Art & Culture

The importance of being earnest about writing letters

Piya Srinivasan
Piya SrinivasanJan 21, 2017 | 18:09

The importance of being earnest about writing letters

The most fascinating thing happened recently. I wrote a letter. Not any official correspondence, application for a government post, or administrative formality but a living, breathing letter. Remember what that felt like? This involves a small incursion into memory. For many, writing letters stopped sometime in the early 2000’s when the personal computer, mobile phone, and laptop gently nudged their way into our everyday lives, changing its landscape forever.


Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is also the soul of the 21st century. Brevity and speed define our lives. Takeaway coffee, short-term marriages, multifunctional devices, working our glutens as we sit at a meeting in office, dictating emails to our smartphones on an evening walk, making ourselves likeable through profile photos, making sartorial choices with the click of a button, making sexual choices with right-swipes... the list goes on.  Is slow living even an option?

The New Year, clean slate and all saw many hopefuls writing about taking charge of their lives. This generally means squeezing the bejeezus out of the 24 hours you’re given for going about your business, gearing up to defy time. As a fellow hopeful, I decided to reverse this logic because outpacing ourselves isn’t exactly doing wonders to our economy, our lives, our sense of joy. So I decided to take time, not defy it. The best place to begin seemed to be writing a letter.

One of the primary joys of writing a letter is its ritualistic aspect. Any serious letter writer knows you can’t just write a letter. You need the arsenal. If you’re a stationery fetishist, or just like the texture of paper and the different experiences of ink of it, you’ll want the perfect pen, the writing sheets, matching envelopes, and the right frame of mind. You can shop for the first three, but I believe the last is something we left behind in the last millennium. And that thing is becoming increasingly harder to come by – a sense of wonder, the desire to write about life without the experience of immediation i.e., the communication of and gratification received from the immediacy of lived reality.  


The physical and electronic differences between letters and emails are obvious. But for writing to negotiate the by-lanes of one’s thoughts without an element of speed or urgency involves a different bent of mind. On Gmail, you can even un-send the mail you had sent out! Imagine the philosophical implications of “unsending” something, almost like rewinding in a movie. But life isn’t a movie; life doesn’t let you take your words back. As technology gears up to challenge reality, ancient forms of communication like letter writing remain the original immersive experience.

One of the primary joys of writing a letter is its ritualistic aspect. [Image: Dearhomeland]

It is also tactile. The physical process of writing allows you to unravel yourself slowly, meditatively, an action that offers reflection and solace. It becomes a way of allowing your thoughts to breathe, of understanding your wants and feelings. The revelation of the letter is unlike any other, because it is there as evidence, evidenced by your hand, uniquely yours. Even the act of writing the recipient’s address, conjuring up a neighbourhood in a faraway location, brings with it the idea of travel, of conquering distance. The sensory aspects of this experience let us be mindful to the ways in which we frame our thoughts. It’s like gazing through the lens of a film camera - with limited chances of getting your composition right, you instinctively arrange and compose better before you click. 


I wrote a letter to a friend in France, on rough handmade paper, torn out of a notebook (sacrilege), and penned with a Pilot Pen (remember those?). Having almost forgotten this art and being an adept writer of long emails of late, the difference hit me like a rock. Watching my writing flow from the edges of my pen gave me a thrill, and before long, the words flowed with a different rhythm than they did on the laptop. The dance was more elemental, truer. Letter written, I went to the neighbourhood post office where the employees’ kindness towards this unfortunate outsider to the world of post offices overwhelmed me. I had expected at best, indifference, the kind you find behind counters at most government run establishments. Instead I was greeted with affability, not just by the staff but other veterans posting letters, money orders, and parcels.

I was directed to the last counter to buy stamps. The lady gave me three that I instinctively licked to stick on the envelope, salvaging a memory from books read, movies watched. Laughingly, she pointed me to the blue Camel glue box, sticky with the resin remnants of letters previously sealed.  I used a slip to paper to dip into the glue, stick on the stamps, seal the letter and soon it was on its way to the other side of the world. As I left, I looked behind and the low buzz of conversation, teas drunk, forms filled, covered up my departure as they resumed their way of life. The familiar red and yellow logo of India Post brings up memories of days past, standing testimony to the endurance of traditional forms of correspondence and simultaneously, its slow fading.

Brought up in boarding schools, I always had a ready reckoner in writing stationery, items that I selected from markets across the city (somewhat like Nai Sadak in Delhi) to write letters to my parents when I was in school, and to my friends when I was home. Letter writing became a great way to channel my imagination, and express all that I had read, lived and experienced. Undoubtedly, my expressive powers were at their peak then, unmeasured by the constraints of adult time and unfettered by the exaggerations of childhood. There’s nothing better than looking back at a letter to your best friend to expose your childish excesses, much like reading a poem in your thirties that you wrote in your early 20s. Nothing signifies time, effort, love, and remembrance like a letter.

Last updated: January 21, 2017 | 18:09
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