Monday, November 14, 2011

The Sound of Letters Falling

It’s a sound I really miss these days. In the quiet of mid-morning and mid-afternoon, the ‘shrrshh…shrrsshh’ of the postman pushing letters through the slot in the door and the soft whisper of them falling on to the mat. I remember rushing eagerly to gather them up, riffling through the envelopes and inland letters, searching especially for the blue ‘par avion’ label. I had four pen-friends when I was twelve – from Norway, England, France and Germany. I also wrote regularly to a wacky cousin of mine who was married and settled in a back-of-beyond mining town called Ghatsila in Bihar. She was bored out of her mind and would write long letters full of absurd advice crackling with humour. Then there were letters written by friends from whom I had parted wrenchingly when we moved from Pune to Mumbai. It was my only link to the world I had left behind and thought of with longing.
For my European pals, it was a chance to improve their English – not one of them except of course, Catherine from England, could write fluently. Marion from Germany wrote her spider scrawl completely in German and Nadine from France communicated in a strange patois of English and French. Hanne-Marie from Norway was very correct and exact, right from her choice of words (I often suspected she had a dictionary beside her when she wrote!) to her neat printing. Hanne’s penfriendship lasted a full six years. The reason? I was spending so much on aerogrammes at one point, that my parents forbade me to keep more than one penpal and since Hanne was the one who always replied immediately, I chose her over the others.
Gifts winged their way, in both directions, across the ocean. One time it was a beautiful sealskin purse,another time a silver snowflake brooch and filigreed earrings. Once she taped a handkerchief with Christmas motifs inside the card! I received such lovely cards and postcards from her, that I still have them, over 30 years later, shown to my daughters, handled lovingly and read again and again. I sometimes wonder where my long-legged friend Hanne-Marie - who sent me a photograph of herself in shorts and sleeveless blouse sitting casually on pristine snow - is now. Did she treasure my letters and gifts (a leather purse, a kurta sent agonisingly by seamail, a sandalwood thingamajig) as much as I did hers?
My stories of my penpals inspired my daughters to look for their own when they were eleven. Of course, it was all done online – no laborious filling up of a form by hand with your age, hobbies and whether you wanted a boy or a girl! They selected the snail mail option because, they too, wanted the magic of letters delivered by the postman and the thrill of tearing open an envelope. To exclaim over the letter paper and the lives of teens like them in lands far away. One penpal sent candy, another sent stickers, and a third sent a novel she had written and printed all on her own.
Oh, of course, it is an expensive hobby, letter-writing. People regard it as an old-fashioned quirk, in an age when email, texting and instant messaging have taken over our lives. Aerogrammes used to cost three rupees when I was young, now they cost five times as much. Yesterday, I stepped into a near-deserted post-office to buy aerogrammes for my mother who wanted to write to my daughter who  lives abroad. She is uncomfortable with computers and the keyboard is beyond her comprehension. The lady behind the counter looked astonished, as if I had asked for the moon. The aerogrammes were yellowing and musty like they were relics of a bygone age.
Would my grandchildren ever know the indescribable adrenaline rush of unfolding sheets of paper and vicariously experiencing another’s faraway life through the magic of ink? No lols, rotfls, btws or silly smileys to mar the flow. The silent swoosh of a letter falling on the mat.
I guess not…

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