Day 10: Letters

The Peace Palace, The Hague. 2019


Day 10

The injured leg swells up less often these days. It is recovering well. There is an unmistakable feeling of being fortunate because the injury didn’t require urgent attention or a hospital visit. It would have been hard to arrange for that considering the lockdown and severely limited healthcare capacity right now. In the city, patients who need routine hospital visits for procedures like dialysis have had it tough. To that effect, the city police deployed their fleet of cars and patrol vehicles to provide transport to those in need. The absurdity of rules to follow during the lockdown continues. For instance, the necessity of a pass issued by the police for medical emergencies and a limit of 200 passes a day. These should have been well thought. The lockdown is progressing with these ad hoc moves. Every state is responding and coping differently. The social reality of people and places in this country is complex and diverse. With guidelines and high level direction from the central government the state governments have had their own ways to respond and manage the situation. The responses and conditions under the lockdown in states are reflective of the respective state’s HDI and economic status. What this means is that while people in Kerala have followed the lockdown rules and cooperated with the emergency responders, people in Odisha have had to defy lockdown and get out to buy supplies. 

This makes one question whether Covid-19 deaths in India will be a lottery of who survives and who dies. The pandemic will take its toll. It will choose a few. Will India’s health care system be able to snatch back people from the pandemic? Or it will run through the land, claim its numbers and flatten out? The grip on spread seems less, as more infected people are getting discovered. It is hard to respond to a situation where the extent of spread is poorly estimated. As we begin tightening for the weeks ahead, the Prime Minister in his morning address asks people to stand with lamps and torches in their balconies in solidarity. The administration compensates well if there was any lack of strangeness and feeling of doom in this pandemic. 

The privileged India is busy signing up their children for online lectures and courses. Their schools have conveniently switched to online classes. Learning must not stop. All the screens of the household can be deployed for the cause. Elsewhere, millions of children in homes without laptops, internet connection and books will sit by with their parents. When schools made clean cuts along class and status lines to admit children from, it should not be a surprise later to see who were hit the most and will pay for years to come after the pandemic. This pandemic has also set in an uncontrolled chain reaction in primary and high school education. For a vast majority of children regular school attendance matters. In case of this disruption, we will have to think about making good this gap. The bridges of online education can only be accessed by the privileged. Now is the time to assess what happened to that claim of inclusive education in the country.  

This lockdown diary lacks a focus. There is no purpose to it besides recording a subset of events and consequences of the pandemic. Writing through adversity has changed in our times – we have news, videos, images, discussions, public opinion, leaders’ responses.. All of it streaming straight into our homes even if we do not have physical contact with people. This is a situation immensely better than the ‘war’ times, an analogy that has been used by many to describe the situation during this pandemic. However, this pandemic war does not quite have the same desperation as the earlier times did. 

I am reminded of an afternoon spent at the Visitors’ Center of the Peace Palace in The Hague. The International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the Hague Academy of International Law are located here. It also has a library. There among the many artifacts related to the history of the place which in part is also related to the world wars, I read through snippets of correspondence between a French soldier and his wife. From this day, the correspondence stands 106 years back in time. The letters between Reymond Molle (who served as a sergeant in the army) and his wife Emma were written between August 1914 up to 17 April 1915 during the first World War. The excerpts here are from the collection ‘Letters from a French Soldier’ by the keeper of these letters and the Visitors’ Center museum. I spend the afternoon trawling through Reymond’s letters. He wrote 118 of them. For Emma’s, only about 8 of them were found. Reymond insisted in his letters that Emma must keep the letters carefully. This probably implies that he had wanted the world to know of the times they lived, when it was all over and receded in the past. Many of the letters made careful attempts to track the earlier letters and replies to them. Reymond catalogued the letters, all of which were numbered, in a separate diary. This effort in keeping track of letters even from the battlefront is extraordinary. 

Reymond’s second letter to Emma was written on 9th August 1914. It is about the happiness of knowing that he can write letters to Emma.

Reymond on 9th August 1914 – 

Right now, you would not believe how happy I am to know that you have also received mine and to know what we can write to each other. I wrote to you 4 times and today is the 5th time. Please take a note of it so that we can know if they all get to you without any of them getting lost.

I thank God for all these blessings.

Reymond on 14th August 1914 – 

Dearest Emma,

You would not believe how much I long to receive news from you.

This is the 4th letter that I am sending to you and I have not yet received your letters.

I ask myself if they all got lost.

I still have hopes that some of them will arrive at the destination. I hope that you are all healthy. Myself, I am keeping well, despite the heat, I have a healthy appetite.  

Reymond on 23rd August is clear and specific about how to request for information if there is no more contact with him also hoping that they will never need to use this information –

Dear Emma,

Since the 21st I have not written to you. I feel that it has been quite a long time because although I constantly think of you, all the time really, it is not as important as writing you. I have just received your letter/card dated the 19th. You don’t have to put a stamp on the letters that you send to me. This is the fourth letter that I have received from you. What a pleasure it is for me to receive your letters

Dear Emma, although we are physically separated in body, we will always be spiritually united. Sometimes it feels like you are here close to me, encouraging me.

He closes the letter with –

I am sending you in this letter in a clipping of the newspaper, which will explain to you how one should go about requesting information about a soldier in case that there would eventually be no more contact with him. I sincerely hope that you will never need to use this information, but it could be of assistance to others.

Reymond on 2nd January 1915

Right now I am alone near my fire keeping watch until morning. And at midnight, after being woken up, I made myself a hot chocolate. I put the bread in it and then I re-read your letter from December 25th. I was very sad to see that you do not receive my letters more often. On the 18th I wrote you # 1, # 2 on the 20th, on the 21st # 3, the 23rd # 4, the 24th # 5and # 6, and #7 on the 25th. At this point you have 20- #8 and January 1st.

It seems to me that I had written to you between the ones of the 25th and the 29th but I must have forgotten to take a note of this letter in my notebook. The letters take so long to arrive! That is if they don’t get lost. I received all of yours. I did not notice that any of them got lost. I am longing to know if you have already received those from the 24th and the 25th December. But I told you that we were going to attack the German trenches.

The world now will probably never know what it is to long for a photograph and receive one after days of wait. 

Reymond on 2nd April 1915 – 

I’m glad you got my big picture. I was afraid that it was too large. When will you send me yours? Oh how I will look at it tenderly and kiss you.

You have to remember to hold George up so that I can see how tall he is based on your height. Poor little boy, I think about him quite often too.

In every letter Reymond is worried about Emma receiving them. By April 1915 he was at the battlefront, in poor health and witnessing death and destruction all around him. 

Reymond on 17th April 1915 – 

As for being at risk, the danger is still the same, but we have confidence. I can be protected anywhere. It is written that not a hair of your head will fall if it is not His will.

Yes, darling, his love is immense and he rescues those who trust in Him.

Why then should we doubt his goodness?

He can still grant us many more long days to spend together but how beautiful would it be if our Saviour would soon come for us. We would have no more of these earthly cares and we would be with Him for eternity.

Yes, let us praise him for this grace that He has given to us to know him and to love him. What a privilege and a comfort.

I wonder if you will receive my letter. I would be really annoyed if you did not receive it.

Yesterday I asked you to send me all the numbers of the letters, as well as the date, of those that you have received since the one numbered as the 46th.

Over the last fifteen days, I have written a few lines to you almost every day.

On 18th April 1915 Reymond Molle died in combat.

These letters are a chronicle of the days that wrapped two lives in them and changed them. Journals , letters and narratives written through times, as they unfolded, have a character about them that retrospective, analytical writing can not attain. This thought occupies my mind today.

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