Two days ago, I did something I hadn’t done for years: I wrote a letter—on paper, with pen. The letter was to thank Dr Nandu Laud, one of Mumbai’s most eminent orthopaedic doctors, for the care and concern he had shown my husband when he recently fractured his shoulder along with a rib. Through that trying week at Breach Candy Hospital, Dr Laud was there for us—answering silly questions, taking calls at odd hours and assuring us that all was well.
Because I was so overwhelmed by his old-school courtesy, I decided to make an old-school gesture to express my gratitude. My letter was fairly short—some 300 words—and it was only after I finished it that it dawned on me that I simply couldn’t remember the last real letter I had written—not a query to my bank, not an email to my sister, not a perfunctory typed letter (with the space for a name after the “Dear” and the place for a signature left blank, to be filled by hand) congratulating someone on the birth of a baby, but a real true-blue letter written from the first “Dear” to the last “Love” by hand.
For that matter, I can’t remember the last real letter I have received. My mail consists almost entirely of official communication (“Please ignore this letter if you have already paid”), invitations (multiple cards-within-card weddings, art shows, sari sales) and, of course, bills—all shrouded in Seal King and stapled four times over by the courier company that delivers them. The rest of my communication takes place online—email, my online community of fellow pokers and sheep-throwers and SMS with smiley emoticons. The less I seem to write by hand, the more time I seem to spend on my computer, with my blog (www.asianwindow.wordpress.com) being my new Grand Obsession.
And yet, at the risk of sounding like an old fogey, things weren’t always like this. I remember returning from the US and staying in touch with my friends there on aerogrammes that cost, if I’m not mistaken, Rs10.50 each. You had to write in tiny, tiny letters to get in as much gossip as you could. They took 10 days to reach the US. After that you waited for another 10 days to get a reply.
That is such a far place away from the world of IM and chat—dashed off without premeditation with automatic spellcheck and the constant distraction of multiple windows that open to multiple worlds. I’m not knocking online communication—I couldn’t live without it and am constantly amazed at the number of old friends I’ve reconnected with—I’m just sad that writing by hand is so out of style.
The last few outposts of handwriting remain. The journalist I most admire has, through the years, steadfastly refused to succumb to the easy charm of the computer. He writes on A-4 sized writing pads, using an inexpensive biro to write his columns in his scratchy scrawl. You won’t find a single line crossing out an earlier word; no overwriting, no rearranging of thoughts and ideas. Everything is poured out directly from his heart to his notebook.
In a talk delivered at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) at Monterey, California, in March 2007, Lakshmi Pratury, a former venture capitalist, talked about the legacy of her father: the art of writing by hand. “Why give up old habits for new?” she questioned.
Why indeed? Unlike Pratury, I never kept the letters my father wrote to me, relegating them to the trash each time I had replied in my obsessive need to keep my life free of clutter. But my father was more prescient. Shortly after his death, I discovered a neat folder where every single letter I had ever written to him had been neatly filed. There was my first letter on reaching California, my letter to him about my first campus job on a sandwich line, my car troubles, my decision to return to India. Every word that I had written had been kept and filed and stored by him in this chronicle of memories that now moved beyond life and death to connect us together again.
There is something inherently honest about the old fashioned art of handwriting. Another genetic link—my daughters—would write me little notes when they were much younger. Amid crayon drawings of flowers and butterflies, they scribbled: “I love you, Mama”. Like my father did for me, I kept them in a plastic folder. Later, when I asked my daughter why she stopped sending me those notes, she looked me in the eye and replied: “But you never wrote back to me.”
Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org