A villager in Orissa has got letters from Mother Teresa, Neil Armstrong, Edmund Hillary, George Bush…
In the remote village of Olihan in Orissa, it is not hard to find Priyabrat Biswal’s house. He is famous as the man who possesses more than 500 letters from the who’s who of the world. Lady Diana, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Ali are just some of the famous people who have replied to him.
A state transporter and book publisher by profession, 40-year-old Priyabrat wrote his first letter to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. But she was assassinated the same month, and Priyabrat didn’t get a reply. “When I was in school, I used to wonder if celebrities would respond to letters written by ordinary people. Since I was studying in an Oriya medium school, I didn’t have the guts to write a letter in my rickety English. I gathered courage only in college,” he says.
Undeterred by his failed first attempt, Priyabrat continued to write to world leaders and was pleasantly surprised when he got a reply from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987. “I jumped with joy when I saw the letter. I showed it to everyone in my village,” he grins.
That was just the beginning of a series of letter exchanges with the high and mighty. Literature, politics, sports, science—Priyabrat didn’t leave a single field untouched. Yasser Arafat, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Amitabh Bachchan, Carl Lewis and Michael Jordan, they all wrote back. “The most notable letters I have are by Neil Armstrong, Edmund Hillary, Mother Teresa and former US presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush,” he says.
However, there was a drastic reversal in 1999, when the super cyclone hit Orissa. It took away a large part of his albums. His collection went down from 1,500 letters to 500. “One of my albums was with my sister in Bhubaneswar and that is how it got saved,” he says. He immediately started to add to his depleted collection.
It isn’t easy to get responses from the rich and famous. The biggest hurdle is getting the correct address. He has to rely on websites and agents. There is, of course, no guarantee that a celebrity will reply. In fact, the response rate is less than 1 per cent. “I write 100 letters daily, out of which only a few get replies. I wrote 111 letters to PT Usha before getting a response. With Bill Clinton, it was even harder. I wrote to him for eight years and it is only after that that he replied,” says Priyabrat.
Priyabrat now plans to set up a museum and use the proceeds to build a school. His latest letter has been to US President Barack Obama. “He hasn’t replied yet, but let’s hope he does,” chuckles Priyabrat.