From me to you

Last Updated : 29 August 2015, 18:30 IST
Last Updated : 29 August 2015, 18:30 IST

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The constant peering out of doors and windows... ears tuned to the ting-ting of the postman’s bicycle bell... the khaki-clad man dropping something into the letter-box... the rush to retrieve it, tear open the flap... eyes eagerly deciphering the script and devouring the letters that run into words and form thoughts... the need to reread to make full sense of it...

Have you experienced this joy? Aah, you’ve received a letter!
There is a romance to a letter written by one person, specifically meant to be read only by the intended recipient. The outpouring of innermost thoughts is inked onto paper by someone who devotes his time and focuses his energy on conveying his true feelings. He expects that the recipient will understand what he is talking about, and accept the ideas and sympathise with him. In case of a conflict, he may either seek to explain away misunderstandings and suggest an amicable end to the conflict, or seek to escalate it. He may ask for help or give it. He may profess his deep, undying devotion, or reciprocate the other’s feelings, or reject them. He may express joy or sorrow for the events in someone else’s lives. He may even simply narrate commonplace events that occur in his own life, hoping that something may spark the other’s interest.

The one common factor in every letter written is the assumption of privacy. It is this assurance that no one else is going to read his letters that a person bares his soul on paper. In the words of Dr Johnson, “In a man’s letters, you know, madam, his soul lies naked.” In general, we tend to avert our eyes from others’ nakedness. But, do we not like to peek?

We can never deny our prurient interest in other people’s letters. As soon as we see a person holding an envelope with cancelled stamps on it, we ask, “Who is it from? What have they written?”

This voyeuristic tendency becomes hard to fight when you find yourself holding someone else’s opened letter in your hand. “To read or not to read” becomes the moral question, and there are a lot of us who have succumbed to our baser impulses. Some of us can’t resist even sealed envelopes. One method to open sealed envelopes secretly is to hold the sealed edge in steam. The other is even better: put the sealed letter in a plastic freezer bag and keep it in the freezer for a few hours. The glue loses its stickiness, and the flap can be carefully eased open. When the envelope reaches room temperature, you can simply restick the flap.

As everyone knows reading others’ letters is illegal, but even worse, it is unethical. Letters contain secrets meant for the eyes of the concerned, who care for the person and understand the person and the context in which the secrets are revealed. However, in the hands of others, they become items of cheap gossip and speculation, and may even be used as weapons against them. Many a letter of love, especially the illicit kind, has been sent with special instructions to ‘Burn this letter, my love, for if it falls into the wrong hands, we are doomed.’

‘Do not read others’ letters’ may be an entry in the code of conduct, but fortunately there is a time limit to this. Letters written a long time ago, those whose writers and recipients have passed on, those whose contents are innocuous... all these are open game, and can be enjoyed by all.

Luckily, there are plenty of letters written on all kinds of topics through the ages to be enjoyed by the voyeur in us. In fact, the history of letter-writing seems to be almost as old as the history of writing. Initially, the correspondence was just between rulers, talking of war and peace, of making alliances and breaking them. The oldest correspondence ever sent were a set of diplomatic letters known as the Amarna letters sent in 14th century BC. They were written on clay tablets and were exchanged between the Egyptian pharaohs and leaders of neighbouring states. Also old are the Epistles of Paul or Letters of Paul written by the Christian apostle Paul, which speak of the beliefs and controversies of early Christianity.

Looking back
The earliest letters were sent in the Persian Empire (6th century BC) via horsemen. The Chinese and the Romans also had their own mail service, where letters were collected and carried in bulk from one place to another by horsemen or people in carriages drawn by horse or oxen. Interestingly, the word mail refers not to the letters, but ‘bag full of letters’. And the word ‘post’ comes from the Latin name of mail, ‘posta’, ‘posata’ or ‘pausata’, which were the stations or stops at which mail carriers rested during their voyages to distribute mail.

The history of postage stamps is another story altogether. In England, before the postal reforms of 1840, sending a letter used to be very expensive. Mail was charged by the sheet, and the distance covered. So, the bigger the letter and the longer the distance covered, the higher the charge. Also, it was the receiver who was charged and not the sender.

In 1837, an English schoolmaster named Rowland Hill suggested that paid postage could be created “...by using a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” This was the first adhesive postage stamp. He also proposed that the postage be weight-based and paid by the sender. The first stamp ever issued was the British Penny Black, on May 6, 1840, bearing the profile of Queen Victoria printed in black and white. With this stamp, any letter weighing under half an ounce would cost the sender only one penny. You can imagine how communication must have picked up after that.

In India, the postal services were first established by the East India Company. In March 1774, the then-Governor-General Warren Hastings opened it to the public. The first postal stamp in India was introduced on July 1, 1852. In 1858, the British Raj was established and by 1861, there were 889 post offices handling both correspondence and newspaper distribution. And, as of March 31, 2014, there were over 1,54,882 post offices in India, making ours the largest postal network in the world.

Well, the history of the postal system may be dry, but the actual letters and their contents are anything but that. Not only do they present ideas in a personal way, but also tell us what type of person wrote them. Many, many wonderful letters have been written on various subjects, and many of them by noteworthy people. But there are some truly unusual letters that are worth a second look.

The longest personal letter ever was written in 1952 during the Korean War by a lady in Brooklyn, New York, to her boyfriend, a private in the US Army, stationed in Korea. Instead of regular writing paper, the woman used the paper used in adding machines. The letter was 3,200 feet long and took her one month to write. The shortest letter ever written was one by Victor Hugo in 1862 in France. Hugo had completed Les Miserables and then left on a vacation. Eager to know how his book was selling, he sent this letter to his publisher: “?” His publisher replied in the same vein: “!”

Then there are epoch-making letters, like the one Christopher Columbus sent his patrons, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Castile. We can only imagine the excitement when a man they had lent some money to suddenly sent them a letter with news that he had discovered and claimed new lands in their names. Yes, Columbus did write such a letter, titled ‘Letter of Columbus, on the islands of India beyond the Ganges recently discovered’ to refer vaguely to South-East Asia. This letter was published and became a bestseller of the time. An excerpt from it: “There I found very many islands, filled with innumerable people, and I have taken possession of them all for their Highnesses, done by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.”

If only...
While the one by Columbus brought him fame, some others may remember letters they wish they hadn’t sent. One such is a letter that Fidel Castro, former dictator of Cuba, sent to Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of United States, when he was 14 years old. In it, he asked Roosevelt to send him a 10 dollar bill: “If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green American, in the letter, because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green American and I would like to have one of them.”

Letters of great statesmen show that the simplicity of their ideas coupled with a steely moral core are the characteristics that make them heroes forever. One such person was Abraham Lincoln, whose letters were always short and full of content. His condolence letter to a Mrs Bixby who was said to have lost five sons in the Civil War, and his letter to his son’s teacher are perfect examples of his style. However, his letter to Horace Greely, editor of the New York Tribune, is unique, for it states his principles in no uncertain terms. In it he says, “I would save the Union. I would save it under the Constitution,” and adds, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Having said that, he ends his letter thus: “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” 

Another wonderful letter is one Gandhiji wrote to Hitler in July 1939, asking him to end the war. It is extremely short, just seven sentences. “It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be?” he asks. He signs off with, “I remain, Your sincere friend, M.K. Gandhi.” Unfortunately, Hitler never got this letter.

A letter that will interest every Rock and Roll fan is from Keith Richards to his Aunt Patty, where he describes his chance reunion with his childhood friend Mick Jagger at Dartford Station: “Anyways, the guy on the station, he is called Mick Jagger and all the chicks and the boys meet every Saturday morning in the ‘Carousel’ some juke-joint well one morning in Jan I was walking past and decided to look him up.” This meeting eventually led to the formation of the iconic Rock and Roll band, the Rolling Stones, which is the oldest rock band still performing.

Reply letters from celebrities are always appreciated, but never was one appreciated like Maurice Sendak’s letter to a young fan. The famous author of the children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are says, “I got a letter back from his mother which said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That, to me, was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received.”

A 16-year-old Sacia Flowers, who had lost both her parents, wrote to J K Rowling about how much she identified with Harry Potter who suffers the same fate. Rowling wrote an incredibly moving letter empathising with her and ended it by giving her boasting rights: “I will treasure your letter (which entitles you to boast about this response as much as you like!)”

Letters are often written to express a person’s ideas. Charles Babbage, mathematician and father of the computer, once wrote to poet Alfred Tennyson regarding his poem ‘The Vision of Sin’. One verse had the lines ‘Every minute dies a man, Every minute one is born.’ But Babbage knew that the rate of birth is slightly higher than the rate of death. So he wrote a letter to the poet, saying, “I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read — “Every minute dies a man, Every minute  one and a sixteenth is born.” Wonder what Tennyson thought of Babbage’s idea.

We’ve all come across love letters, tributes to that emotion that makes human beings unique. But rarely do we come across a love letter to a dead person. Renowned physicist Richard Feynman married his wife Arline knowing that she was seriously ill with tuberculosis. Even so he was devastated by her death just a few short years later in 1945. About 16 months after her death, he wrote her a letter that remained sealed until after his death. In it he talks about how he still loves her: “...And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now, yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.” The ultimate heartbreak comes at the end: “My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead. Rich. P.S: Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.” There cannot be a more poignant love letter.

Well, however much we loved to write and receive letters, we’ve practically given up on them nowadays. And given our complete addiction to electronic media today, the future of handwritten letters is undoubtedly bleak. But creativity being the very essence of the human experience, Man’s wish to express himself is bound to manifest in some other unique and enchanting way. So, instead of just wallowing in nostalgia, why not look to the future eagerly?
Published 29 August 2015, 16:58 IST

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