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.