‘The Letter’ by Kalki R. Krishnamurthy: Short Story Analysis
Kalki was one of the pseudonyms of R. Krishnamurthy, a pioneering writer of the Tamil Press. He was one of the greatest Tamil writers in India especially during the freedom struggle against the British Rule. I stumbled on Kalki’s works in the year 2011, when I found a copy of his short stories published by Penguin in a bookshop in Bangalore. I was immediately captivated by Kalki’s straightforward prose, his beautifully crafted characters, his Indian plots, and the blatant satire in his short stories. ‘The Letter’ was the very first short story that I read of Kalki after my return from Bangalore.
The story is about a founder-principal of a private school for women in pre-independence India. The name of this elderly lady of great knowledge and determination is Annapurani Devi. She has managed to educate herself. Apparently, in the past, she was not able to get a loving husband of high repute, because she was unable to read the letter he had penned to her. The story does not prepare you for the shock you receive at the end of the story. As Kalki goes on to narrate Annapurani Devi’s story, we grow to love her, and we grow to love the lyrical style of Kalki’s prose. Kalki is a writer who always has a twist at the end of his stories, and all his stories are themed around a certain moral connected to good virtues or the Indian freedom struggle of the early twentieth century.
The background for this story like most of Kalki’s stories is the Indian National Movement. Annapurani Devi has set up a school for widowed girls and women. She was a child widow herself; in fact, she was widowed at the age of nine. This makes the reader interested in the life of Annapurani Devi whom Kalki has painted to be the very incarnation of the Goddess Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge. By linking widow remarriage, child widowhood, the stigma attached to widows in India, the education of child widows, we are shown the reality behind our shared Indian past, where we have abused women in so many areas of their existence. It was a very corrosive background in the year 1937 when Kalki published this story; our freedom struggle was still going on. With this volatile background, Kalki tells the tale of a young girl who was widowed early and would have found the love of her life, if only she would have been able to read the letter he had written to her. The flood gates of anger and tears make us ache to think that so much good could have come to Annapurani Devi who was deserving of all happiness and joy.
Education is given great importance here and is not a sub-plot or a prop but is the real essence of the story. It is the driving force of the story and the importance of it during the Indian freedom struggle as well as now cannot be questioned or debated upon. The acquiring of education for women and men is given great importance in this story ‘The Letter’. Education with knowledge leads to empowerment according to the writings of Kalki, and then there will be no discriminations in society. The stigma against young widows is erased through education. There is another person to whom Annapurani Devi is narrating her four-day little love story, and she is the Vice-Principal of the school. She is the young twenty-five-year-old Savitri Devi. She is a single woman and as highly educated as Annapurani Devi. Her entry in the story brings out many points which should be taken note of:
- She was unmarried even at age twenty-five unheard of in an India where little girls were married off at seven or nine years of age. Her family must have been broadminded and pioneering like Kalki himself.
- She must have been one of the few single highly educated women in the area so, she would have been the butt of snide remarks, jokes, and taunts. That is why, if you notice, she does not believe in love, especially the love shared between a man and a woman.
- She was only twenty-five years old but was a Vice-Principal of a school! Either no one wanted to take up the post or there seemed to be no one capable enough to handle the education of the girls than Savitri Devi. Despite her age, she was deemed well qualified to handle her students. You will notice she finds difficulties along her way because in one instance in the story, she complains to Annapurani Devi about a pesky student, Padma.
- She was also trying to help her country through her service in educating disadvantaged women and girls. However, she never really understood what it meant to be a young widow or to be stigmatized in Indian society as a widow.
- She was to be married soon to a Dr. Srinivasan indicative that the good doctor is broadminded to want an educated wife rather than a homemaker. He wanted a wife he could converse with and have an intellectual as well as emotional relationship.
But, Annapurani Devi, through her little love story which has lasted her a lifetime managed to dispel two things from Savitri Devi’s mind:
- That the love between a man and a woman cannot have a positive impact on a woman’s life, especially a young widow’s life.
- Young widows do not know what it means to be in love with a man.
Annapurani Devi makes the young Vice-Principal realize that love is not illusionary, not a useless daydream of idle poets, and is especially not something that one can pin down with a needle of rationality. There wasn’t any rationality in the love story between Annapurani Devi and the man she loved. We are not told much about this man other than the following:
- He was a friend of a cousin.
- He had stood first in the BA examinations in the Madras Presidency.
- He was much sought after in marriage.
- He did not approve of the stigma attached to child widows.
- He too had fallen in love with Annapurani Devi.
- He was ready to marry her the day his cousin was getting married.
The man is a gem to find and we immediately as readers feel warm towards him, especially Indian readers who know the reality of what it meant at that time to marry a child widow. There is a beautiful line in the short story where Annapurani Devi says that after the wedding was over, and she had not reciprocated his love to her, Annapurani Devi felt:
“… the four days’ dream of my life came to an end.”
That was a very touching and pathos driven line especially when we realize that it would have been a brave step on her part as a then uneducated child widow to conceive of having an ‘affair’ with a regular bachelor. The ironical part of the story is that if she had known the contents of the letter, rather than sobbing over it, she would have had a loving husband. There is a subtle mention of the piper in the background pouring through his instrument the sorrowful love epics of life. Sometimes, a person can be in your life for a little while but can have an everlasting impact on one. In Annapurani Devi’s case, she decided to get an education.
I love pre-independence Indian fiction and I love Kalki’s stories for their wonderful characters and dramatic scenery. I hope you manage to get a copy of his short stories and read them. You will not regret it; he is a marvelous writer.
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