customised and copied out the template to every world leader I could think of.
Protocol of how to address? Sir or Madam is fine.
Address? Don’t you think the Post Office in that country will know.
All I needed to know was the name of the leader (maybe, but that too the Post Office would know!) and the capital city name. This was not difficult because I was what you would now call a ‘trivia buff’–that is, I liked reading to learn about things, especially relating to current affairs.
This set off a letter-writing blitz, in which I not only advised world leaders on the desirability of world peace but also asked for a penfriend. I cannot remember the full list of recipients of my sage counsel, but I did hear back from the Prime Minister’s office in Australia and soon from my first penfriend.
There was no looking back. I congratulated President Carter on his election (and heard back) and later President Mitterand (got a photo from his office). And in 1979, write to the Pakistan Embassy, and ended up with a family on the other side of this border.
I tell this story and people always ask for the artifacts–do you have those letters? I do, some, somewhere. I have lost the template, of course, and it evolved.
But to me, the actual letters matter the least. The most amazing gift Sab gave me was agency. He took me seriously. I was 11 but he treated me like a thinking individual with ideas and he showed me that I am not insignificant or helpless. If I write, and I speak up, I will be heard. That no one was too young, too unimportant, too far removed from the corridors of power, to be heard.
He also taught me that it did not matter if one letter or ten, went without response. Nothing took away my right or power to write the eleventh.
It certainly did not matter that children my age were not writing letters about world peace to world leaders. Sab was one of the many family elders who gave me the confidence to be who I was, to follow my heart. Other children may laugh at my hobby but do I really care?
Sab taught me not to be afraid of names, personages or offices. Growing up in Bombay/ Mumbai reinforced this. I am not easily impressed. I don’t understand official ranks and offices, and Sir and Madam is enough for me. I will not defer. After all, I hold the power to buy an aerogramme and write anyone a letter.
He must have also said something to me about public service and responsibility. I do believe that elected officials are here to serve and therefore, I can ask and advise without hesitation (civilly, of course, because no one is entitled to be nasty).
Online petitions do the same thing nowadays but they depend on getting other people to sign and that is always difficult. But from me to you, from me to any leader, it takes my deciding to write and your deciding to read or not read. If you do not read, that does not diminish the importance and validity of my effort. So my uncle taught me optimism. And the essence of the Gita: It is my job to make the effort to write. I have no control over and entitlement to the outcome of your reading or responding.
I have nurtured and guarded this precious gift–agency–and deployed it confidently and liberally, all my life. Thank you very much, Sab!
PS: Additional acknowledgment to my parents who indulged my postal expenses for many years!
And here is a special invitation for you: