Letters are generally of two kinds, public/official and private. Official letters are, for the historian, helpful simply in establishing the basic parameters of a life: where someone was posted, whether or not the person was present at a battle, if he or she commanded troops, when exactly a plague arrived in a city. Often, however, official letters tell much more: details of ceremony on taking up a new posting, an estimation of the local political situation and problems, factional disputes, tax collection, attitudes toward local people, problems on the border, advice from senior officials. Even if the letters are formulaic they show expectations of center/ provincial relations, cross-generational information and opportunities for advancement. At best official letters show even more: the struggles of an official to cope with a poorly-understood culture, perhaps working in an unknown language. Many official letters were, in effect, reports on a region, its people, its institutions and its overall condition. Such reports reveal as much about their author as about the region. A biographer looks for what the official did not notice, what questions he did not ask, who he dealt with, what were the mutually understood expectations, who he looked to for information. Through these choices the biographer learns about rebellions, cooperation, and occasional glimpses of who the "biographee" trusts and why.Of course, the "biographee" produced reports with much knowledge of who their audience would be and how they would be used, both in his favor and against him. The biographer must struggle to understand these same limitations and opportunities in reports by reading many, rather than just the ones from the "biographee". This is the only way to understand the reports as a genre, rather than unfiltered information.
Next time, I'll turn to private letters as a source for biography in South Asia.