After writing my first letter home, I hurried to the nearest mailbox to see it off. A passerby directed me to one down the road. In place of the familiar red mailbox stood a blue structure. I eyed it doubtfully. It turned out to be the mailbox, but how and where was I supposed to drop my letter? I looked and looked but could make no sense of it. I circumambulated awhile, thinking maybe the slot was hidden somewhere for security reasons. I could not find any. I suddenly felt very foolish.
I realized that cars were passing by and that people were looking at me. Embarrassed, I gave up. I later found out that unlike in India, where the slot is staring at you, in America, you lift a lid to slide in your letter. I also felt somewhat better when I heard that a friend, newly arrived, had, in the darkness of evening, mistaken the mailbox for a dustbin and had proceeded to litter it.
However, now that I know how to post letters without causing suspicion, I cannot remember when I last wrote a letter home. These days, I just email. With the epistolary form, I would forever wish for more space. Despite a penmanship that would get smaller progressively, and a policy of an optimal use of space that involved writing on the sides and inner flaps of the aerogram, I would be left feeling dissatisfied. So much unsaid but no more space. With email today, I have all the space in the world to compose an epic. Technically speaking, I should be happy and make use of that unlimited space. But it never happens. With letters, I just used to write. Words, once down on paper, were there to stay. With email, however, I spend more time cutting, pasting, deleting, rewriting—in short, interrupting myself. And I am in a permanent hurry to finish and hit the Send button; moreover, I can always call, can’t I?
And now that my letter writing is history, I have stopped receiving letters as well. With my parents achieving a certain level of computer literacy, they also email. Mail has now become synonymous with those prosaic things called bills. The endearingly imperfect, pale blue tattered-looking Indian aerogram—and the anxiety of opening it without tearing the sides and missing out words—has all become a memory.
In some ways, home has become a faraway entity, both in space and in time. And yet, in some other ways, I feel closer to myself than ever before—I may be displaced at one level, but this alienation has, at another level, brought me nearer the source. Now when I miss something, I reassess and appreciate its significance. Things make better sense. I am learning the art of being eclectic, of charting out my own path in life, of looking at things afresh, of discovering the order of things. Growing up in a particular culture, one is surrounded by what can be termed received wisdom. A view from the other side is just as necessary to engage with that wisdom in a creative way. Colour, on its own, meant nothing to me until I became aware of color, another reality.
I have got used to certain spellings, to certain mailboxes. I have got used to driving on the right side of the road—so much so that I wonder how I ever maneuvered my way in Indian traffic. I have got used to the recurrences of alienation and revelation. And though I eat thayir sadam (yogurt rice, the ultimate South Indian staple) with greater gusto than I eat burritos, I have also discovered that they can merrily co-exist. Have I recreated home?
Nivedita Ramakrishnan lives in Fremont, Calif.