Monday, July 09, 2007

The Lost Arts - Letter Writing

Will you write to me?
Monsoon carries its mark on the soggy yellow envelope with my name - written in ink - resembling Rorschach pattern of love with faded blue hearts stretching darker blue hands around the waist of another, and a delicate finger extending down the pin-code in a desultory manner, lending the possibility of a hidden message to surface on some lonely wintry night when the crackling of flames and this lone finger, now dry, signifies that one single chance I had to keep the flame burning between the writer of the address and the one she loved to address in ink. What I did is distilled as the evening I spend by the only fire I can keep going.

Writing letters to people is, now, mostly a lost inclination and surely a lost art. I still remember how I would rush to my bed, lay the board (a compressed hardboard) on my lap and stack 10 sheets of paper on top of that. My pen (which was then either a Camlin fountain pen with a striped see-through kamarband - and many hours were spent in watching the ink roll down the side from one end to the other - or those Chinese Hero pens with a shy nib peeking out from the brown/black/green bakelite) was always on a full tank before such exercises (and exams, though we shall stick to pleasant memories here). It would be my pride to have to refill a pen in the course of writing a single letter to a single friend. I would make sure that my friend knew about that milestone event by trying to press out every bit of wetness from the pen, and s/he would get to see the fading letters across the length of a line, followed by some darker ones (which were granted a richer life by flicking my pen and dipping the nib in little micro-scale blue/black igloos and watching the mound climb back up the metal stairway of the nib) till the last couple of letters of a suitably (well-chosen) long word were mere impressions created on paper. A new paragraph helped accentuate this milestone.

Dictionaries were always placed near my right thigh with Fowler's books (King's English and Modern English Usage) along my left. Coming to think of it, it does go well with the modern neurologist's views of the functions of the hemispheres. It would frighten me no end to send out a letter with spelling mistakes or horrible grammar. Nevertheless, I did indulge in an occasional game of not confirming the spelling before penning it. It was a personal dare between myself and the brittle pages of my old dictionary (which, I believe, is older than I am). There are very few artifacts in my life which accompany me no matter where I go; this tome is one of them. I still have a Post-It in its confines which enumerates the number of words under each letter, and how long it would take me to memorise the whole thing. I have had a, shall I say different? childhood.

Nowadays, with all these spell checkers removing the need to be correct in the first place, the bonhomie of paper, pen and reference guides is mostly lost. You can't run a spell check on a sheet of paper (unless the paper is electronically special or scanned and run through an extraction software, whose reliability is just that much) and you don't use paper and ink when you prefer to use a spell checker.

Often the chore of an age becomes the romance of the ones that follow it. I would agree in most cases (using a wood-fuel stove, washing clothes in the ghats, etc.) but letter writing is essentially personal and not a mere moist-eyed romantic view of a task. Today, I could login to your account and send a mail to your mom and she wouldn't know it wasn't her son/daughter. How sure would you be of pulling that off with a letter? I care a tinker's damn about security, so this is not my prime reason for missing letters written to me.

Letters leant a personal touch to the communication. I could smell her hand on the sheets of paper. I could run my fingers over something which wasn't the same as holding hands, but the nearest I could get with 1000 Kms separating us. I knew her mood when she wrote in turquoise blue and not in the usual royal blue ink. I had different textures of paper (that was when I learnt about GSM and paper dimensions. I also learnt the words ream and gross (did you know that it has a less disgusting connotation?)). I would walk down Bombay's Mohammed Ali Road and the markets that bred a life of their own around there, and buy reams of paper and an occasional nib. I would run the inner pad of my forefinger diagonally down the sheet and then flick the ear of the sheet to judge texture. I am not sure whether that is how it should be done, but I preferred inventing my own techniques for nearly anything I did (I once tried listing out as many manners of congress before I checked my score with the KS. I lost by a huge margin! :-( But, I was a novice and an armchair congress-man then!! ;-). The shopkeepers were my friends soon (more about that in a following episode of "The Lost Arts") and would offer me a cup of tea which I would politely decline (I don't drink tea/coffee). My shopping for writing a letter usually overshadowed what I would do before a festival. I came to know of unknown and mysterious alleyways where one could find the finest paper and smoothest inks. I remember buying a large bottle (1 litre) of ink and then having to discard it as the sediments had gathered at the bottom and had hardened.


Shopping apart (and I cannot over-emphasise the joy of holding a flashy new pen or carefully pulling out a new sheet from the pile), the personal touch was leant in the manner in which one wrote. That "Dear" which started out the letter is very different (looks-wise too, but in other ways) when it came from different people. One reads a line and smiles at a pause and is aware of the exact thoughts that lead to the following line. Sudden patterns separating two paragraphs and set the mood for the ones to follow, scribbling along the margins, striking through words which plopped out but need to be banished with a few strokes "because that is not what I really wanted to say" and a dozen other personal words and symbols which cannot be rendered in an unsmiling mailing client or as an SMS. A personal language develops between the two people (which is not the exclusive award of writing letters) and it is not informing that takes precedence over relating. The letters have streaks of "btw, I attended a concert" or "my bike is with the mechanic" kind of nuggets, but they simply help in constructing the world at the other end in a clearer manner.

Writing letters is just about that: bringing one's world to the other. The delight of waiting 3-7 days before the postman can bring the distant world wrapped in a dark brown envelope which, is the stationary that makes you smile no matter what your grades were in that semester, is something that cannot be described. You start walking, then jogging, then walking because you think someone is watching, and then jogging again because you care a damn about the world, before you reach the mail box. Not today. Surely tomorrow, after all it is only 2 days since she would have written it.

Another beautiful thing is writing to people one doesn't know. People who inspire you, authors, thought leaders, people in the same domain (this I have never done. Which techie wants a hand-written letter!?) are some of those to whom one could write a letter. I have done this rarely but I know of a person (whom I met on this blog) who confesses to writing to anyone whom she finds impressive. She told me stories of writing to illustrators in magazines, writers, political leaders/activists and few others. I wanted to hug her just for that. I read this piece here:

Maybe it was the mountain atmosphere (no traffic lights, no TV screens in the entire country), maybe it was the absence of every other diversion, maybe it was the intensity of sitting in a bare room in a silent town full of candles (electricity had gone out, it seemed for ever), but Greene's impassioned and unsparing look at the value of commitment, the folly of remaining an ironist, standing on the sidelines, affected me so deeply that when I finished the book I pulled out a piece of worn hotel stationery, and wrote by hand a long, long letter to the poor author (then in his 80s, and surely not delighted to receive illegible scribbles from Bhutan).

It is such a delightful experience to receive mails from people whom you thought might not have the time to reply to you. A bookseller in Hyderabad beckoned me into the dusty recesses of his cramped bookshop and showed me letters he received from Hemingway. I remember an old lady friend of our family gushing with pride upon receiving a letter from Dr. Manmohan Singh on her 75th birthday - they had never met or worked in the same department. I have received letters from less impressive personalities which moved me immeasurably. I have always wanted the address of Pico Iyer, Nabokov (till I knew he was dead), Greene, Saki and many others. I wished to write to someone who knows them well enough. I wanted to write to chefs (esp. Sarjano. Does anyone know his mailing address? I think it is somewhere in Goa) and artists and philosophers. Reminds me of Bellow's Herzog or Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road!

It is undoubtedly more time consuming and the transit time could be a concern, but relating is not a matter of immediacy. Relating is not journalism. Writing letters has its own unmatched beauty like an old picture album with thin flimsy butter paper like sheets separating the thick cards that make up the pages of the album; Flickr cannot give me that feel. The gradualness of letters wafting through space between one trembling hand and another, allows a tangibility to take birth which a printout aborts. The space that these letters occupy in one's closet or trunk has its sacred conversations which smell of those days of which these letters are the essence. Envelopes breaking along their folds are carefully pressed together while replacing them between others with a similar fate.

I write journal entries nowadays to keep my hand from rusting and crumbling around the knuckles. I prefer writing my stories long hand with the hope that someone might find them and I get a chance to communicate with her (no harm in wishing for a woman finder) across time and age (I would prefer that she finds it when I am 72 and she 23). She would read some lines out to me and ask me: "So, Mr. E, why did you word this in this manner?" and I would smile at her blossom like unweathered visage and whisper "You need to be in love to understand that, sweetheart! And what is more impossible to achieve - you must understand the person to whom I wrote these."
"So is she around, Mr. E? Are you in touch with her?"
I would simply nod and smell the dust which her hands left around the curves of her signature.

7 comments:

  1. Parvati1:54 PM

    Worth the wait! - a beautiful post.

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  2. back with a thoughtful post.

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  3. once again you inspire a post :)
    i feel it coming, but my fingers are too tired to type tonight!

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  4. Wow.. how memories come flooding back!I wrote letters too..to Sushmita Sen, Shah Rukh Khan, Principal of a school.. And I had a pen friend too, from Gujarat.. long before the Earthquake struck there.. stopped writing to pen pals since then..Writing letters has its own charm.. nothing can quite compare to it.. really nice post!Definitely th epicture inspiring the post.. The pic you put on the post, did that letter actually come to you? :-)

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  5. Dear P,
    Such an un-Parvatiji like comment!! ;-) Thanks nonetheless!! :-D

    Dear S,
    Glad you found it so.

    Dear R,
    My fingers were itching to write these posts for weeks. I had ot hold back in order to get back to my reading which had abated to abysmal levels... :-( I still have your rain-video-inspired post in the draft section!! :-)

    Dear M,
    You wrote to SRK? Why? Why would anyone ever do that!? :-o About the pic... let us just leave that as a secret!! :-)

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  6. :-( very funny! lots of people write to SRK. He rocks!

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  7. Enjoyed reading this one.. What even sadder is now I am in touch only with those who have an e mail ID!!! all the others are lost!!

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