What do letters signify? Nostalgia. Gone are the days of poring your thoughts out on a a scented foolscap sheet of colored paper. It’s short bursts of information, 140 characters long, these days. Gone too is that delicious anticipation for the postman’s knock, hoping that a friend’s, penpal’s or beloved’s letter is in his bag.
The advent of the email sounded the death knell to letter-writing. Emails are today’s instantaneous letters. While I am happy to receive an e-mail, it represents a transient form of communication, here today—deleted tomorrow.
No Time For Niceties
For quite a few years now, I have watched with sadness the dwindling number of letters that find a place in my mailbox, a fact that is especially noticeable during festivals and birthdays. Thank you letters, once part of gift receiving etiquette, have now all but disappeared. Is it that we are just too busy for such things? Or is it that people never really liked writing letters in the first place (although everybody likes receiving letters)? There was a time when writing letters was our only means of communicating.
In today’s world, we can pick up the phone and speak to anyone around the globe within a second or two. However, there are times when writing is so much more meaningful. The written vocabulary tends to be more precise and often more thoughtful. When writing letters I have the time to elaborate exactly what I want to say and how best to say it.
As a child I remember my mother receiving a letter every week from her mother. I recall looking at the beautiful handwriting and wanting to write like that. My mother would sit down and answer the letter in her neat script and I would be invited to write a short note to Grandma to include in the envelope.
A Personal Connection
So what do letters mean to all those who like to get them and those who like to write them?
“A letter from a beloved can make your heart soar. Even today, letters have the power to enchant people … We pay the price of losing intimacy for the convenience of speed. Letters are valuable to people who love to treasure them for a lifetime,” says Swetha, a computer programmer in Canada. “I like the instant nature of e-mail, but I dislike the fact that it represents a technical business-like transaction. I definitely loved the slower mode of communication a couple of decades ago,” says Sharanya, a writer. “It is alright. I do not lose much by not using e-mail,” says Rajan, a retired professor, “I still enjoy writing and receiving letters and the beauty of the entire procedure—making sure my handwriting is good, my letter paper is neat, the envelope is well stuck, clean, the address is neatly written out with all the lines being symmetrical and the stamps glued on to the right side of the envelope etc.”
My letters remind me of who I used to be. Only the other day a friend of mine told me about some letters I had written to her three decades ago, which she has still preserved. She burst out laughing when thinking about the contents of those old missives. She relates what she remembers from one of them: “I feel like running away from home! I’m unable to bear the pressure of my parents regarding my marriage in the near future.” Now I am happily settled with two lovely daughters!
Says a friend, Rakhi, “I keep re-reading my letters. Reading a letter for the second and third time is just about as much fun as the first time. Although I could probably tell with my eyes shut what the next line will say, I find myself time and again tracing those nostalgic thoughts. It is like a comfort zone. I do not experience any qualms in deleting an e-mail, but would definitely agonize over tearing up a dear one’s handwritten letter. I have preserved the letters of my parents who are no more, and draw solace from them when ever I feel disturbed.”
Letter writing can be a very personal form of communication. When I recognize a familiar handwriting and read the letter’s contents, I find that a part of the writer’s personality leaps from the page to greet me! It is a heady feeling to realize that a loved one has labored to fill a letter with personal thoughts and emotions.
Sure, it is good to hear someone say, “I love you.” But to read it in a letter, knowing that someone took the time to write it makes it so much more meaningful. Even if, at some point of time in the future, those words are taken back, we still have a permanent record of it and can cherish it for a long time.
The Hallmark Convenience
The U.S. Postal Services (USPS) has named April as the Letter-Writing Month. The USPS marketing message reads: “Touch them with a letter they can feel—and keep.” Today one can go to a department store and buy a Hallmark card that conveys just about any greeting: “Belated Happy Birthday,” “I Miss You,” and “Sorry we had a disagreement” are just some of the cards available today.
While it is convenient to pick up one of these cards, it also strips the offering of any uniqueness. Sending these cards are nice gestures, but they are still somebody else’s words. Is the receiver of the card to be touched by the sentiment because the sender passed the “greeting cards” aisle on her way to pick up dishwashing detergent and cereal? I know that most people truly feel what the card is trying to convey. I, too, buy cards like these, but I personalize the action by writing a note in my own words.
The Scent of a Letter
Just as hot-out-of-the-oven bread gives pleasure to anyone lucky enough to be within nose-shot of the kitchen, so is finding a plump, hand-lettered envelope addressed to you. Like bread, letters are a tactile pleasure which cannot be duplicated by the ring of the telephone or the blinking neon of a computer. Added to all this, paper comes in all sizes; ink has a peculiar smell; and handwriting has a way of changing appearance as the mood or speed of the writer changes; and even the lovely postage stamp adds a colourful and festive air to a letter.
It’s these little decisions that constitute something special, something designed to give pleasure to the receiver. The quiet moments it takes to write a letter are the hours that nourish one’s own self.
A good chef is known for the way he or she puts ordinary things together in an extraordinary way. So too, the best letters are the ones that expose the reader and writer to the profound truths in life’s ordinary events.
I received a short letter the other day from an eight-year-old, carefully printed on a pink heart shaped paper: “Dear aunty, how are you doing? I’m fine. How is Scooby? My baby brother Santosh can talk a lot these days. I am attending guitar and swimming classes. Here is a lovely bookmark which I made especially for you. Love, Shilpa.” I immediately penned a response expressing how happy I was to receive such a lovely keepsake. This, I hope will encourage Shilpa to continue writing.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, gave her knowledge and wisdom which no telephonic conversation could ever have imparted. There are history lessons and a father’s hopes and ambitions locked into those letters, forever preserved as the book, Glimpses of World History.
In the delightful novel published in 2008, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, author Mary Ann Shaffer lays out the plot using letters, notes and epistles. This technique is not new. The most famous epistolary novel was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, composed mostly of letters and published in 1897. Letters can be compiled into an unforgettable work of art.
If we wish to preserve the grace and dignity of the rich culture of letter writing, we should slow down, set aside time each month to sit alone, perhaps under a spreading tree, and write letters to friends and family who would be delighted to receive a letter from us. Our lives take on color and shape when its events are spun out onto paper. Patterns emerge and we discover things hitherto unknown to us. It leads us on a journey of self-discovery.
Sudha Chandrasekaran is a writer based in India.