The other day I had visited my elder aunt’s house, there below the stairs, I found this old metal (tin) box. I was saddened to see the box being used for storing old keys, nails and screws – nearly sixty years ago, in its glory days, the box held inside it a treasure trove of language wisdom – one of the two magnum-opus publication by my grandfather Sri Krishnaswamy Sarma (Sarmaji). It had inside it a hefty book of over 1500 pages celebrating, teaching and sharing the joy of the art that is almost lost nowadays, the art of letter writing. 

The Metal Box that was used to ship LIFCO's Big Letter Writer
The Metal Box that was used to ship LIFCO’s Big Letter Writer

The book was called “LIFCO’s Big Letter Writer”, first published in 1952 and no longer in print. In my childhood days, I have seen the book in my father’s desk who used to refer to it almost every day. Tragically, we don’t have a copy anymore, the one we had in the warehouse I was told was lost in the devastating Chennai flood of 2015. Luckily, when I mentioned about Big Letter Writer in a family get-together, my uncle said he has an old copy with him, a treasured gift from his father (my grandfather) – immediately I rushed to his house and borrowed it. Going through it, I was stunned on the standard of English language used in writing the letters, the eloquent usage of words, the variety of letters, and, the wide-ranging topics they covered. Apart from the 1200 pages of letters, the book also has over 300 pages for a ‘little’ Encyclopedia.

LIFCO's Big Letter Writer, first published in 1952 by The Little Flower Co., Madras, India
LIFCO’s Big Letter Writer, first published in 1952 by The Little Flower Co., Madras, India

It is probable there are only a few copies of this book that has survived, stored safely in houses and in libraries, Chennai’s Connemara Public Library has a copy and so does India’s National Library. Through this post, I wish to give you a peek, by reproducing a few random pages from the book. Courtesy: LIFCO, Madras.

Foreword by Major C.V.Rajan, then Postmaster-General, Madras. First Edition: 1952. For use in every home and office. But mainly intended for use in Indian schools to make students successful citizens.
Foreword by Major C.V.Rajan, then Postmaster-General, Madras. First Edition: 1952. For use in every home and office. But mainly intended for use in Indian schools to make students successful citizens.

In the next page to the Publisher’s note (given below), it is interesting to read a thank you note for a supplier – the Metal Box Co. of India Ltd., who made the tin box (seen earlier in this post) that was used to ship the book. Note the usage of plastics (polyethylene) even in the 1950s.

Publishers' Note - Letter-Writing is an art, and the greater the practice the greater the perfection. In the modern work-a-day world, numerous situations may arise which call forth one's best powers in the field of writing, and instances are not wanting of how one often feels bewildered then. All such occasions have been remembered, and years of patient study of the needs of persons of all ages have resulted in the production of this book of letters.
Publishers’ Note – Letter-Writing is an art, and the greater the practice the greater the perfection. In the modern work-a-day world, numerous situations may arise which call forth one’s best powers in the field of writing, and instances are not wanting of how one often feels bewildered then. All such occasions have been remembered, and years of patient study of the needs of persons of all ages have resulted in the production of this book of letters.
Contents: 1300 pages of letters & 240 pages of Encyclopedia. See the long list of acknowledgements, a long list of stalwarts in their respective fields.
Contents: 1300 pages of letters & 240 pages of Encyclopedia. See the long list of acknowledgements, a long list of stalwarts in their respective fields.
Types of Letters: Personal, Business, Official, and Public. Parts of a letter (6 Parts) - The Heading, The Courteous Greeting, The Message, The subscription, The Signature and The Superscription.
Types of Letters: Personal, Business, Official, and Public. Parts of a letter (6 Parts) – The Heading, The Courteous Greeting, The Message, The subscription, The Signature and The Superscription.
Introduction to Private Letters, Indian Style. Every Private Letter should have six distinct parts as mentioned earlier. Important Notice: Postal Officials are very busy people. They have to handle thousands of letters every day. Many of the letters have to travel hundreds of miles within the country and many thousands of miles beyond. So, if there should be no delay or defect in transit, address your cards and envelopes fully and clearly and then post them.
Introduction to Private Letters, Indian Style. Every Private Letter should have six distinct parts as mentioned earlier. Important Notice: Postal Officials are very busy people. They have to handle thousands of letters every day. Many of the letters have to travel hundreds of miles within the country and many thousands of miles beyond. So, if there should be no delay or defect in transit, address your cards and envelopes fully and clearly and then post them.
Private Letters-Letters of Invitation-Muslims. Wedding - "In the name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful"
Private Letters-Letters of Invitation-Muslims. Wedding – “In the name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful”
Private Letters-Formal Invitations. Opening of Bank Buildings.
Private Letters-Formal Invitations. Opening of Bank Buildings.

In the below letters, you can read the conservative nature of the society towards educated women in those days. It feels good to note the progress we have made in this regard in the last fifty years.

Marriage Letters. A father writing to his son, persuading him to get married - "My dear boy, In spite of my many letters to you regarding your marriage you have not cared at all to send me any reply. Both your mother and I are very much vexed at your indifference in this matter". The boy's reply to his father - "Further, the girl in question seems to have had some college education. Somehow, I have my own prejudices against girls having had higher education."
Marriage Letters. A father writing to his son, persuading him to get married – “My dear boy, In spite of my many letters to you regarding your marriage you have not cared at all to send me any reply. Both your mother and I are very much vexed at your indifference in this matter”. The boy’s reply to his father – “Further, the girl in question seems to have had some college education. Somehow, I have my own prejudices against girls having had higher education.”

Somethings don’t change I suppose. Reading the letter below, you will be surprised to read that corruption was even then associated with the Police force! But the letter actually starts with something more important – “The first thing you should remember is this – In Independent India, unlike in the days of the British rule, the police officials, like any other Government official, have to serve two masters – the first, of course, being the Government and the second being the Public.

Letters of Advice. Advice to a Police official - "Though it might be quite far from the truth, corruption is generally associated with the Police force. I do not agree with the false notion that a particular malpractice is being indulged in by a certain section"
Letters of Advice. Advice to a Police official – “Though it might be quite far from the truth, corruption is generally associated with the Police force. I do not agree with the false notion that a particular malpractice is being indulged in by a certain section”

The below letter gives a piece of advice to a soon to be postal clerk – “First and foremost, always keep smiling and receive members of the public with courtesy”.

Letters of Advice. Advice to a Police official - "Please do not have any affinity, bias or prejudice towards any political party, whether it be the ruling party or the opposition party". Advice to a Postal Clerk
Letters of Advice. Advice to a Police official – “Please do not have any affinity, bias or prejudice towards any political party, whether it be the ruling party or the opposition party”. Advice to a Postal Clerk

The last day or two I spent, going through the book has been a fascinating experience for me. I am sure the book will keep me busy for several more months. I am glad I noticed the box and recollected the book – a big thanks to my aunt for holding on to the metal box for the last six decades.

6 Comments

  1. This a gem that you have discovered. Life in the post independanc era conveyed through letters is what I would like to call. Raw,Formal,British English on a show here.

    We always know about Wren and Martin but this book is too good on those lines. LIFCO should have pushed it at school levels as a part of the curicullam which would have brought students with better standard of english especially the 70s and 80s Kids.

    Enjoyed reading the pages uploaded and esp the letter bt the father and son on finallising the allinace was top class.Just imagined how its happening these days and what an era it has been.Never seen such a formal reply bt a father and son. :)

    As far the eversion/Kindle version it may be a project for a freelaner to do(For e.g https://www.truelancer.com/) but not sure how this will be received these days when letter based communcation is loosing its relevance.

    One of the best post in recent times.

  2. lakshminarasimhan Reply

    I also second the above comment that you can consider releasing paid ebook. In the meanwhile please consider sharing some of the letters from the treasured book

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