By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
Letters are my weakness. Do you know what I miss in this modern era? It is letters, the long rambling gossipy letters of the golden past, for which we used to wait so eagerly. Once the sight of the postman was a matter of abundant joy for us and I was thrilled when some letter addressed to me was brought out by him from his bulging bag. I am not speaking only about myself, but about all others from my generation. We loved to write long letters and were delighted to receive them from friends and relations. I know that today’s young people would mock at us for our passiote love for letters, and they think that we live in a different world from theirs. Frankly speaking, I myself feel that our world is different from theirs. Letters mean nothing to them and I doubt if they have ever written a letter to anybody. They may not even be capable of writing two sentences in a letter. What a pity!
I still remember the days when I was a student of Scottish Church College in Calcutta more than half a century back. I used to stay in Lady Dundas Hostel. There was a board fixed in the wall, where all the letters addressed to the boarders were stuck. And the girls after coming back from the college stood around the board if there were any letters for them. So did I. We became wild with joy if we could detect any letters addressed to us. Truly those were ecstatic moments for us. The girls, who did not receive any letters, became sad and depressed. In a sense our joy and sorrow were determined by the letters, which spoke volumes to us. They were the messengers of love for us, and they were the only source of communication with family, relatives and friends. There were land line telephones in some homes, but everyone could not avail the opportunity of having a telephone at home. And in our hostel there was only one telephone in the Superintendent’s office, which facility was given to the hostellers. Anyway, we were not the least interested in those telephones. How could we possibly allow telephones to replace letters? It was unthinkable.
Today’s children will laugh at us if we tell them that letters are much more preferable to telephone messages. They would turally regard us as sentimental old fools belonging to another age and another world. To be frank, I too feel that way. The children of today are so much different from the children of the past that they seem to belong to different worlds.
I know that today people do not have time to write long letters with detailed information about various, things. We are living in a world, which is fast moving and ‘fast’ is the pass word. Everything is to be done instantly; instant food, instant serving, instant reply are the order of the day, and they are in great demand. People have no time to stand and stare, as it is regarded as a sheer waste of time. It is ridiculous to observe the sun set to appreciate its beauty, or to enjoy the sight of the chirping birds or the star-lit sky, or the twinkling flowers as we did in the olden era. For the modern generation these tural things of beauty have no value. Science has contributed many invaluable things to make life easier. The slow world of yester years have turned into a fast one. People rush to their work places, mummies race against time to get the children ready for the school, commuters rush to catch the bus. These are the normal events of the day. People now no longer have time to socialize and hence social visits have become rare.
In this fast world no one seems to have time to write letters. Perhaps some of us still have the habit of sending printed greeting cards to friends and relations on various occasions. These cards do not need exertion on your part. I wonder if those stilted printed messages warm the receiver’s mind. That too may not find favour with some people. It is so much easier to pick up the phone and dial the number than to sit down with a pen and a blank page.
Mobile phones have become all the rage. Everybody, from the highest to the lowest, moves around with a mobile phone in hand, so that you can contact anybody or receive any call or message anywhere anytime. For us a phone is an instrument with the help of which you receive or send message. But a mobile phone is not just a mere instrument to communicate with people. It serves multifarious activities. It can save numbers, take photographs, and receive photographs from others, record songs and do various things; though for me a phone is just an instrument for talking with somebody. You can also play games in the phone. Really we must admit that science has created wonders. By sitting at home with a mobile phone in hand you can enjoy many things. Why should you waste time in letter-writing, if you have a mobile phone with you?
For the modem generation it is a sheer waste of time to sit down with a pen and paper in hand to write a letter. For these people it is silly to be sentimental over letters. In the ancient era people had nothing worthwhile to do and hence they could write those long letters. In this age it is ridiculous to talk of writing letters in this fast-moving world. People now are too busy to waste time in frivolous activities. Hence letter-writing has become a thing of the past. People in the ancient era indulged in writing all those letters, because they had nothing else to do. What is the use of spending hours in a job which can be accomplished in minutes? For these people time is money and they think it to be foolish to indulge in sentimentalism. Yet in spite of these high-sounding words they do waste time in needless flippant activities, which they could have utilised in a more fruitful manner. Anyway, we are deviating from the main issue.
I don’t consider letter-writing to be a waste of time and for me it is an art. Letters in the past contained a wealth of information. I only wish that I had preserved them. They would have made interesting reading at present, since they would have served as glimpses into the past. Letters can be regarded as history. I remember the letters I received decades back; they were mines of information regarding various events of the period. They were informative as well as emotiol.
Those letters were very beneficial in several ways. They not only gave immense pleasure to the letter-writer as well as to the receiver, but they also helped in improving the literary ability of the writer. The composition of a letter needs ingenuity as well as creativity. Letters express the feelings of the writer and hence they may be regarded as the mirror of the innermost feelings of the writer. I think letters also give self-confidence to the writer, since only a self-confident person has the ability to express boldly his feelings without any inhibition. Today’s young people can hardly write two sentences with feelings.
People of this era have become so much averse to writing letters that they do not even respond to an RSVP. Sometimes we receive invitations to some wedding or party where RSVP is clearly written. The letters RSVP (respondezs’il vows plait) in plain English means “Please answer”. Surely you have noticed the RSVP sign in many of your invitation cards. But how many of us respond to the request? I myself have never done so; though I know very well that I should do so. I think we should form the habit of sending some special letters on various occasions. For instance, it would be nice if we send ‘thank you’ letters to some hostess who served dinner to us, and ‘congratulation letters’ on success and things like that. But who would do that? It is much easier to telephone the person concerned if we wish to do so.
I know that the readers today will simply be bored with my eulogy on letters. Due to possible indifference or laziness, letter-writing has become a dead event and it is no longer existent. E-mails and telephones have made our task easier and they are time-saving too. But they do not have the least effect on a person’s mind. On the other hand letters leave deep impressions on the receiver’s mind. One of the most dramatic messages I have ever received was a birthday greeting written on a scrap of paper posted under a book on my study table several years back. The little boy stated simply “I love you grandma, buy me a chocolate”. The letter was written in uneven words. But this brief letter with the simple message went straight to my heart. And I have preserved it for all these years, though the little boy has grown up into a young man now. Even today this simple letter gives me great joy. But a telephonic message cannot be preserved and it does not warm the heart.
I wish people did not lose the habit of letter-writing. Telephonic conversations are fleeting. They do help to communicate, but they cannot bring as much joy as letters do. But what is the use of harping on something that is dead and gone? Letters may soon become museum pieces. We used to write letters even in our school days. We knew that letters to different persons had to be composed in different ways. For instance, a letter to a friend and a letter to a grandmother could not be of the same style. Yet all those letters were like conversation. They were messengers of love and we adored them.
The times have changed and no one bothers about these relics of the past. Only we from the olden era get nostalgic about them. Now we do not wait for the post man as we do not have any expectation of receiving any letter from any source. He does not carry a bulging bundle on his back. To be frank I have not even seen a post man for years. In the past he carried a bundle of joy and good will in the form of letters on his back. In Christmas and New Year times the post office had to engage extra hands to carry those heavy bundles full of greeting cards and gifts. At least that is what I saw when I was in London more than half a century back. I don’t know if the custom is still practiced or whether they too have switched over to telephone as is done here.
I think it is laziness or inhibition which makes people wary of writing letters. I suppose some of you would laugh at me for getting sentimental over something, which was thrown into the dumps long back. They possibly think that in this modem scientific age only people in dotage think wistfully about the past, when life was utterly slow. They did not have any means of entertainment and hence they spent hours in writing silly letters just to pass the time. May be these critics are not entirely wrong in their assessment of the situation. Truly we did not have any sort of entertainment, but we were really happy, perhaps happier than the present generation. We never even thought about any other form of amusement. You never miss a thing about of which you do not have the slightest idea. But it is no use arguing with the young generation of this age. They consider the past as a dark age, when people were superstitions and ignorant. But I do not agree. We cannot condemn the past as a dark age nor were the people ignorant.
Anyway, it is no use crying over spilt milk. I have not received a single letter from anybody for years. Who would write letters in this age? The occasiol letters I receive bring more pain than pleasure. They may be from the income tax department or a kind of government hand out. Or they may be some private organizations offering gifts or other benefits for a favour of course. The worst of all these communications are the occasiol chain letters I get. I don’t know who sends them or why. These letters ask you to make 20 or 30 copies of what is written and send them to various addresses. They bring message of hope and despair at the same time. It is written that if you follow the instructions you will be rewarded by providence and if you disregard them misery will fall on you. They also give examples to verify their claim. I think these letters are sent by some malicious person. But they do frighten some of us with their ominous warning. Yet it seems so silly to make copies of that absurd letter and inflict them on some hapless friends. I hope people will desist from writing such foolish chain letters. They do generate fear in the minds of weak-minded people. Once I too was apprehensive about them, but after all these years I have gathered enough courage to put them where they belong, that is the waste paper basket.
The gossipy letters which I loved once have gone out of fashion. But I do not consider letters to be useless. They do help in improving the creativity and imagition of the writer. They are also the history of the age. They contain feelings and emotions of the writer. But in this mechanical world emotions have no place. Hence I do understand that the present generation is right in condemning us as sentimental old fogies.
The past cannot be brought back; it is dead and gone. Yet I cannot possibly diminish my enthusiasm for letters. For me they are the bearers of joy. Steven Spielberg once wrote, “I think today’s youth have a tendency to live in the present and work for the future—and to be totally ignorant of the past”. And William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It is not even past”.
Perhaps because of the fact that we are old, we have this fascition for the ancient era. We have truly become outdated and outmoded!
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)