Virtual ink

Last Updated : 15 October 2010, 14:03 IST

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I can rant about the shenanigans of politicians in my state in a note and tag all my friends. Or I can email an aunt, and tell her how much I loved the pictures she forwarded me. Somewhere in the mid-late Nineties, we discovered the Internet. And that changed things in a way we never could imagine back then.

Back then, setting up an email account (most of us had hotmail accounts) acquired some sort of ceremonial importance. The whole family had fancy email ids and bizarre passwords, and then, slowly, but surely, we got used to the business of email.

That meant we no longer waited for the postman to fling that yellow coloured postcard or the blue inland letter and shout ‘post.’ There was a time when we did. At least I did. There were letters from my grandfather in the village, telling us, in a rather matter-of-fact manner that “crops have failed us one more time.” Or that an errant relative continued with his errant ways.

Then there were letters we children were encouraged to write.  With blue ink pens. Hero pens. And colour sketch pens for effect. Letters we were asked to write in school as “holiday home-work.” Letters we wrote to the host family after the mid-term vacation.

Also, there were letters written to pen friends. Addresses gleaned from Tinkle comics, addresses gleaned from radio shows. And then, being flooded with letters including one from a 13-year-old from 24 Paraganas with a photo attached.

But, what we are missing now, when there are no more letters from loved ones in the red mailbox attached to our gates, is the handwriting. Some letters written in lovely cursive foster, other letters that looked like ants were crawling over the paper.

What we are also missing now, it seems to me, is the thought that goes into writing a letter itself, buying stamps, stationery, and more importantly, the joy of holding a letter in your hands, touching it and feeling its texture..all part of the memory that a letter leaves behind of a person we care for.

With the death (well almost) of letter-writing died an entire way of life. Remember the ubiquitous makeshift wire to which letters were stuck? Remember the time when the postman would be welcomed with a glass of water or buttermilk? Remember the cycle and the khaki gear of the postman?

Lakshmi Pratury, who was the co-host of TEDIndia 2009, makes a moving speech on this forgotten art of letter-writing. “My father left me a legacy of his handwriting through letters and a notebook...After he died, I realised that no one writes to me anymore.

Handwriting is a disappearing art. I’m all for email, and thinking while typing, but why give up old habits for new? Why can’t we have letter writing and email exchange in our lives?” she asks in her TED talk.

Good handwriting is a disappearing art, indeed. I remember sitting in the house of the great grandson of Sir Mirza Ismail, one of the greatest Dewans of the erstwhile Mysore state, in complete awe of the great man’s letters and notes in impeccable handwriting.  
Such communication between Dewans and kings, between statesmen has now found its way into state archives departments and museums. Stuff that still gives us goosebumps.
While we bemoan the end of the era of ink pen written letters, it must be said that we are a better communicated society today. not only our own lives, but those of everyone around us. Joy multiplied as did sorrow and the postcard helped bind us together.”

And yet, as social commentator Santosh Desai so succinctly puts it in his book Mother Pious Lady, Making Sense of Everyday India, “The postcard lived in a era of publicly-owned conversations. We lived Which brings me to an interesting short story titled Abachurina Post-Office (Abachur’s Post-Office) by Poornachandra Tejaswi, a well-known Kannada writer. The author vividly paints a picture of villagers who gather at Abachur’s part-time post master Bobanna’s home (which doubles up as the post-office) for a public reading of letters. When the letters are about something that brings them pride, there is a spring in the stride of the recipient, if not, there is much gossiping. Eventually, the post-office is shut down, but that’s another story.

Like Desai points out, back then, “Letters were never private; they were always to be read out... one was expected to ‘send a postcard’ for the most trivial of reasons.”
Much like British novelist Evelyn Waugh once said, “Beware of writing to me. I always answer ... My father spent the last 20 years of his life writing letters. If someone thanked him for a wedding present, he thanked them for thanking him and there was no end to the exchange but death.”

Today, if you were to thank me for a present, I would text you with an effortless ‘tnx’ to which you might in all probability send me a smiley.

Published 15 October 2010, 14:00 IST

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