When We Got Mail

One day after a lot of procrastination, I set to the daunting task of cleaning out my closet. After mustering the courage to shift around a few things I hadn’t touched in months, I inadvertently caused the contents of an entire shelf to come tumbling down. Several things were part of the wreckage: cobwebs, dust, unwanted clothing, shoes, bags and a dusty set of envelopes I had all but forgotten.

They contained several sheets of ruled paper covered with a familiar handwriting I didn’t see that often. It was a letter from my sister written in 2013, my first year in medical school. The ink had faded on the yellowed paper, as is the custom with old letters.

I found another letter, this time from my mother, dated just a few days before my 19th birthday. It was strange, to look at those words written long ago. So many things had happened since then. All agenda of cleaning now successfully brushed clean from my mind, an odd thought occurred to me. Why is it that no one really writes letters anymore?

The answer although fairly simple, is still difficult to stomach. Who needs to write letters unless it is for official purposes? Why would you want to write to people just to keep in touch with them? We can talk to anyone we want, almost anytime we want. No one writes letters other than out of necessity. Some of us write simply because we enjoy it and like to make regular trips to stationary stores and post offices. (Of which, there are two in Manipal, by the way.)

In most families there still are a few letters that emerge from attics or old trunks once in a while. They are a curious assortment – letters and post cards from relatives who lived or vacationed overseas, cards and letters dated way back in the 90’s when a phone call to a different city or country cost a fortune, or even earlier in the 60s or 70s, when most Indian families did not have a landline. Often there are letters from people who are no longer with us.

For some inscrutable reason, the sight of their handwriting on a piece of paper seems more tangible a reminder of their existence than all the memories that we associate with them. Letters can sometimes be scandalous, sometimes tragic. Mostly, they remind us of a different time for better or for worse. I have always felt that they seem to say something about the person who wrote them in a way that the author probably never intended.

An old couple once told me of their early courtship days. How they would write to each other in the strictest confidence. Even now so many years later, whenever either of them sees thick blue paper at a stationery store, they are reminded of their youth. Once, on a similar closet cleaning spree, we found a package of letters in an old cupboard that belonged to my late great-grandmother.

At a time when you couldn’t so much as hold your spouse’s hand in public, her letters reflected the warm and intimate relationship she shared with her husband. There were no undying declarations, no poetry, just simple lines of love and trust. Ultimately those lines were all that mattered.

In a time of quick results and passing, transient relationships, letters symbolize a deeper, enduring connection between individuals. And they don’t necessarily have to be with people we know personally. Many people also had pen-friends back in the day from different countries and different walks of life. My grandmother relates stories of the Berlin Wall in great detail, all thanks to a pen friend who lived in Germany at the time.

The other day I was very upset with something that had happened at college. I came back home and tried to get it out of my mind. Before I knew it, I had produced three sheets of what can only be called a rant. I am not proud of it, but addressing it to the person responsible for that mental state and signing my own name at the end made me feel better about the whole thing. I still have those sheets. One day, when the whole incident stops being important, I’ll get rid of them.

Enamoured by this letter related train of thought, I decided to write one to myself, to be opened ten years later. It’s mostly a list of things I expect I will have by then. So I guess I’ll either be very amused or very annoyed by its contents ten years later. Or, assuming that getting older makes me a more mature person, I would probably be more interested in observing how my perspective on life has changed.

So in conclusion, when you have something to say, no matter how irrelevant or laconic, pick up a piece of paper and write it down. It could be a message to anyone, even yourself. Write to the people you love, write to the people you hate. Write to yourself, so you can feel stupid about it ten years down the line. Write about the people you meet and the things you see and feel.

It may not always be pretty, but acknowledging some of the thoughts in our minds is a good way to handle our inner conflicts. And of course it’s a good way to escape some of the mundane things we invariably have to do, like cleaning our closets. So that’s probably where you’ll find me –  poring over some old papers, sitting at the foot of a closet that looks like it exploded.


Written for MTTN by Sohag Bagchi

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