Emotions in an envelope

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Writing, reading and the special joy of receiving letters in bygone days. By Vandana Kanoria

For a long time they lay forgotten and unread in rusted trunks, in attics of my childhood home in Kolkata – tied up in string, slipping and sliding out of files, they stayed quiet and uncomplaining, until one day, gripped by a wave of nostalgia, I took them out and began a journey back to my childhood. Yes, they were letters – in envelopes with decorative stamps, airmail letters in their wispy envelopes, with airplanes flying in the corner and “Par Avion” under the wings, and on the inside, news written on onion-skin paper. Others came from less exotic destinations. These came from cousins and friends – inland letters written on lined sheets torn from notebooks, with little doodles and drawings to better illustrate the feelings contained in words. In those days, emotions triumphed over emojis!

I loved writing letters to my friends, cousins, pen-pals. I waited eagerly for their letters, wondering what surprises they would hold within their pages. I looked for details in the lilt of a heart instead of an ‘o’ in love, the flourish of the ‘v’ in my name. I could see who was wired on the high of first love, or weighed down by despair and pain and therefore how the words staggered and stumbled, how the lines crawled up and down the page. When I wrote letters, I would be under the spell of phrases – the magic and mystery of words. These letters are the marks left behind, the tracks of an earlier journey through times long lost.

Sometimes the envelopes were heavy; containing postcards of distant lands, photographs of never-seen friends, or little keepsakes from cousins. Sometimes the letters would be redolent with the fragrance of pressed flowers, tucked in pages, grown in a little garden in some corner of the world…

And the heaviest were those that carried the weight of secrets never to be told! Today when I read them a wave of nostalgia engulfs me – nostalgia for the laughter and innocence of childhood, for the girl I was then, with her whole life ahead of her.

Letters are physical objects, with all the tactility and uniqueness. Writing one is an activity of leisure, a contemplative practice. On its pages we argue, say goodbye, dream, forgive and tell our secrets. We slow down, sit with pen and paper and thoughts of the person we are writing to. There’s a lot of one’s self in a letter – there is depth, detail, intimacy. These ‘little signatures of time’ are what distinguish them from emails and other forms of digital correspondence.

And this is why emailing and texting do not feel as special. In the age of rapid-fire, efficiency-obsessed, typed-with-one-finger-on-a-keyboard and one-eye–on-the-clock, things happen on a screen — emails fly in and pile up, texts come and go, information crisscrosses and on its way often gets lost or deleted. The bulk of the correspondence is forgotten, which just goes to show how all of these technological “advancements” have weakened communication as much as they’ve strengthened them.

There’s something profound about being able to reread a letter, to hear the voice of friends and loved ones in the words they wrote, and imagine how they’d say the phrases. When we save and treasure letters, we preserve a part of that person and feel the love they felt for us. Can you see yourself rereading a letter someone wrote to you after that person has gone and as you gently move your fingers over the handwriting, you almost feel the touch that loved one? A handwritten letter is a creative act, a deliberate form of exposure, an expression of vulnerability because handwriting opens a window to the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. What Kazuo Ishiguro says about stories, applies equally to letters because they too contain, “small scruffy moments and quiet private sparks of revelation.”

There is no other form that is so close to our private lives as letters are, for they are only for the eyes of a few friends and it is this revealing-all character that makes them so attractive. There is no thought of their publication, and thus the restraint of the feeling that a thousand eyes are peering over the writer’s shoulder and scrutinizing every word is absent. They create an intimacy that can only be forged one-on-one, written in one person’s distinctive style to another.

Thinking about the lost art of letter-writing, I am reminded of a heart-rending story. In the famous Hindi short story ‘Kaki’ a little boy Shyamu, too young to understand what death means, has been told that his beloved Kaki “Ram ke ghar gayi hai”, which is higher than the clouds. He misses her terribly and wonders why she does not return. Watching kites flying on the occasion of Makar Sankranti, he decides to use these joyously coloured kites to send a letter to Kaki imploring her to return. He attaches strong ropes that would not break and on which Kaki can easily slide down. All this information is contained in his letter, pasted on the kite. The envelope is simply addressed as ‘Kaki.”

A letter is a place where we all become storytellers, where moments are transformed into memories of love and friendship, family and care, so that that future generations will know what we valued and believed and achieved.

Long after we are gone, no one will care about the million texts we may have sent. But a letter will last, will be passed down to generations. Letters are timeless and a legacy. Thus, we are able to create eternity with words.

About Vandana Kanoria

Vandana Kanoria, an avid reader who loves food, travel, art and all aspects of design, is passionate about Indian culture, history and heritage.

View all posts by Vandana Kanoria

10 Comments on “Emotions in an envelope”

  1. My wife Umang has written few lines on the subject, hope you like these:

    इक बार मुझे तुम पत्र लिखना
    थोड़ा लगा के इत्र लिखना ।
    करते हो मेरी फिक्र लिखना
    अपना भी उसमें जिक्र लिखना
    इक बार मुझे प्रिय पत्र लिखना ।

    भीतर जाके मन के तुम
    प्यार पगे कुछ शब्द चुनना
    कोरे कागज़ पर उनको फिर
    अपने हाथों लिख देना ।

    साँसों से उनको छू लेना
    जीवन उनमे जगा देना ।
    याद कितना मुझ को करते हो
    शब्द शब्द बतला देना ।

    पत्र तुम्हारा मैं पाऊंगी
    छू के उसे तुम्हें छू जाऊंगी ।
    बार बार हर लफ्ज़ पढूँगी
    महकों में मैं डूबी रहूंगी ।

    न उसको मैं शेयर करूंगी
    इक अक्षर न डिलीट करूंगी
    सहेज सम्भाल के उसको प्रिय मैं
    अपने दराज में फ़िर रख दूंगी ।

    प्रेम की चिट्ठी प्रिय ये तुम्हारी
    S m s email पर भारी
    जीवन जब तक चलता रहेगा
    साथ रहेगी पाती तुम्हारी ।

    आज प्रिय मुझे पत्र लिखना
    इक बार मुझे तुम पत्र लिखना।।।

    उमंग

  2. Mobile,computers, ànd techlogy have moved us far away from reality and we are now dependent on these gadgets for our day to day life. Wŕiting has become a past and we recollect our past just to remember and enjoy ouŕ thoughts in our writings. Veŕy few people now do writing and book reading.

  3. The divine presents plenty of opportunities, that too constantly, to remain happy in life, only if one knows the art to remain connected within. Any conclusions drawn from “darkness” will haunt for thousand years. So in stead of remaining tied up in darkness, look for divine everywhere and anywhere.

  4. Those were d days when one waited anxiously waited for d postman.Each word written in d letters had so much emotion attached.
    Loved it.

  5. Unfortunately, this art of writing letters, has a limited life, ie till our generation lives in the World.
    The present generation can not spare so much time in writing , making this art of writing letters as extinct

  6. No doubt, letter writing is an art and science. I leave it to you where is art and how is science.
    There are many ways one can think.

  7. Very well worded Vandana ji resonate with your write up
    Technology may have shrunk the world but in hearts we have grown apart
    The spell check has weakened our spellings we had spelling test every Monday to ensure we got it right now the digital med
    When Dad came home from office the question was “koi chithi patri”
    Miss the days when choosing good appropriate stationary was also like shopping mania
    Yes our generation has witnessed the transition from pen to the mouse

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