Art & Culture

Why we can't afford to lose the art of handwritten letters

L Aruna Dhir
L Aruna DhirMay 19, 2018 | 11:30

Why we can't afford to lose the art of handwritten letters

There was a time when writing letters was a highly sensory experience. First, the setting had to be right. There had to be a nice, wooden work desk, with its various accoutrements, on which we placed our forearms and put pen to paper.

If the bed was our position of preference then the cushion had to be sturdy enough to bear the weight of the pad and our indentations on it.

And if our luxuriously lush lawns were places where we parked ourselves to pen down the epistles, then the rug had to be in those bright, pick-me-up colours and had to be placed under the shade of a Frangipani tree with its richly perfumed flowers lying scattered around the rug. The time of the day had to be right and the breeze had to be controlled by the One Above — not too maniacal as a breeze can get and tamed enough to keep us cool.

We paid attention to all the small and big things that formed an integral part of our letter writing ritual. And yes, it was a sensuous undertaking, involving at least four of our senses, that of sight, smell, hearing and touch!


mike-hinshaw-sends-a_051818074630.jpgPostcard from Mike Hinshaw. Photo: L Aruna Dhir

The showmanship unfolded from what we wrote on to the tools we wrote with. From onion skin, floral-scented paper, that made a faint musical rustle each time we let a thought travel from our head to its surface! To the grandly-nibbed, gold-coloured fountain pens first, followed by ballpoints with the right point size to let our handwriting stand out; once the fountain pens phased out to live only in our memory banks. Writing with the pen gifted by Dad was of special significance and was reserved for very special letters that were written around our little successes and laudable achievements.

The envelopes had to be just right too. Like a piece of livery, they had to suit the occasion. Formal, plain, long whites for official mail; floral, pastel-coloured ones for mon amours; one with cartoons for friends or family; rimmed, embossed ones with a nice sticker to hold their backs for important contacts.

We even gave weightage to our handwriting and grammar and spelling. A lot was at stake there!

l-aruna_051818074657.jpgDuring my JNU days, I remember matching my time of posting a letter to a person of special interest with the pick-up schedule of the mail man. Photo: L Aruna Dhir

Since writing by hand is a slower process, and can take the mantle of an art form — we first thought then wrote and we let thinking happen at its own pace.

There was something almost sensual and romantic about writing with one’s hands. There was the patience of a lover in drawing the thumb and the index finger in a rhythmic motion as against the staccato pounding of a noisy keypad.

The certainty of strokes and the precision with which each word was ended and a new one begun and between that, the same word continued through with the smooth movement guided by the wrist, as opposed to pressing tabs, skipping a letter or typing too fast thereby inevitably misspelling and then hitting backspace on a disembodied machine. Oh, the complete ho-hum and charmless fare of typing as a sharp and ungainly contrast to writing in longhand with a fluid motion of the hand, as if to paint a rich tapestry with words!

The passion play of ink on paper, the masterfulness of penning down a legible script — your script in your style of writing and not just picking out of a documented font appears like a badge of honour today.

The ability to draw out neat and pretty cursive with looping tails of a “g” or “y”, the emphatic dots on “i” and “j”, the definitive strike out of a “t”, the curling up of an optimistic “a”, “c”, “d” or “e” — there was drama in each letter and poetry in motion in the whole sentence.

The lost art of longhand writing has made us miss out on the pleasure of seeing a good piece of handwritten script and pen craft — an art we are losing out to time, machine and thinning out passions.

When I was working with Archies G& G Ltd, as India’s first and only Creative Writer whose name was put on the Greeting cards, I went crazy like a child left in a toy store. The range of letter pads and envelopes available was mind-boggling. There seemed to be one for every occasion, every mood, every equation and every emotion.

Just a look at them made us want to write a letter, whether there was anything to write home about or not!

I don’t know about you, but for me music formed a huge backdrop in the letter writing process. If it was something officious or of occupational importance, then Eye of the Tiger or even Mozart lent the right beat to my hand movement and to the spirit behind writing. If it was a note being written to a boyfriend then Richard Clayderman came to my assistance to fine tune my mood. If it was a joyous note to a friend then even Jerry Lewis did the trick as I let my words dance on the festoon accented notepad.

There were also the so-called dark ages in my letter-writing life, when I played Munshi to my mother and wrote all the bureaucratic stuff on her behalf. Those, as we know, are never fun things and bear down us with their self-assuming importance.

It kind of came full circle for me, when I was appointed on the Change Agent Team with a mandate to relaunch and re-position The Imperial as one of India and Asia’s finest hotels. As the Brand Management Lead, I was also responsible for carving out a Brand Identity for the re-positioned hotel.

It involved creating new collateral, merchandise and stationery among a host of other Brand Image paraphernalia.

I had a field day feeling and caressing swatches of paper, playing around with fonts, zoning on background designs and textures, developing gold embossed stickers with the Hotel insignia to seal the envelopes so as to develop a heavenly range of letter/notes writing equipage for guests who enjoyed the effort that went into creating the premium collection and carried the lot with them for future use. I like to think that perhaps the finesse of the paper trappings brought back the love of letter writing in these folks.

Our letter-writing act, if you recall, always came with a lot of theatrics. If a mushy note was being penned to a beau, we had to make sure that no one was around to see us write those sentimental lines or hear our fiercely pounding heart, loud enough to bring the roof down. If we were penning down a formidably formalistic dispatch then we demanded complete silence. If a letter was being mailed to a relative then we wanted everybody to pitch in with a family message or greeting making it a compositely familial affair.

Receiving a letter brought in an avalanche of emotions to engulf us. There was so much joy in getting a letter by snail mail. There was the excitement of the mail man ringing the bell at the gate to announce that he came bearing stories on sheaves of paper from a dear, distant friend.

When my poems began to get published in Target, Jetset and other magazines and when my Archies cards made an appearance on Archies Gallery shelves countrywide, I began to get fan mail. And that put me in an all together different orbit.

Then there were letters from friends in Kerala and Patna that I loved to receive. But the most watched out for were big, fat letters from my American friend Clayton Cornell who wrote such lengthy reams and sent me stickers and tinsels and cartoon cutouts that getting and reading his mail was like an occasion in itself.

Finally, posting letters was a routine that came accompanied with caution, ceremony and convention. If an important communication was being sent out, enough warnings were given to the carrier to ensure safe, smooth and stable delivery of the envelope either in the mail box or at the General Post Office. The carrier was told umpteen times to not lose the envelope or drop it, or ruin it by a freak accident as it contained matters of high importance.

During my JNU days, I remember matching my time of posting a letter to a person of special interest with the pick-up schedule of the mail man. That meant standing around Godavari hostel and drinking countless cups of tea to kill time while positioned near the red box and patiently waiting to see the khaki-clad man of the moment wheel in on his bicycle.

A note sent from the phone or desktop or iPad, a message sent over SMS or WhatsApp will sadly never have the sense of romance, thrill, satisfaction and excitement of a handwritten letter!

At one of the places I worked in, we were gifted the limited edition, blue stone-encrusted Mont Blancs. Just to resurrect the beautiful pen — a piece of art in itself — I must zero down on a deserving person to write a handwritten note to, with the subject to match.

Last updated: May 19, 2018 | 11:30
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