You are how you mail

Medium and Message

You are how you mail

Photo illustration: Yathi Siddakatte

Dear you, some of you may still remember reaching out - to friends, aunts, grandmas, that little girl you met while traveling - with a handwritten note. You wrote the address in the ‘To’ column provided, found a postage stamp, licked it on to the envelope and wrote, with great thought, your letter.

Formal or informal, job application or love letter, a heart to heart outpouring or an apology, condolence or congratulations, you have done them all. There was the name you wrote on the top, that of the intended receiver of the letter, and a name you wrote at the bottom, ‘yours.’

And then you walked over to the dusty red mailbox down the street and, taking one last lingering look at the envelope and imagining the look on the receiver’s face when he got this, you posted it. Then for the following three days you lived in euphoric suspense - today, today he/she will get the letter! You gave the return mail another three days to arrive and went to bed with a fond smile, anticipating the swishing sound under your door when the reply letter finally came.

Cut to present day. You peep over your teenage son’s shoulder and he types into his chat: gtg. What he means is ‘got to go as mom is here poking her nose into my business as usual.’ But if you are me, very trusting and tech-unsavvy, you will ruffle his hair affectionately and keep on staring at the screen absentmindedly till told to leave in a little more definite terms.

The world then gets divided along mailing lines - snail mail vs. email. You are how you mail. Slow and cumbersome, taking everything more profoundly than you should or the with-it dude/dudette who knows how to Braille her mobile. They text as the knitters of yore, without looking down once.

Lost messeges

Certainly if you rip open the seams of time, what will come tumbling out is mankind’s attempts at communication in the form of words and more words; stone tablets, cave carvings, message in a bottle, telegrams, historical letters, literary letters, legal letters, proposing letters, disposing letters, con letters, confession letters, terse letters, stolen letter, unsent letters and those returned to sender.

Postcards - indicative of an innocent generation that thought nothing of putting in such public view their innermost thoughts - are extinct from non-use, indicating our heightened need for privacy, which we imagine cyber-space to provide us with despite all evidence to the contrary.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s tender letters to Lady Edwina Mountbatten, his letters to Indira Gandhi in the summer of 1928 when she was in Mussoorie, Mahatma Gandhi’s letters to Adolf Hitler in 1938, any letter by matinee icons like Marilyn Monroe or musical legends like John Lennon are all preserved for posterity.

Many books, fiction and nonfiction, have been written in the form of letters. From Letters of a Portuguese Nun, published anonymously in Paris in 1669, to Abby Lee’s blog-turned-book Girl with a one-track mind, published in 2006, the epistolary format is much favored.

The message is the medium in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to talk about Kevin, Jean Webster’s Daddy Longlegs, Jane Austen’s Love and Friendship and Oriana Fallaci’s Letter to a child never born. Plays like Tumhari Amrita and Love Letters and movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, all use it as the story-telling mode.

Women in various stages of writing letters have been painted left and right while Charlote Bronte wrote in a poem:

‘What is she writing ? Watch her now,
How fast her fingers move!
How eagerly her youthful brow
Is bent in thought above!...
…Still fixed her eye,
Unsmiling, earnest, still,
And fast her pen and fingers fly,
Urged by her eager will.
Her soul is in th’ absorbing task;
To whom, then, doth she write?
Nay, watch her still more closely, ask
Her own eyes’ serious light;
Where do they turn, as now her pen
Hangs o’er th’ unfinished line?’

The post office is a vacant spot today, used more to send parcels if the local couriers are not open that day. Cartoons about mail-men being bitten by dogs have dramatically disappeared. Indeed, it is rare to see a post-man in your vicinity, cheerily looking for a particular door number. James Cain said, “The postman always rings twice,” but that was way back in 1934 when he used to come around with a sack full of mail, like Santa. Don’t shoot the messenger? Honey, we did. No little boy wants to be a postman when he grows up.

Modern mailing matters crested in audience consciousness when pop singer Britney Spears was rumored to have dumped one of her husbands via an sms.
We are in a tearing hurry, we ‘move on’, say ‘so long’ and prefer ‘long time no see’ to seeing anything through. Ever since we took the business of correspondence online, we are able to say ‘keep in touch’ without looking anyone in the eye. We know which side our bread is buttered and see no point in keeping communication lines too open. We imagine, in our mild megalomania, that this way we are in charge of our own privacy, that we let leak only those details that we choose to share. We only have to Google-stalk someone we barely know to learn this is untrue.

End of ceremonies

Letters, on the other hand, went into the safekeeping of a particular person, usually someone special, in whose integrity you implicitly believed. Little ceremonies attended this belief. Letters were kept in bank safes, letters were demanded back dramatically, were burnt in a bonfire when love had run its course and used as blackmail bait by the villain in a bad Hindi film.

But sending innumerable texts, pinging the world and its aunt mercilessly is to travel into the unknown. Details and photographs, sometimes morphed into what we are not and never will be, haunt us eternally in cyber-splendor.

From the red-letter day that we pulled the plug and watched old-fashioned letters glug down the drain, we have been vaguely dissatisfied. We waved goodbye not just to a time-consuming (as we saw it) tradition and gotten all up to date, we also turned into an impatient people, getting all stressed out and needing sedatives just to combat the long seconds that the PC takes to come on, for the Net to start and for the mail to be accessed. Even then we compulsively click-click, waiting for that mail that has not arrived in the inbox yet.

Camaraderie rules and communication channels, our fundamental understanding of the moral debts we owe nature, mankind, ourselves and our links to our own limitations have all changed. The whole world has shrunk into a global village, yes, but has our mind expanded or gone all ingrown toenail? Kahlil Gibran prophesied in The Prophet:  ‘At the city gate and by your fireside, I have seen you.. Prostrate yourself and worship your own freedom.’

Ironically, the internet while giving us this modern mailing system, also offers infinite websites on letter writing the old-fashioned way: leave letter writing, personal letter writing, resignation letter, love letter writing etc. There are even sample letters to initiate the novice, showing him what a letter used to look like, endangered species that they are. Soon there may be a sketch of the suspected human receiver of this sample letter.
While linguistic purists bemoan the murder of grammar and any recognisable speech, the newcomers welcome the garbled gobbledygook they have painstakingly created with their own two hands. The new lingo ridicules the use of long full sentences and fuddy-duddy keeping to punctuation rules.

Nowhere is ageing more apparent than in your communiques. ‘Rlx’, texts the teenager. ‘Spam,’ shout the old-timers, only they put it on record in an elaborate sentence, with the date and place typed neatly on the right-hand corner and all their signatures in a straight row.

You can type in ‘lol’ all deadpan, put in a smiley while painfully jaw-stretched at the dentist’s and put in a series of xxxxxx when you wouldn’t take your mouth anywhere near the person you claim to mwah. In a world full of speed, where you can’t idle your car behind another vehicle at a traffic light without feeling a deep sense of loss, the fast-forward in correspondence is really no surprise.

While the letter writers like to take their time, the new breed prefers to keep it light. After all, they argue, we are keeping to the spirit if not the letter! I considered writing this letter to you as an email but pressed ‘send’ before I could finish it. Fastest finger in the East, that’s me. Then I wondered if a happy merger was possible - between the dying postal forces of yore and the fresh-blooded army of texters with twitchy fingers advancing upon us? I hereby attempt one.

Yours truly.

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