Thursday, 16 June 2016


The other day , while getting amused by the raging debate on the alleged use or , shall I say misuse of the word dear in addressing a female , my mind strayed back to the days when people had actually a hobby of writing letters . In this age of instant messaging and all pervasive social media , few of the present generation of young people (sigh , that makes me feel like a relic ) will appreciate that people actually used to connect with each other through letters . And letter writing was considered as a skill . And by that , I mean both the content and the presentation . Learned people were referred to as - Man of letters . I am not really aware if they actually meant if the person was adept in writing letters.

While people were appreciated for their use of vocabulary , composition, prose and poetry in the letters wrtten by them , handwriting too , was a very much extolled virtue . Perhaps that was the reason why some old letters are treated as examples of high level calligraphy . In addition , the low level of education in the society meant that people able to express the feelings and that too in an attractive handwriting were at a premium. This meant there was a gap and to fill this gap there was the proffession of letterwriting. Many people used to earn money and run their family solely on their skill of letter writing . The tribe , I think sadly , has vanished in this age of mobile phones .

If someone reads or watches the old stories and films , the importance of letters and letterwriters in those time will immediately be established . And this is not too much distant past that I am talking about. I think people used to write letters , even if irregularly, till fifteen years back . But firstly the emails and then the spread of mobile phones have killed personal letters. For the purpose of record and physical proof , letters are still used in official communications but that is also getting increasingly rendered as immaterial . I don't think we will be able to find the letter writers anymore in village or district town post offices under the shade of the big old trees. Remember Shyam Benegal's delightful comedy - Welcome to Sajjanpur which had its main character as a letterwriter in an obscure village .

So many plots of stories have been created and twists in the tales have emanated from the letters , in all its entirety . The date , the address , the sender , the intended recipient , the contents , the subject , the handwriting , the meaning , the courier , the ink , the sealing gum , the time taken to reach and what not ; everything has been the subject of examination by generations of writers , probably for the last two milleniums . And to think that all of it has been reduced to nought just in the space of two decades. In real life too all this facets were very important .

Letters took a very long time to reach through the postal channel . And sometimes it creates unnecessary tragedy or comedy depending on how the situation developed . Sometimes people used ingenious methods to speed up their communication . To cut the time , it was advisable to post the letters in the postbox kept in railway stations , which preceded the preference of head postoffices. I myself have carried out requests by many to post letters in Railway post boxes . Normally a letter posted at Tatanagar station would reach the addressee in Kolkata by three days . That was the general assumption. But in case of districts and villages , there was actually no time frame for despatch and delivery of letters by post offices.

Then there was the cases of letters reaching after inordinate delay . Marriage invitations, news of death , hall tickets of examinations and most tragically interview calls or job confirmations delayed by a number of days played havoc in many lives . But then , people were not too much taken up or shaken up with all these delays . It may seem strange now but a letter being delayed was not considered a catastrophe , at least in our country , out of the metroplolitan areas. The British Postal system , of course was always cited as an example by the elders whenever there was a discussion on the Indian Postal Service . Though much lamented by those elders , looking back I understand how difficult the job was due to the logistical challenges considering the geography , weather , terrain and transport systems of our country . By the way , the organised postal service in India started just after the Sepoy Mutiny or the first war of independence , as it is called . The British , along with the railways , courts , penal code and english education provided us with this great institution which has stood the test of time and now considered to be the most widely distributed postal system in the world.

Nowadays people are constantly in touch to such a point that loss of connectivity starts building up stress levels in them . Everyday everybody rings up their near and dear ones and get confirmation of their daily journeys from homes to schools , colleges , workplaces , markets , hospitals . I , along with my family members too do the same thing . If compared with the prevalent situation in earlier days , this may be considered as a huge value addition to daily life by many people . But is it really so . We have only increased our stress levels . People used to travel earlier too and the same problems, challenges and dangers were present then . I remember that when I used to leave home for a trip out of station , I used to touch my mother's feet as a goodbye gesture and she used to say - "Send a postcard after reaching " . The same thing was followed by and large at the places of all relatives . I used to send the post card , sometimes immediately on reaching and sometimes with a delay . But many a times , during short trips , I have found that the post card has reached my mother after my return or just a couple of days before it. Does that make my parents less loving or less responsible , I wonder sometimes , when my wife tries to get a live commentary over mobile phone on my son's whereabouts as he leaves home for some outstation journey or he gets delayed while returning home.

As I stated at the beginning , people had a hobby of writing letters . It will seem strange to teenagers today but there were many of us who had penfriends , much like our facebook friends . People whom we never saw or met but regularly communicated over letters . I had a very few pen friends myself but know some people who had numerous pen friends and used to devote considerable amount of their money , time and energy in communicating with them . A person I know used to write letters every night from 9 p.m. to his relatives and friends till he went to sleep i.e. the Jaihind announcement on Vividh Bharati at 11 p.m. He used to keep the transistor on and listen to Vividh Bharati or Radio Ceylon (Sri Lanka) programmes as he wrote his letters . With a neat cursive handwriting he used to write letters , mainly on Inland letter and sealed them with gum before going to sleep . Next day morning , they were posted by him , yes at the railway station letter box .

Sadly, those Inland letters are no more there , though I understand postcards are still available . Some people had this habit of utilising the whole of the space provided by the government to express their feelings . My mother was one of them . Whenever she wrote letters to relatives , mostly she remembered the important points after narrating the sundry information about weather , health of family members , my development as a child and then tried to squeeze the info in hieroglyphic symbols which could only be deciphered under a magnifying glass. But wonder of wonders , the relatives understood it completely and replied in the same style. A thumb rule which was followed by experienced people was to make it a point of sending important informations on a postcard. This was done with the simple logic behind it that even if it is delivered to the wrong addressee , they would understand the import and try to redirect it to the correct address and also because the information would at least reach someone .

No discussions on letters can be complete without the role of Loveletters in the life of people before 2000 A.D. These were considered to be the highest form of art by its practitioners and the lowest form of moral degradation by their concerned guardians . From simple stupid notes of I love you to literary masterpieces , loveletters came in all shape , sizes , weights , lengths, papers , languages , feelings and yes , in scents too . So much of words have been spent in describing them and the pride of place they have in the lives of many can just not be explained. Many of the readers must be still holding onto some old loveletters secured by lock and key in vaults and boxes with fond and painful memories . Some may be sleeping with the recipient of those letters every night on the same bed and wondering what made them commit the folly of writing loveletters to this person . Then there was this phenomenon of getting loveletters prepared by a third person because of creative or handwriting deficiencies. There are also crass jokes of the Patra mein putra hua variety. Whatever it is , loveletters represented the romantic side of persons and gave a vent to the creative genius of many a people . There was no google in those days and people had to keep a collection of shayarees and quotations handy to impress the lover. This gave rise to another preoccupation or hobby , of writing a diary or journal in young people. It will be very difficult to come out if I delve deeper into the subject of loveletters . So I will rather keep it pending for another post , some other time .

Talking of hobbies , another hobby which was derived from letterwriting was Philately or postage stamp collection . Many of the youngsters had this hobby , me included . Even my son started this hobby before being swamped by the onslaught of TV channels , computer games and then other contemporary hobbies. As mentioned earlier , the people who had penfriends were a great source of postage stamps. Many had off shore connections too and that helped a lot to collect foreign stamps. In SBI Foreign Department Kolkata , I found a veritable treasure house for philatelists in the inward despatch section as letters stamped from countries around the globe used to reach there and the messenger who sorted the letters there was patronised and lionised by many , including senior people .

All these things are now just memories . I have not written a personal letter to anybody after my father's death in 2004 . Telephone connection rendered letters unnecessary , for me as well as my relatives. The letter writing habit of people have just vanished, gradually . It is now a matter of sheer nostalgia . But I am reminded of an article shared by my youngest cousin on facebook recently . I don't exactly remember who wrote it or where it was published . But the gist of the article was about how the digital age has actually been responsible for not keeping track of many memories that would otherwise remain with us in a physical form . It pointed out that people nowadays click digital photographs by an exponential number of times than what they did with analog cameras . But the storage of these photographs are either on memory cards , CDs , mobiles or virtual albums which are generally kept in a disorganised manner and not readily available on requirement. Conversely , the analog photographs , though less in number have a physical presence with us and even touching them gives a real feeling of the memory . I think letters also fall under the same category . Unfortunately , I don't have too many letters in my collection . But one , which has my maternal grandfather's enquiry about me as a child and the other in which my mother has advised some simple precautions for my infant son are very dear to me just as a few old photographs .

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