Wednesday, May 7, 2008

THE PLEASURES OF READING LETTERS


By ‘letters’, I am particularly thinking of the blue inland letters. Whenever the postman used to rap on the iron-gate, the sun glinting on his bottle-thick glasses and dusty khaki uniform, I would go out to take the letter(s) expectantly, and would be absolutely thrilled if there were inlands addressed to me.

The beige postcards never gave the same thrill, being too brief and open-for-everyone-to-see. Though I liked to look at picture postcards, they were even briefer, and always seemed to be dashed off in a hurry.

It was the sky-blue double-folded inland letter which held secrets-waiting-to-be-read, with only the back flap indicating the letter-writer’s name. (This back flap also contained public service messages and pictures: Donate Blood and Save a Life, Protect Yourself from Malaria…some were special issue letters: Asiad 1980 or having the five-ringed Olympic logo).

The joy of opening it, the care taken not to tear-away-even-a-word-of-what-lay-inside struggling with the nimble-urgency of eagerness, the hurried first reading and the leisurely subsequent ones, savouring each word, mood, question…that was the peculiar pleasure of the inland letter.

And then, of course, there was the anticipation and preparation for sending the reply. Searching the cupboard for blank inlands (non-availability would bring about an immediate emergency trip to the post-office), ensuring that no one would interrupt or interfere. Then the thought-filled, lip-chewing, lengthy, cramming-words-into-all-available-blue-space reply, usually with a fountain pen, usually in Bengali interspersed with English. Then the sealing of the secret with gum (or boiled rice, or, at a pinch, saliva), and the short journey to the rickety no-longer-red postbox to drop the letter.

The busiest letter-giving-and-getting period of my life was when I was studying in Lady Brabourne College for my Higher Secondary (Plus-2), and staying in the hostel.

During term-time, I would dutifully write weekly letters to my parents, each letter beginning “Dear Maa” (my friends were surprised that I did not use the more traditional Bengali greeting “Sricharaneshu – at your feet”, but I hated its obsequiousness and its tough spelling), containing carefully-censored snippets of hostel-life and progress-in-studies, and, more importantly, demands for this and that. But my mother had an uncanny knack of reading between the lines (She read the ‘lines’ equally thoroughly and once replied to my brother’s letter by mentioning and rectifying each and every of his Bengali spelling mistakes. Thereafter, he wrote in English.).

During holidays, there would be the usual flurry of letters to and from friends. The precious-50- paise inlands were reserved for the close friends, the not-so-close ones merited much-cheaper-at-15-paise postcards.

The thrice-folded blue aerogrammes, bearing news from cousins settled abroad, were few and far between, and never thrilled me like the inlands from my friends because they were usually addressed to the entire family. Replying to them was also a family affair: a chain of small missives from my dida (grandma), aunt, mother and ending dutifully with us (Dear So-and-so, How are you? We are all fine here. It is very hot. Our studies are going on well. When are you next coming to India? With love, …).

John Donne said that “letters mingle souls for, thus, friends absent speak”. I still have bundles of fading inlands, speaking to me of days long past, in voices long distant. My daughters have never even seen one. The postman’s arrival today no longer thrills me – it’s only bills and bank statements. First issued by the Department of Indian Postal Services on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth-date, 2nd October, in1950, the inland letter is now as dead to urban India as the man whose birthday it shares. R.I.P.
What letters are stamped in your memory?

8 comments:

Aleta said...

Oh my, you brought back memories. One of my cousins lives in Maryland and when I was a little girl, Maryland felt like another country, not merely States away.

We use to write those long hand written letters. We also used to decorate the envelopes and write messages on the envelopes, not to waste any space. It amazes me to think the postman could actually find the address where it was going to!

And the wait, oh the wait, to hear back from my cousin! Now there's email and I keep in touch with her sometimes daily.

Email has a wonderful way of fast forwarding the connection, but I still find myself eager to go to the mailbox....

(and a special thank you for your kind words on my blog)

Aleta

mm said...

You brought back those LBCH memories. I could also vividly see before my eyes - that same scene - running to the house gate as soon as we heard the tinkly sound of the postman's cycle. The other memories were from the month spent between graduating from college and the time I joined my first job in B'bay. This time it was waiting to hear from that "special someone". Well as for the "secretness" of the contents of the inland letter - that was "another story" in our house - that story is better kept a secret for now.

SUKKU said...

Well those were the good ol' days when we had no option but to use snail mails. It brings back memories, when I wait for the letters from girl friend (who is my wife now), the fun is in reading and re-reading the letter and after that keeping it safely and make a collection out of it. And yes the thrill was waiting for the postman, in Kuala Lumpur the post comes on a motorbike and when he presses the door bell, I would run down to get the letter(before my mum finds out). Well now since I am in India on an overseas assignment, we talk on the phone everyday.
I remember when my dad was in Holland, my mum use to wait for his letters and we would sitting by herside so that we can get the letter where he would have written so things for us.

Nice post.

Take care

Caroline said...

Thank you so much, you just inspired me to write a much overdue letter to my dear brother, lovely post thanks!

Keshi said...

wow lovely! I love hand-written letters.


I hv many love-filled letters in my memory...written to me by my granma. she's no more.

::tearz::

Keshi.

The Scatterbrain said...

I wrote the most number of letters when I was in classes 11 and 12 too. For me, they were a means of escape from studies. I used to write at least a letter a week!

Ah, the wait for a reply from a friend! Ive kept most of my letters and cards with me still. I go back to them and read them sometimes. My most precious letters are the ones my parents wrote to me from their 2 month trip to Europe. I would read the letters and then try to draw pictures from my imagination, of the places they visited.
Sigh!
You've inspired me to write too! Emails and telephone calls have replaced the letters we used to love. I'm going to write to my parents today!

Paul Bernard said...

My first letter was from my cousin, Iain. He had received a chain letter from someone and had sent it on to me.
I was amazed to have got a letter and treasured it. I was supposed to send it on, but didn't, which is quite naughty, but who did I have to send it to anyway?
I'm sure it did no harm. Nowadays, chain letters are on email and they are generally awful scams and strange mails that make you send it on to ten people and then a miracle will happen (or if you don't do it then you'll have bad luck).
I delete them, every time. Why would someone come up with such a cruel waste of everyone's time?

tina said...

i had a pen-pal when I was in grade school. i would write her long, rambling letters in pencil on a legal pad (this was years before i first heard of john steinbeck), and she would reply with neatly folded letters typed and printed from her computer. because she lived in iloilo and did not speak tagalog, we wrote one another entirely in english. the distance between us also kept our letters few and far in between; it would take each letter around three months to get to its destination. these letters were mostly polite how-do-you-dos, condensed summaries of our experiences at school and the ubiquitous "hope to hear from you soon!" at the end.

pretty soon email became the preferred medium of correspondence, although our letters did not become more frequent. i gained some acquaintances from chat rooms and traded emails with them; since we were in the same age bracket we talked about school, tv and our hobbies. until now i'd all but forgotten those emails... i still remember some of the things we talked about. exams, one acquaintance's judo tournaments (and the crushes she sparred with), southpark, anime, cool japanese aliases (with the help of an online english-japanese dictionary)... eventually we got busier, wrote less and less, and then not at all. i changed my email address, and they probably did too. if social networking sites had become popular a few years earlier, they would have been my online buddies, and we might still keep in touch.