Forgotten how to write a letter ? Guest column from Neelesh Misra

“Quick! Help me! I have forgotten to write a letter!”
My wife, who generally does not think much of my slow moving brain until she needs its help, shook me this weekend as she broke a long silence as we watched the TV together.
“Huh?” I said.
“Do you write the date on the left or the right?” she said.
I took several seconds to soak in the deep meaning of what she had just said. I turned around slowly. There she was, cross-legged on the bed under the Rajasthani quilt, a pink letter pad on her knees and a pen in her hands.
I realised that this was some sort of an event which was in the works for half a day. When we had gone out in the evening to New Delhi’s suburb of Noida, she had avoided walking into her favourite stores dragging behind her reluctant husband (as she is prone to), and instead looked for a stationery shop. Stationery? When was the last time we bought stationery or went into a stationery shop? We have so long ago catapulted from stationery to Blackberry. But she wanted to buy stationery. She said she wanted to write a letter. My wife is a television reporter and one of India’s more prominent news anchors. She had received a handwritten letter of appreciation from an 80-year-old gentleman and she wanted to reply with a letter.
As she spent the next thirty minutes trying to write out her six lines, my mind leaped into a beautiful Bermuda Triangle of memory. When was it that I wrote my last handwritten letter? I rummaged through it and found a lot of stuff in the letterbox of my past
Ever since I was in school, letters were everything….

I wrote copious letters. I spent all my pocket money on letterpads. I wrote on papers torn from notebooks. I wrote on the page after the chemistry notes. I wrote in the fat diary with silly sayings that was delivered home on New Year’s. Looking at a letter, I could tell the weight of a letter and the approximate value of stamps needed. I also received a lot of letters, mostly from literary magazine editors who rejected my poems, or my faraway girlfriend who my father disliked or the young woman who my girlfriend didn’t even know wanted to be my girlfriend.
If my father disliked the girlfriend, the postman disliked me he had to come home in the rain and on hot afternoons to deliver my letters when no one else in the neighbourhood had been sent any by anyone in the world.
It was as if my day job began after I returned from school it was to write letters.
Letters were the soul of India. They were the soul of the small town that exists in each of us, the small town we carry as we make our journey through the mazes of the metropolis. The death of the everyday letter truly took away a huge chunk of the India I grew up in, its cultural anchor, its most eloquent storyteller.
The arrival of e-mail snapped the deep unsaid bond between postmen and young lovers in India. Letter writing was a part of our culture in villages, the postman was for ages the letter writer as well for illiterate villagers, as well the reader of letters, announcing the intimate details of personal letters as everyone sat around.
In the cities, postmen understood the palpitations that they caused across neighbourhoods when they walked or cycled in girls watching from rooftops, young men awake from their afternoon slumber and waiting, everyone waiting for their once-in-ten-days letter. The postman was a partial god on any given day, he could make anyone’s day, and give heartbreak to everyone else.
When I was in Nainital doing my college, we didn’t even have a phone at home, it was so tedious to get one in the India of those times. So letters were the bulwark of my life and the walk to the main post office to deliver my letter was a journey I looked forward to. When in Lucknow, waiting for the postman was like a beautiful yet uncertain ritual I observed every day.
I distinctly remember the face of the dark stocky postman we had in Lucknow. Around three p.m., I used to station myself by the window with a clear view of the road. As he appeared, the suspense would ring in. Would he have something for me today? Would he slow down ten metres from my gate? Hah, he did? Damn, was that the phone bill?
I was growing up in Nainital, that lakeside hill resort the British colonialists once fancied as a summer retreat. I wrote detailed love letters running into ten pages, sometimes twenty with long narrative descriptions of my life, as if I was some British viceroy documenting my life for posterity.
Heck, I even wrote love letters on behalf of friends! They told me how they felt for a certain girl and my job was to put it down in words. Um, sometimes I ended up expressing my own feelings, directed at their girlfriends. Mish mash.
I wrote poems and mailed them furiously to editors. I wrote to the editor of “Target” magazine asking her to publish the first poem of my life, “A Fisherman’s Song” (which I had written without ever having been near the sea, so perhaps that contributed to the rejection). But when she sent me a letter appreciating my writing, I was so excited about telling my father that I could not wait for him to return from work I left home and ran through the local market, past the vegetable sellers, past the kerosene shop, past the halwai’s sweets shop, to meet him midway in the middle of the buzzing market and tell him of the editor’s letter.
I wrote to Rajiv Gandhi, then the prime minister, asking him to please do something about the children of my village, where my parents had been running a school for decades after my father gave up his career as a geologist in North America. His secretary replied, saying the development of the school was tied to the overall development of the country, towards which the government was working.
I wrote to the ghazal icon Jagjit Singh, asking him to please sing the attached song in his next album. He never did, he never even replied and as I told him recently when I finally met him, it was a rejection that eventually paved my way to becoming a Bollywood lyric writer (that story, another day).
But those days are far away and unrecognizable now. I haven’t written a letter in my hand in years. The children in our schools and colleges will probably never write one ever, even as e-mails and text messages kill their handwriting, grammar and spelling. So maybe I should drop my Blackberry to the floor one day and write a letter to myself about all the letters I forgot to write all those years, and all the things I wanted to say in them
“Dear ” on the left side at the top, the date on the right, and paragraphs not too long and aligned.
There, I got it right. Let me tell my wife before she ruins her first letter since precious teenage.
Guest writer : Neelesh Misra is a National Special Projects Editor with the Hindustan Times newspaper who writes books and Bollywood lyrics and scripts when he is not chasing the news. Neelesh loves being a street reporter and amateur photographer who travels extensively, his most recent reporting project a three-week road trip through Kashmir for his newspaper.

13 thoughts on “Forgotten how to write a letter ? Guest column from Neelesh Misra

  1. Guys wake up this is the 21st Century.
    We might start using chuhla to make that lingering “saag” as well.How about taking days to make that sweater by pouring love into it.Or taking months to make that “phulkari” for your sisters wedding.
    As I go on I think it might well be worth the effort every once in a while, never mind the Century.

  2. As a nation do we remember some basic courtesies anymore? We are increasingly forgetting some common courtesies such as saying please and thank you, while other symbols of good manners, such as sending handwritten thank-you letters and holding the door open, are almost nonexistent
    Try looking around and see how many people always make a point of saying please when asking for something?And how many do not bother to say thank you? When was the last time someone said I am sorry if they bumped into you accidentally? And you definitely have seen how happily people let the door slam in your face if they were in a hurry:)
    We are a race in a hurry -impatience and bad manners rule!I know this is slightly tangential (my comment) couldn’t help posting this. Twas my immediate reaction:)

  3. Dear Neeleshji,
    I fortify your views of forgetting to write a letter, but I have an option to consider.
    I have written letters to the Government offices, insurance companies, educational institutions and consumer forums all aong my life.(consider the replies if and whenever recieved).
    The Posts and telegraphs have given germs of imagination to a number of writers to begin their stories with Chitthi aaiee hai ..(kitni late).
    I am afraid in todays times if a love message reaches late or incomplete we will have the heroine become the mother of kids by the time the Hero finds her.
    KKHH is a story based on letters written by a late mother to the daughter one each for her birthday.
    Except for bollywood pot boilers I believe email with all limitations of learning is a saviour in todays Global environment and local politics. “You ‘ve Got Mail”.Forget the Airmail.
    At a time when India is electronically connected and coming closer via SMS and Email
    a little creativity can be sacrificed to save lives and reach justice.
    I am sure all the 8th pass Police constables definitely know how to write to qualify for creating and recording all evidences which are submissible in the highest court of land.
    Vinod Agarwal – Welcome to Sajjanpur

  4. I am a child of today as much a child of yesterday. This comment too, is a bit like a letter, now. Agreed, none of the additional charm that a postman or the ten-day delay is tagged to it, but what is, is complete awe of your writing.
    This was a lovely read.

  5. Neelesh,
    You are right about children not being able to develop a handwriting, spelling and grammar as the computer pretty much takes care of everything.
    The great part about letters was not just what was in the envelope but also what was on it, i.e. the stamps and you were considered sooo lucky to have a letter come in from abroad ‘coz you then had a foreign stamp, several of them. Imagine the impact on stamp collection as a hobby!!
    However, the decline of letter writing could have coincided with the advent of emails/internet and in cities, at least, people were probably happy to give up letters because our postal service was not predictable.
    If I pick up a pen and write a letter to friends, they are more likely to ask me “why I didn’t email” rather than being pleasantly surprised – especially with foreign stamps on it 🙂
    This is a great post.

  6. Hi there! I ran across your page because I was looking for some interesting things about letter writing. (I run a letter writing web site.) Thanks for posting this fine story about letter writing in the culture of India. I love any kind of stories like this that make letter writing come to life.
    One thing I would like to mention in regard to the commend from Mr. Agarwal… letter writing by traditional post and letter writing electronically are not mutually exclusive. By all means, use all your resources to send speedy mail when you’re trying to make change in the world. But when time doesn’t matter, why not take the slow route? If you’re telling someone you love them or want to tell them about a sunrise you saw, or a delightful meal you ate — what does it matter if it takes a few extra days to get where it’s going?

  7. I was thinking about the letter writing for a while – I write letters and I adore doing it, but I have no one but my 70-year old grandmother to write to. The rest of my friends and family have been all cyber-ised, they no longer write or receive letters other than from the bank or the gas company.
    I was looking for some statistic concerning letter writing. Did you know that five out of six Americans under age of 18 never touched a postage stamp?
    I am only a young creature, of genereation Y, that have been using a computer since it became affordable enough for my parents to buy one, since I was 8 years old. I suspect that one day letters we write today will be in a museum as artifacts. And the smoothness of paper, the glide of ink slowly drying and soaking in, the smell of papeterie will be forgotten.
    “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”
    (Tom Stoppard)

  8. lovely….. written very very well…….. holds a mirror to todays situation….. i do not want to make further comments,that might get personal

  9. Hello Sir,
    Well, after reading your blog, even I recalled when I’d written my last letter (handwritten). I remember it was 4 years back written to my father. They are living in a remote village of Gaya district in Bihar and still too far from IT changes. Although the letter never reached till its destination.
    Well, here I would like to present my opinion that whatever we compose on our blackberries, or laptops sitting in plush bedrooms or offices couldn’t match the level of feelings included in a handwritten letter.
    In my case, whenever I sat to write a letter I felt that words are automatically coming out of heart and getting reflected on paper. They used to be true human emotions.
    I don’t feel that kind of emotion while composing emails or SMS’s. So, the thing is that technology has made the changes in time taken to deliver the message, but the soul of messages are not as pure as earlier.

  10. Dear Neelesh Misra,
    This post reminds me of my college days too.
    though very rare i surprise a friend with a letter… though we talk regularly and nothing is there to right…. its a nice feel to write a letter as it would surprise my friend. A call or sms, or an e mail has become so routine…
    We used to wait for the postman who would deliver the posts at the hostel lounge, mostly during our lunch break, we a group of close friends always used to put stamp of less value or no stamp at all so that we collect the letters from the postman directly by paying the fine….(to avoid getting it through the hostel warden)…
    letters would make my day so happy and i would be shattered when i did not get them….
    And some became intimate friends just because of letter writing. I still miss the warmth of letters, Birthday cards … that period of waiting to hear from loved ones, that eager, thrill of expressing ones feelings and wait for the response from the other side for a couple of weeks, and the joy of getting letters and the warmth one feels by looking at the handwriting of loved ones… the narration in letters as if the person is next to us and taking us to his world …. was so wonderful…..
    i think we are losing narration skills with this electronic media… sms seems like a telegram we used to send …. so wierd….
    nice thoughts…. thank you shekhar for sharing such a wonderful thought…
    wish you love and peace

  11. But what remains through all the yester years is the longing to get a message.. earlier it was the postman, now it is an sms, a missed call, a call.. something… anything that brings alive a lost conversation, a lost memory, a relation.

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