“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.