The lost genre of letter writing

Somewhere in the late eighties, Doordarshan had telecast a fourteen-episode children’s serial called Kachchi Dhoop. It was Amol Palekar’s directorial venture which was loosely adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s book ‘Little Women‘. It was the story of the growing up of four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in Alcott’s book), which was handled extremely sensitively by Amol Palekar. To those who remember, it was actress Bhagyashree’s debut on television before she became a big star with Maine Pyaar Kiya. She played the eldest sister. And cast against her, was the tall, dark and handsome tuition teacher, Ashutosh Gowariker, who had school girls crushing over him then.

But of the four sisters, it wasn’t Bhagyashree playing Alka who captured my attention. Having read the book recently then, my heroine was always the tomboyish Nandu (Jo/Josephine) played superbly by Shalmalee Palekar (Amol and Chitra Palekar’s daughter). I just remember one scene vividly. Nandu always writes her feelings in her notebook. And one day after an argument, she returns home to find her book of poems and writings torn to bits by her sister. I remember sitting in front of the television, shuddering and crying buckets. I was completely traumatized by how someone could even do that to someone’s writings.

Later, life took me through its several pages. There are two which still traumatize me. One- where I saw a friend burn some cards written by me over a candle flame slowly, simply to rile me. And another, when someone shredded four long pages which I filled with my feelings in front of my eyes. I still tear up when I think about those two episodes. I count them among the darkest days of my life. I almost stopped writing handwritten cards and letters after that. People who didn’t respect your words would never understand me. It wasn’t worth expressing your emotions to anyone.

I think most people do not understand the value of the written word. When you write, you pour yourself into those words. Honestly. You strip yourself naked. I believe you cannot fake feelings when you write- the hoax is clearly apparent to the reader. As a child I began keeping diaries. Even today when I flip through those pages, I see myself addressing imaginary people and telling them about the pleasures and pain of growing up. I wrote long letters, vividly describing the tumultuous emotions of adolescence. And never posted them home. There were some special people whom I wrote to- people who meant something to me. Carefully selecting handmade paper, choosing the right colour of ink, and painstakingly penning down those epistles. I don’t know if people valued them. For me a hand-written letter is the ultimate expression of romance. I don’t think many people appreciate that thought anymore. It is a fast-moving world which has no time for such niceties.

These days, emails are the norm. They don’t convey the warmth of written letters. You can delete, reformulate your thoughts and rewrite- but it still ends up being a cold email. The act of writing by hand, spontaneously expressing whatever comes to mind first (because you can’t cross out too many words and write a shabby note), means that you write with your heart, and not your head. That is an art which long becoming extinct.

My brother recently handed me a bunch of letters written by my father to my mother. She was studying in a hostel for several years after they were married. I arrived into their lives eight years later. So these are dated before my birth. At first instance I feel like a voyeur, breaching their privacy. But they were my parents after all, so I feel they help me know them better. Neatly penned down by my Dad, several inland letters in red ink, proclaim his love for my mother. The letters are a treasure trove. Exploring their new relationship and the several people around them- the usual process of discovering each other in an arranged marriage. Speaking of hopes and their dreams. Sometimes quoting Shakespeare, sometimes Longfellow, sometimes Urdu shayari. I feel I have entered their world of love and romance- a world which doesn’t exist any more.

I know from them that I have inherited my father’s genes. I now understand my pain better. And I rue the death of the letter writer. And dream that some day I will rewind to a time where I will revive my letter writing skills again- for someone who values my words.


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