Let fingers write

When I was five, my parents left me with my mother's parents in old Madras. I joined the primary school in Sylvan Kilpauk and learnt my 'a-b-c' there, as well as my 'a-aa-e-ee-'. We played in the sand-pit, swung high and low and thumped on the seesaw while imbibing the rudiments of two languages and arithmetic. We sang hymns with the headmistress tapping the piano keys, quizzed on the capitals of Poland or France or even the US of A, and heard the story of King Bruce and the spider with the motto, "Try, try, try again!"

When I came to Class V, my parents, now posted to Thanjavur, reclaimed me. I switched to the Tamil medium at high school. It was wartime: 1940. On the coast of Coromandel, British Raj was galvanised by air-raid sirens, underground shelters, rationing of rice, sugar, petrol, plus inflation and black markets.

I loved forming letters in copybooks with pages evenly ruled in three-line sets, like telegraph lines along the railway. Thathu was a stickler for neat handwriting. He wrote a "copperplate" script, inked by steel-pens, legible even after a 100 years. I liked the loops for h, j and y, above the middle line or below; but disliked the instruction, "cross the t's and dot the i's".

Miss Devadas, my dear teacher, rejected shoddy work; we tried to write the letters fluently in cursive script, the capital letters and the linking to the lower case letters. Later, this habit became an obsession. I lost respect for those who wrote fast, but at the cost of clarity. In middle age, I was aghast when I could not make out my own scribbles. Yoga apart, medical science is frustrated to remedy weakening motor reflexes. Literacy is a lifelong quest.

So, my second childhood sends me back to the copybook. At first, it was a chore to write a page in my notebook anthology. Someday science will turn to calligraphy to improve brain cell-muscle-nerve co-ordination. I had a decent hand, but my lettering sprawled over sheets like plump chicks with angular beaks and crooked legs. A Cambridge don once lauded my handwriting, if not the content of my tutorial essay.

The eras of the typewriter, first, followed by the computer, iPad and iPhone have overtaken us. Calligraphy is a decorative art which I admire from samples I have seen in Europe, China and Japan. Graphology is an aspect of penmanship relying on the distinctness of each person. I would hesitate to give my writing to an expert, who may be troubled by syndromes unknown to me.

We have come a long way from papyrus and reed pens, stylus, rock-face and palm leaf, to the era of inscriptions in cyberspace. How unique everyone is, how precious as a fellow-being, past, present or future. In Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Edward Fitzgerald's famous English version), the poet says: "The moving finger writes, and having writ/ Moves on..." Not half a line of it can be cancelled. (No 'delete button' there). I recall our native idiom about "one's destiny being written on the forehead" and the phrase about "the writing on the wall".

I still enjoy the feel of pen and paper, if the pen does not leak, the sheet is bond paper and my hand stays true to my intent. I mentally salute Thathu and Miss Devadas for guiding me to the treasury of script and letters.

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