For The Love of Letters
I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a generation where the practice of exchanging letters was still alive, even if it was on its way out. I remember receiving mail from a family friend in Chicago, who would write every Christmas. Our family would huddle together to read about the latest happenings of the Hira family, the wafts of perfumed ink filling up our living room as we were transported to theirs through the pictures that often accompanied the letters. Staring deeply into those images etched on photographic film, the smiles of our friends transcending the long distances, dusk would fade into twilight before we knew it.
Those days seem far away now. Somewhere in my memory, the years of letter-writing fade into the years of email-sending. The quiet rhythmic scratch of a fountain pen on handmade paper was replaced with the keyboard clicking away. Spelling errors that were scratched out, leaving the marks of imperfection that make us human, were replaced with spell check. Letters as thick with emotion as they were covered with postage marks from the USA, were replaced with emails and scanned images. (Digital cameras were not quite affordable yet.) We saw the smiles in pixels but they still spoke the same language. Letter writing became the “optional” way of communication between friends and family, not the only way. The postman became a less familiar figure, appearing once a year to collect Diwali bakshish. Perfumed ink companies shut shop, and packets of pretty envelopes gathered dust on a bookshelf. Fountain pens were used only to sign cheques, if at all.
Letter writing seemed to be dying, and what was worse was that no one seemed to be making an effort to hold on. It’s like the words stealthily made their exit in the middle of the night when we weren’t watching.
But sometime around 2004 I met a friend who re-introduced me to the beauty of communicating through letters. Once a young observer, I became an active participant in this beautiful, almost-forgotten medium. Of course, the way my friend Lipi and I used it was very different from the times when it was the sole means to exchange news and pleasantries, I suppose. But that did not hamper the joy we derived from it. Once a week, I’d pen down the happenings of the last seven days: a boy I had a crush on giving me attention, my parents conceding to buy me something I’d been demanding for a while, and other eventful things that occur in the life of a 14-year-old. The six-page documentation of my life was posted once a week to Lipi, who lived 20 kilometers away, and in exchange, I’d receive a narration of her own events in almost as much detail. We would also chat on the phone occasionally, but the rule was we could only discuss the contents of letters already received, so as not to ruin the surprise of the next one.
Over the years the novelty died down. We finished school and went to college, where life got so interesting there wasn’t time to excitedly record by hand everything that happened. We acquired mobile phones and kept each other posted “live” instead of 10 days behind. But I’d still receive mail from Lipi occasionally. A good luck card for exams, a friendship day card, and sometimes and best — a card for no reason at all. The letters may have been phased out, but the bond we built exchanging them remained.
There’s something extremely intimate about pouring your heart out on a piece of paper to someone who will read it days (maybe weeks, what with the speed of the Indian postal system) later, and something magical and warm that only comes through a response in ink.
I’ve found the slow death of the letter has made the rare occurrence of receiving one even more joyous. When a friend and I interned in rural Uttarakhand for two months, we wrote letters to our friends in the city, enclosing bits of our lives for them to experience from afar, like a leaf from a peach tree in our backyard, its faint scent conveying more about our mornings than the highest-res photo. Our friends still remember the sheer excitement at receiving those time capsules of our lives. And from the highest post office in the world, in Hikkim, Spiti, I sent postcards to all of the family and friends whose addresses I could remember, souvenirs more personal than Tibetan flags. I’ve even written a letter to myself, posting it from Ahmedabad to Mumbai—mostly to have an envelope with the charkha post mark, but also to immortalise a special moment I didn’t want to forget.
And that’s what letters are after all, aren’t they? A conversation, a moment, a feeling, an experience made tangible with ink, made memorable for as long as the paper will last. To lose letter writing is to lose a part of ourselves, the part shared uninhibitedly with others — the part remembered when the rest is gone. Letter writing isn’t dead until we let it die. And there are so many reasons to keep it alive. The email, with its instant delivery, easily legible font and equal line spacing, could never replace the anticipation of posting a letter and waiting for it to be received, the intimacy of knowing how someone dots their I’s, and the urgency you sense in squished words. And as long as there are enough people in the world who believe that, I shall continue to check my post box excitedly every week, hoping that someone will write.