Letter writing has increasingly become a dying trend, with the advent of social media, free telephone calls, and affordable internet prices. Why is this is an issue? Telegraphs went out when telephones became popular, chariots and horse-driven carriages went out when automobiles became popular across the world. It is the habit and the privilege of later humans enjoying conveniences not available for their predecessors.
I plead the case of letter writing in this piece. To present my case with a clean slate, I confess that I am one of those few who still writes letters. My style of letter writing has changed over the years. I remember the first letter correspondents I had were my parents. Back in 2007 I had joined a boarding school in Hyderabad. My parents were posted in Kanpur, and the only way to communicate with them was through a dial-in landline once a week for ten minutes. However, this privilege only extended to those who had a pre-paid telephone card with them (another relic of a simpler time), which I didn’t have. My first communication with my parents was six months after I joined the boarding school, writing to them not about how I enjoyed my freedom and time away from them, but about how well I was preparing to do in school on a regular basis. Never did, but that doesn’t matter today. I was very touched to receive a two page long handwritten response from my father, and a one page handwritten note from my mother, appraising me of developments and reaffirming their love for me, which had only grown in my absence. I treasured that letter for a very long time, and was very saddened when I realized that the cleaning ladies may have thrown it away since it was under my mattress.
As the years went by, mobile phones became the sine qua non of communications, and I was able to spend time talking to my parents regularly over the phone. I relegated the inland letter dutifully issued to me by my boarding school to conveying the latest version of my handwriting and enquiring after their health, knowing full well that this letter would reach them after I spoke to them the following week. I bought a smartphone soon after I enrolled for a college. Being so deprived of technology for seventeen years, I proceeded to enjoy the fruits of technology as much as I could. This led to a great cessation of the use of handwriting or handwritten notes to convey any sentiments whatsoever for a year or so.
As I would soon become aware, the lack of a personal feeling towards text messages would catch up to me and I began missing the feeling of letter writing and reading handwritten notes. When I brought this up with my parents, they would have none of it. Having labored for years to communicate with their loved ones over letters by necessity, they had their share of letter writing for the rest of their life, and advised me to stop pestering them with my childish requests. I was soon fortunate enough, however, to cultivate some friendships that would result in a series of writing.
I cannot put into words the sheer joy that a handwritten note can provide. There are professions based on discerning the mood of the person based on their scrawls. In very minor and imperceptible ways, I try and summon some part of that person through a handwritten note- the arcs and tilts of the pen, the pressure put into the paper, the effort taken to write in a consistent straight line- as if I was standing over their shoulder while they were writing the letter and reading it in their voice. The beauty of the handwritten note is that it grows more valuable each passing day. With the popularity of internet and social media, any thought conveyed in an actual handwritten note conveys concern, regard, love, care, affection and a bond strong enough to compel two individuals to share their thoughts in as intimate a manner as letters. Facebook and Whatsapp can commoditize the convenience of quick messaging. I’m afraid they cannot commoditize the value of heartfelt messaging.
I fear for the future of handwritten letters, knowing several modes of communications have died a slow and inevitable demise when there is no further demand for it. The Postal Office seems like a permanent institution in India today, long may that last! This is a ominous prediction, but I am tempted to preemptively quote the show Game of Thrones “what is dead may never die, but rises again harder and stronger.”