Remember the days when you would eagerly anticipate the postman with his bag of goodies? He was a veritable round-the-year Santa Claus. You would await his arrival with baited breath hoping he dropped into your letterbox mails from friends and relatives. You would read the familiar handwriting in the address section of the mail, tear open the mail if it was an inland letter or an envelope with a knife, a screw-driver or even your forefinger if no tool was available, savor the familiarity of the correspondent’s hand-writing, revel in the familiarity of whatever ink-colour used; royal blue, black, green, or sometimes even red!
The internet has been a killjoy. The instantly-delivered emails and even more instant IMs have taken away the joy. Your correspondent clicks the “send” button, the mail drops into your mailbox. You click open the mail in an instant and you send your perfunctory reply, sometime even without even explicitly addressing the mail to the person concerned. I find this whole process so very impersonal. Like this chap sends a pdf file of his wedding invitation, with the main recipient being his own ID and the others in the bcc mode. You click “reply” and send the following message:” Congratulations, I wish I could be there! I can’t. But will try the next time round”! Sounds familiar?
Correspondence is a personal transaction between two individuals, between two personalities. It is not the facts and ideas alone which are being shared, we also share a part of ourselves. And that exchange can never happen in the impersonal confines of an email. You really need to hold in your hands the stationery in which he/ she has written, notice the medium chosen (whether postcards, inlands or envelopes), see the colour of ink chosen, and generally sense all that which defines the persona of your correspondent. And that is something which the generic “Ariel”, “font size 12” in yahoo mail, or hotmail, or gmail, would never match. Even if it was on computer-generated stationery.
The lifeline of communication those days used to be the postman. Bhagatji, our very own postman would cycle down our street, tinkling his quaint cycle bell, indicating that he was in the vicinity. A multitude of heads would pop out of the windows and balconies keeping an eager eye on where Bhagatji would park his cycle. There was a tinge of disappointment if “Bhagatji” would not drop in something into your letter box. “Never mind”, you would tell yourself, “Something would come in tomorrow”. You would go back to life, unhurried, but in deep anticipation. Tomorrow shall come, you would reassure yourself.
And “tomorrow”s brought a multitude of prospects. Letters from relatives, from friends, from employers, from girl/boy friends, from sundry other sources.
“Pen-friends” column was a staple of all the kiddies magazine those days. And probably some grown-up people’s magazines as well. There was a regular column in most magazines which had a half-page long listing of those desirous of pen-friends. Complete with name, age, sex, hobbies and address for correspondence. You would choose someone whose profile matched yours and would write a letter and await the response. There were very few girls in the lists, so I suppose they would get a deluge of responses. I did have a few pen-friends the exchange of letters thick and fast initially would peter out over a period of time.
Unbelievable now, but I took this pen-friend business to a different plane. I actually wrote post cards to a couple of dailies in Pakistan giving my background and seeking friends from across the border. (Those days the postal stationery applicable for India also held good for some neighbouring countries.) “Dawn” from Karachi was one of the papers I wrote to; the other newspaper was based in Lahore whose name I do not remember now. My letter got published in as was evident from two letters I received from Karachi. One was in Urdu, a language I did not know then, so further correspondence was ruled out. But the other was in English and my friendship with Wasim Iqbal continued for a couple of years! Complete with exchanges of photographs.
Letter-writing was taught in language classes. Different formats of letters were taught; son in a hostel writing to father seeking additional funds, letter to the local municipal corporation seeking restoration of street lights, letters to the school principal requesting leave to attend a family function, letter to a friend describing your summer holidays etc. Incidentally everyone’s destination for the fictitious summer vacation would be Simla. My first visit to Simla was decades later only when I was several years into my job, but I had mastered the topography and weather of Simla by rote and would write a detailed letter on it.
The letters to friends and peers were always initiated with the endearing “Pyaare Mitr”, or “Priya Mitr”. And to those senior or for those in authority the standard beginning line was “Seva mein savinay nivedan hai…” That must have been the Hindi adaptation of the colonial phraseology “I beg to state that…”
Letter-writing is still taught, and pretty much along similar lines. That I can see from my sons’ school books. It is another matter that neither of them writes letters, as in a chitthi. Correspondence, for them now is an email which starts variants of the salutation “Hey dude”. And then a string of strange words and abbreviations punctuated with arcane (to me) smileys. I wish they would teach the kids how to write decent emails!
Letter-writing was a must during my hostel days, a-letter-a-week home was mandatory. This was invariably an Inland letter then a very cost-effective 20 or 25 paise. Some friends would dodge this discipline making their parents totally unhappy. In fact, a common point of discussion among parents whose kids were in the hostel was the frequency- or lack of it- of letters from their children. One of my friends would outright lie to his parents that while was indeed punctual with his correspondence, the vagaries of the postal system ensured that his letters never got delivered. His father’s prompt response: send all the letters “UCP”, “Under Certificate of Posting”. I suppose that would have put paid to all his lies.
One you left the hostel, letters were the only source of contact with classmates. Postcards, Inlands and sometimes even envelopes were the means of communication. “Chitthi”,-a letter- was the sole bond with classmates in disparate geographies.
Talking about mail exchange between friends, here is another example. Pitaji, my father, is an inveterate letter-writer. He would write as much as 150 letters a year (I know this as he would keep a log of all the letters he wrote) till a few years ago when his eyesight was still good. He is now 85 years old and has lost sight in one eye and the other eye not too good. But he still manages to write a few letters a month. He has a friend living in another city who is 10 years older to him. Neither can travel to meet the other but the standing pact between the two of them is that they will exchange one postcard between them in a month. And they have rigorously kept this commitment over the last 20 years or so. That one-postcard-a-month routine has kept each of them of the goings-on in the other’s lives, the progress of children, grand-children and great grand-children.
It is this love Pitaji has for correspondence that he wrote to me a series of 18-odd letters on his views on his spiritual guru, Vinoba Bhave’s, philosophy. That was enough material for a book which I got published in 2009. Regular readers of this blog would have read an account of this in a couple of earlier posts of mine: Making of the book, The book release function.
I have not yet touched upon a genre of letters which was pretty popular; love-letters. These letters for which the young people of the neighborhood would flock to the local post office early in the morning to pick up the mail direct from the postman’s sorting station. Just to ensure that such letters did not get delivered to others in the family. It was a common thing those days, and perhaps even now, that anyone in the family would open the mail.
Unfortunately I did not have any exposure to this genre till I got married. My wife’s Bhabhi did try to inculcate this into me after I got engaged; She gifted me a bunch of writing stationery which had romance written all over. Right from the extravagant curliqued die-cut of the paper, the pink colour, and the floral motif on the edges. I was expected to write “love-letters” to my would-be wife on this stationery as we waited out the few months before the wedding took place.
I think wrote one letter on this stationery. But the one letter to her which I remember the most was scribbled on something completely different.
I was a regional sales manager based In Delhi covering North India. A twice-a-month visit to Punjab was common. On one of the train-rides from Ambala to Delhi I got no seating place, the train was so crowded. I had to manage with just enough standing space. I was bored as hell, and then I had this sudden urge to write to me fiancée. Those days most of us sales managers carried a small notebook- spiral bound- in our shirt pockets. This was used to note some salient points from our market work: distributor’s outstanding, his stock-holding, details of the cheques collected etc. I pulled out my notebook. And wrote to my fiancee one lengthy letter, consuming the entire notebook, standing in the train from Ambala to New Delhi. I poured out my love to her into those tiny pieces of paper.
And that, dear readers, was my first and the last love-letter.
I wonder if my dear wife has preserved the letter. Even if she has not, I still dearly preserve the memory….