The Lost Art of Letter Writing

March 5, 2007
I’ve never been much of a one for writing letters. As usual, I attribute this to sheer laziness.

Actually, it’s not the letter writing itself that I’m lazy about, it’s mainly the associated activities like finding an envelope, finding the address, inscribing the address on the envelope in a halfway legible manner, sealing the blasted envelope, traipsing down to the post office for stamps – all these activities usually take me at least a week to complete. Sometimes, they never get done, resulting in the letter just sitting around at home until it gets pushed under a pile of other junk.

When I was young, my mother would order me to write letters to both my grandmothers. In those days, I didn’t have to worry about the associated activities – I’d just scribble the letter and hand it over to my mother. I don’t think she was very proactive in those sundry chores required to actually dispatch the letter to the recipient either, so I don’t know how many of my missives ever reached their destinations, but what was important was that I had written, and I could squarely look my beloved grandmothers in the eye and declare (truthfully) that I had written, which would earn me brownie points, hugs, fond smiles, and hopefully, some sweets or chocolates as well.

When I moved from Chandigarh to Delhi when I was 10, I don’t think I made even a pretence of keeping in touch with old friends via letters. But when I moved from Delhi back to Chandigarh when I was 16, I had a long-standing exchange of letters with at least four or five friends. It helped, of course, that one of these was Amit, and I enjoyed to the hilt the adventure and romance of writing love letters.

As for the thrill of receiving them… In those days, we stayed in a little independent house on the ground floor. My bedroom, a cosy, sunny, room opened on to the front lawn. At the end of the front lawn was the driveway and at the end of the driveway, the gate. And at the gate, naturally, was a letter box. Every afternoon, I’d sit at my desk, studying (for the XIIth Standard boards) and keeping a sharp lookout for the postman. As soon as I saw or heard him drop something into our letter box, I’d quietly push open the screen door leading from my room into the garden, and stroll slowly, nonchalantly, to the letter box. If there was the familiar fat white envelope with multiple sheets of incredibly thin paper covered with his familiar scrawl, I’d scurry back grinning like mad. I’d take all the mail and sneak back into my room and quickly read that most important of letters first. If luck was with me, I’d get away with all this unobserved. Sometimes, though, my mother would be watching, and then I’d either have to conceal my delight, or read out the less scandalous bits of the letter to her… she always knew well enough not to ask about the other bits, of course!

Email in particular and the internet in general are a blessing for communications, but they did put an end to letter-writing – much to my relief! Love letters are nice, but hours spent chatting on some public chat room, via a dial-up modem, way back in 1991-92 – well, at least at that time, they seemed so much nicer!

My grandmothers were never inducted into the pleasures of email, but as long-distance telephone calls became less exorbitant, and as I became much less obedient to my mother’s wishes, the practice of letter writing slowly declined. We moved back to Delhi and I quickly lost touch with the few friends I’d exchanged letters with for years.

When I moved to Bangalore in 1998, and during our short stint in the US, I returned to letter-writing, but email was already the preferred means of communication by then. In the past seven or eight years, I would not have written more than five letters altogether.

This state of affairs might have continued indefinitely, but for two events. First, it became necessary to contact our Himalayan guide, who stays in a remote part of Uttarakhand where no phone is to be found in a radius of 30 km. A letter, it appeared, would have to be written, and, what’s more, in Hindi. If I haven’t written letters for a long time, it has been altogether an eternity since I last wrote anything in Hindi. I doubt if even I would be able to decipher my handwriting, were I to attempt to write in Hindi.

While I was still hemming and hawing about this, I was pleasantly surprised one day to receive a letter. It was from Lingshet, in Ladakh, three days’ walk from the nearest road. Lingshet is a “Finding Nemo” sort of place in that, if you leave the comfort and security of your own lovely little home and brave all the dangers that a long, lonely journey has to offer, you might at the end of the road find a big city full of busy people.

We had trekked to Lingshet last year, and while there, we had chatted with a wool weaver and taken some pictures (that’s him, at the top of this blog). When we got back, I had taken prints of the pictures and posted it to this man. That was more than six months ago. Meanwhile, winter had intervened, and doubtless no postman would have ventured over the 15000-ft passes on foot or horse, to drop off a letter at that remote village. But, in whatever manner it might have been, my photos had certainly reached this man and his letter had reached us. Talk about miracles.

Which brings me to the point: I have, naturally, had to write a letter back to him – in English, thank goodness. This I finished a few days ago. The precious scrap of paper is lying in my handbag at this moment, in company with a blank envelope and the man’s address. I have only to put it all together and get some stamps from the post office. Which, all said and done, will also require nothing short of a miracle.

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