When I was about fifteen or sixteen, my man and I used to write to each other three or four times a week. Each letter was fourteen or fifteen fullscap sheets, about thirty pages. Living as we did, one in Dehradun and one in Chennai, the only means of communication really open to us was letters. Telephone calls, especially interstate, were prohibitively expensive, and mobiles in every kid’s hand was not even a remote concept. Back in those dark ages, we had not become used to the idea of personal computers, and the internet was still a US Government and NSA fiefdom. Snailmail, as we know it today, was the only way two sundered hearts could keep in touch over 2000 kilometers.
The excitement of receiving each letter is still so fresh in my mind I can virtually taste it! This was “first love!” This was my “boyfriend” writing to me! Just that would have been enough to give anyone the total thrills. Consider the age. Fifteen years old and in love for the first time, we were living so faraway from each other. Distance denied us all those little intimacies and pleasures that people in love take for granted. No little looks, no shared laughs, no “how was your day”, no handholding, no stolen kisses were possible for us. From acknowledgement of feelings to sharing our lives, letters had to perform the functions of all the senses.
I can never forget, or recapture, the wild, heart thumping, pulse beating, palm sweating suspense of seeing that letter, with that “oh so familiar” handwriting on it, on the dining table as i came home from school. Pretending to be nonchalant about it, leaving it there for just a little longer while I changed and had something to eat, so as not to seem overeager, added to the high. After what seemed like a safe amount of time (and felt like hours and hours), I would get up the courage to pick it up from the table, and escape to my room with it. Oh heaven! Oh hell! I still had to open it and actually read what D had to say!!!!
Trembling hands tore open the envelope and picked out the pages. Hmmmm… only 11? My last one was 18 pages … huh! I knew it! He loves me less than I love him! Every little thing was a matter of life and death almost. From counting the pages to weighing the words, and the tone, of every page, it was all more important than any of those paltry national security matters. The first reading went like a flash. In my eagerness to see what he writes next, I would just completely miss the line I was reading. It was like some intense, hopped up, speed reading session where nothing penetrated the consciousness.
Calming down enough to read through again, and understand this time, wasn’t easy, especially since we had a “no closed doors” rule at home. Pesky bro would choose just these moments to get on my nerves more than he did (and oh! How he did get on my nerves sometimes!), going into his “dikha na dikha na” mode. Mum or dad or both would be in and out of the room on some routine errand or another, and I would have to pretend it was just another letter from just another childhood friend….nothing special y’know. (Of course, I realize now that there was no need for all that pretence and tension. The folks knew, and had no problems with a little natural, innocent romance. But at the time it was an added thrill, I guess, to think of myself as one of those misunderstood and persecuted Hindi filmy heroines).
Once I had read the missive twice, thrice, a couple of dozen times, and practically knew every word by heart, it was time to compose a reply. Another massive undertaking. Every word had to be analysed, for tone, emotional intent, and all kinds of subtext. Then a fitting retort, response, reply had to be drafted. Always failed at this though. Being the emotional creature I was, I always got too carried away by what was happening in my life, and my own emotional responses to his words, to make too much headway in the who writes better letters game. My man tells me that was the fun part of getting my letters – knowing that there would be tear stains and angry rants, and other nonsense.
There were others I wrote to as well; pen friends in Edmonton, Canada, in Germany, and elsewhere; other childhood friends in Dehradun and Delhi; the occasional cousin; and so on. Each letter was a labour of love. A thought intensive communication that took hours, if not days, to plan and write. And I saved all the replies. They were pieces of that person, to me, little fragments of someone I loved, that I wanted to hold on to for all time.
Then, came the internet. I got my first PC in 1995, and now these machines are like an extra limb. I began to write on the desktop, finding that words flowed more easily when I saw then ALIVE in black and white, on the screen. Editing poems was easier with a backspace or delete key than with run-throughs on a page. By the time the internet, and email, became a household phenomenon in India, I was already an old hand at both. My man and I broke up, and lost touch, and all the other friends of the plume and the epistle fell by the wayside. People still in touch switched to technology, as email became part of the “cool quotient” and phone calls became simpler and cheaper.
Last week, my mother wished me to mail something for her, ‘the old fashioned way’. A huge civil war erupted, and everyone came in for a lot of flack when none of us could remember seeing a post box anywhere close by. All kinds of theories were advanced, ridiculed, and discarded, including ‘there are no post boxes now other than at post offices’. Lambasted, yelled at, and made fun of, I finally went on a post office hunt, found one in the back of beyond, and posted the damn letters! It still didn’t strike me! This morning, on my way to pick baby up from school, I finally spotted a red postbox in an alley close by (probably noticed it because of the recent hullabaloo).
It was while I was laughing at myself for having missed it before that I realised I can’t remember the last time I WROTE to someone! In fact, when I was about to mail those letters for mom, I realized I had no idea what amount of postage was necessary. Dad, on the great post box hunt with me, suggested that a rupees two stamp was probably the minimum now. Turns out, those days are long gone! The minimum postage is apparently five rupees these days! And I had no clue!
I email people, sure, all the time; I text frequently; I call often; but cannot, for the life of me, recall the last time I put pen to paper for anything, much less to communicate with someone. My work gets done on word and php, my writing on blogs and wordfiles. The only things I use paper for anymore is to make shopping lists or draw pictures for my four year old! It’s amazing what technology has done! Not entirely sure if it’s all good though. Sure it’s a lot more convenient, and definitely cheaper, at these prices. However, I have a horrible feeling that the excitement of getting letters is lost forever.
The avalanche of technology has changed the way we communicate forever, and though I love the scraps, walls, glitter, and cartoons, I miss the hand drawn caricatures my man used to draw of himself. Maybe its just nostalgia. I am, after all, hitting the age when people begin to say things like “humare zamaane mein” and “aajkal ke bacche”; when everything old seems golden and everything new seems like trash. And although I love technology, use it extensively, live it, and earn my bread from it, I can’t help but breathe that tiny little sigh of regret for those “pehele pyaar ki peheli chitthis” that I will no longer be able to hoard for posterity.