When I was young, I had one sure test for incipient senility. When people started writing in to the correspondence column of newspapers, they had left mental youth, and even middle age, well behind.
The way I argued it, such letters lack of faith in one’s prowess. A strong man fights his fights decently and in private. With maturity he may bring a certain cunning into the fight to supplement valour, but when he starts making public appeals it is plain squealing, a confession that he can no longer look after himself and has degenerated into a querulous complainant. Furthermore, the fact that he has time for such correspondence (let us take it one letter in ten gets published) shows that he has reached the age of superannuation.
Later, I could see the this argument was somewhat immature, for those who write to the editor are not complaining of injustice to themselves as a rule, but fighting as issue on principle. ‘Pro Bono Publico’, ‘Vox Populi’, ‘Fairplay’, and ‘A Retired Headmaster’ have nothing to gain by public ventilation of grievances — even ‘One Affected’ and ‘Bare Justice’ make no attempt at unmanly disguise of their personal implication, and they are fighting for the clan really, not cadging sympathy for themselves.
It is only recently that I realized that these selfless people are, in fact, the pillars of our democracy. They risk brawls in public in the interest of equity, and I think their letters, far from disclosing senility, prove their virile community spirit and mature daring. It is only recently that I have taken to writing such letters.
And, believe me, it is a losing battle. You see the flagrant injustice in something public, say, in a university examination paper, and sit down purposefully to work out pros and cons. This analysis is quite necessary in the interest of logic and length. Otherwise your letter will be rejected because it seems biased and it must too long, or, worse still, be relegated to the Points from Letters column. Of course, it is hardly possible to compress arguments on an issue like this into the compass of a brief letter, but it is a question of compression or nothing.
So your arguments are reduced to main points, ignoring all subtleties, and you write them down concisely. Your preliminary draft covers two closely typed foolscap pages, in spite of its start sentimentality. By cutting down adjectives, clubbing sentences together and omitting a phrase here and whole clause there, you reach one page. Then you see that you must give up some of your arguments, for the utmost the editor will suffer half a page, However, this does not dishearten you — surely the reader can be trusted to read between the lines and think up subsidiary points for himself; no need to state everything so fully.
It is when you have succeeded in trimming your letter of all frills and in reaching the stipulated length that you begin to see that it is all cons and no pros, and will surely give the editor the impression of bias and inability to see the point of view of the question-setter. Only by further sacrifice of cherished arguments, and devoting one whole sentence to your apprehension of pros, can you give yourself any chance of publication. At this stage you give give up the idea of a letter to the editor. Two hours later your final draft is on the way to him.
In the morning you are surprised to find your effort at the foot of the correspondence column, below the letters of three tedious correspondents who have must to say on nothing. The sentence you fancied especially in your letter has been omitted wholesale by an editor who has, evidently, no feeling for the niceties of prose. But you console yourself with the thought that probably some raw, subadult subeditor was responsible for this.
Only next morning do you come to know what you have let yourself in for. An egocentric nincompoop has written at length, casting apprehensions on your motive in writing to the paper, and justifying the question-setter in tortured sentences distinguished only by pompous vacuity. For some reason this is quite beyond you (pull in editorial circles?) this tepid fool has given pride of place, and his letter, in larger print than the rest, heads the column. It is clear that you must reply at once, mincing no words, and exposing this cantankerous nonentity unmistakably.
The trouble is that while you are willing to annihilate him, you do not know how. He has sidestepped your arguments and bought in wholly irrelevant considerations that the editor has passed somehow. Moreover you can not say what you think of him frankly, for the editor will not permit suspicions about a correspondent’s lineage or even plain statements about his depravity of mind and morals. However, by the use of sarcasm (a weapon you had always despised) and mock agreement with the adversary’s views you succeed in concocting a suitable reply, which you dispatch post-haste to the editor. Only while reading the carbon copy, later, do you notice that you have made two rather silly mistakes.
Next morning you find your letter again at the foot of the column and in small print. The editor has cut out the sarcastic bits and toned down the mockery in your agreement till it seems sincere and almost apologetic. Nor is this all. Your old friend, Tulijayaram, has rushed in loyally to your rescue with a letter published just above yours. At college debates people worked hard to lure Tuljayram into opposition, for his flair for losing arguments was unbounded. You note that he has lost none of his old skill.
In a joint reply to both Tuljayram and you, published in the next issue, the contemptible adversary has used means to which you had not imagined anyone would descend. The first line of the correspondence column begins with the words that Tuljayram and you have ‘rushed in where angels fear to tread’ and the rest of the letter is similarly inspired by insulting innuendo. There is a no point in continuing the correspondence when the editor is prepared to publish such stuff from the opposition. Moreover, at the end of the letter there is a brief editorial note that says, ‘Correspondence on this subject is closed.’
Yes, it is a mug’s game all right, writing letters to the editor. Sometimes I wonder why I play it.
— M. Krishnan, 1955