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A Lament For A Dying Art

handwritten note

A friend of mine’s status update recently read ‘Writing Christmas cards…’ Wow! I hadn’t heard that for quite a while now. With all wishing done online these days, come to think of it, we don’t even seem to be sending a lot of personal emails these days. Whatever needs to be said seems to be conveyed quite publicly through status updates.

While I am grateful to online networking sites for getting me back in touch with childhood friends who, otherwise, I might have just passed by on the street without a second glance, the fact remains that technology has taken away one of life’s simplest joys –the exquisite pleasure of receiving an actual letter by ‘snailmail’, glancing at the stamps to see if they can be added to your collection or worth being exchanged with a friend who has something in his collection that you have been eyeing for a while, ripping open the envelope and settling down to read the pages inside, filled with little squiggles that make sense and carry with them more than just the meanings of the words they form.

Those words strung together in garlands of thought bear upon them the fragrance of emotion and bring to you a bit of the person who writes to you. It is for no reason that someone once remarked, that in today’s world of impersonal communication, there’s nothing more intimate than a glimpse of one’s handwriting. That’s why we are at a stage today when we have very close friends whose handwritings we wouldn’t recognize.

One of the few things we still write are cheques and that I am pretty sure is never a pleasant experience. Unpleasantness notwithstanding, it at least reminds us how to wield a pen. But with the onslaught of the small sheets of plastic we use to swipe our way through life, cheque books too could soon go the way of ‘inlands’ and airmail envelopes. The inevitable pen in one’s pocket has been replaced by smart phones that do everything for you and in a pinch can even be engaged in a conversation if you don’t mind being given smart aleck answers by a certain snooty lady who resides in the latest smart phones.

But the letters appearing on touch screens are wholly devoid of individuality, while those you write carry something of the writer’s personality. There is even a whole industry whose very raison d’être is the way you write – Handwriting Analysis. Yes, handwriting does tell interesting tales and like the writer, the written also has its own personality that comes fully loaded with whims, fancies and eccentricities.

The egoistic ‘R’ and ‘P’ with big fat heads, the wishy washy ‘m’ and ‘n’ that just cannot make up their minds whether to be one or the other, the vertically challenged ‘d’ passing off as an ‘a’, the ‘i’ and ‘e’, that suffer from multiple personality disorders, the open mouthed ‘a’, thinly disguised as a ‘u’ or the showy ‘R’, ‘Y’ and ‘G’ with their flowing manes, sinuous tails, flourishes and frills. Then there are the rebels and iconoclasts with no regard for rules, who stoutly refuse to dot their ‘i’s and cross their ‘t’s or simply ignore the existence of such a thing as uppercase letters. They all made life more interesting as they jumped out at you from dry sheets of paper. How much more interesting than the uniform, impersonal, lifeless, faceless, entities we type out these days, never mind that we are offered more fonts than we care to count.

And as writing becomes a lost art, it refuses to go down alone, taking along with it a host of other things that in a while, we will only recall with a whiff of nostalgia… diaries, journals, beautifully crafted letter pads, fountain pens…

And all through history, the epistle has held Mankind’s hands through his moments of joy and sadness, anxiety and celebration, love and longing… from the heavily censored letters arriving from war torn fronts to a family waiting to get word of a brave son or the scented billet-doux of young love; the missive carrying strict advice from a father to his young offspring or the more indulgent one from the mother; the dutiful child’s letter home or the official dispatch; the sheets carrying wonderful tales of faraway lands from a pen pal; the tear soaked letters of a lonely wife or simply the Megha Sandesam of the lovelorn Yaksha to his beautiful young wife…  Letters have always been beautiful and undeniably entwined with human history.

But, like a host of other things, the art of writing too has been caught up in the Juggernaut of evolution and must lend itself to change. I did resist for a while, devoutly sticking to my reliable journals and Hero pens, enjoying the sight of my words often decipherable only by me, come to life on paper. But the technology bug bit me too and today, I occasionally write in my journal just for the ‘feel good’ of writing. I, who have saved almost every letter I have ever received, since the day I wrote my first letter ever to my uncle, and who once used to spend hours at local Archies and Hallmark galleries pouring over hundreds of cards to find ‘that one perfect card’ which precisely conveyed what I wanted to say and then went on to fill reams and reams of letter paper to go along with the card, am today, reduced to limiting my communication to a few strikes on my keyboard. Sad!

Yet the incorrigible romantic and nostalgic in me still longs for good old-fashioned greeting cards and solid letters. Getting a nice big fat letter by post is one of the most wonderful feelings ever. And if it is from someone special, I am sure most have gone through the inevitable quickening of the heart, perhaps a missing of a heartbeat or two, the secret smile to oneself before seeking a solitary spot to relish every word of it in peace as the letter tells you much more than a direct conversation does, folding it away with a sigh, only to open it again, and read it once more, picking up the nuances you missed out the first time, repeating the whole process for days till the fragile paper finally threatens to crumble along the folds, cello taping it together, and putting it away somewhere safe, and then years later, coming across it unexpectedly and then sitting down to read it with the one who wrote it- who of course stoutly declares he was under the influence of the hallucination inducing cough medicine when he wrote it…

Ah! The sheer joy of it…That is why, when I see young people in love today, hanging on to their various communication gadgets, proud of being in touch 24/7, I am tempted to tell them about the simple intimacy of a handwritten note and the exquisite thrill of waiting for it. Instant gratification simply strips life of all its joys. And sometimes, there is even a kind of painfully perverse pleasure in waiting for a letter which you know, will never arrive…

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