“Rest in next” was the tag line with which my paternal grandfather ended some of his postcards. He lived in Ankola near Karwar on the Western Coast of India. My dad received letters from him on a monthly basis. The letters were sent to acknowledge the receipt of a money order that my dad sent him each month and there would be some additional news in the letters. When he had little to write, it would be a postcard. I never received a letter from him, nor did I write to him but I have the letter he sent to my dad when I got into Engineering school. He congratulates me in that letter, inquires about the health of my uncle and asks about my cousin who had emigrated to the US. He writes that he is gradually growing weaker and has started walking in the compound whenever he is able to. The year was 1987.
On my last trip to India, my dad gave me a folder containing letters. He had saved some of the letters that I had written to him over the years. “You might want to take these with you,” he said. It was a wonderful gesture. He had thought it fit to preserve my letters all these years and save them for me. I would like to think that he reread some of these over the years. Those letters complemented the folder that I have with me. A few letters from my dad, brother and other relatives and friends.
The oldest letter I have is from my cousin, written in 1981. He was not yet seven and he apologizes for his handwriting and spelling mistakes, it was the first letter he had ever written. My aunt had undergone surgery and he says she is recovering well. He mentions he had watched a movie but he does not know the name of the movie so he won’t be able to tell me the name. A priceless letter since my cousin was and has been very close to me. No English Language exam was complete without a letter to be written to a friend about what you were planning to do in your summer holidays or what you did over your summer break. My cousin once confided to me that each time he had to write a letter in an exam, he would address it to me.
Letter writing was and is an important skill and we were taught to write formal and informal letters. So besides the summer holidays letter to a friend, there were business letters. Messrs. Wren and Martin had all this figured out in their book “High School English Grammar and Composition”. Written originally for the children of British officers in India, it was a popular book when I was growing up and many homes had a dog-eared copy. They classified the letters as “Social Letters” that included invitations and friendly letters as well as “Business Letters” when you had to write a letter requesting for leave or when applying for a job. English letters were not hard to write, the Hindi ones certainly were! It was not just theory though, we did not have a phone at home and neither did several of my relatives or friends, so if I had to communicate with somebody, it had to be via a letter.
I wrote to my cousins who lived in Bombay. I wrote reasonably frequently to a couple of them. To others, I wrote usually when I had returned home after a trip to Bombay. One letter written when I was in 6th grade started off with “I reached home safely. If I hadn’t, I would not be writing this letter”. I was being honest but I was told by my cousins who were considerably older than me that it was not kosher to write that way! On long vacations to Bombay, I wrote to my friends in Bangalore. Their letters would be filled with details of cricket matches that they had played. I wrote to my maternal grandfather occasionally, especially when I was in my undergrad program. I have just one letter that he wrote to me. And then there were the occasional letters that we received from abroad. These were prized for their stamps. There were the 3D postcards that my father’s friend sent a couple of years from Kuwait. One side of the postcard featured an attractive model who would wink as the card was tilted, whilst the other side contained a new year’s wish!
Some letters that I do have with me were sent to me in 1992 around the time I had just moved to the US. There is one by my brother’s father-in-law which was sent to me just before I left. He wishes me all the best and candidly advises me with what is probably on every Indian parent’s mind when their son or daughter goes to the US. He hopes that I will not take any offense. I did not and I stayed true to the advice, for the most part!
There is a letter written by my father’s uncle. He was a professor in St Xavier’s College in Bombay and had visited the US a couple of times in the 1970s. The letter was composed on a type-writer and expresses satisfaction to hear that I had found a campus job. He had given me some practical advice before I had left, especially about airports and the flights and I had written to him after I had settled down at the University. That was the only letter I wrote to him.
My maternal grandfather has been a very influential figure in my life. He was an indomitable man. Broad shouldered, granite-jawed with steel gray eyes and a voice that could strike fear in mischievous grandkids, but with a heart of gold. He took a deep interest in my studies and advised me to be a complete person, to participate in sports and to read books. He helped me get information about Universities when I applied to schools in the US. He unfortunately fell ill around the time I left. When I received my first pay check (just North of $100 for the 24 odd hours that I had worked at Taco Bell) I sent my dad $50 and my grandfather $25 from my first earnings. His letter acknowledges the receipt of the check and the circuitous route it took to get cleared. He expresses relief that I have found a job that pays me $400 a month (it was actually $340, but I rounded the number up) and hopes that I will get a TA that will pay me $800. He passed away the following year.
The letters from my brother are usually about the latest antics of my two nephews. My mother would enclose an occasional recipe while my dad wrote detailed letters compressing all the news in an Aerogramme. These letters in a way mark the milestones in our lives. The letters that I wrote to him chronicle my journey from a wide-eyed student newly arrived in the US to the doting father of a little girl. The initial ones are all about my University, the classes I’m taking and the cost of living. The ones that I wrote to him when I was a graduate student looking for a job are more introspective and filled with uncertainty about the future. The ones after I got my job are surer and perhaps even a little cocky. The ones after marriage were written along with my wife and she wrote some really detailed letters! The ones after the birth of our daughter are filled with stories of her antics. Along the way, we stopped writing letters and started typing them on the computer out and printing them. Then sometime around 2004 or 2005, they became irregular. Phone calls had become inexpensive and we were talking more frequently. Around 2007, I started talking to my parents every day and the letters stopped completely.
There is a lacuna in my letter writing journey. My wife and I were married within 10 days of meeting each other and she accompanied me back to the US after our marriage. There were no letters of courtship, letters expressing our thoughts and getting to know each other. I did write a solitary letter to her when she had visited India. I might have been a tad sentimental when I wrote that letter. Absence doth make a heart grow fonder!
Letters have had a hallowed place in History. Museums are filled with yellowing parchments in longhand, exchanged between famous people. Mary Queen of Scots wrote to Anthony Babington using a cipher. Her letters were deciphered by Queen Elizabeth’s codebreakers and used as evidence in Mary’s trial. There are open letters such as the one written by Martin Luther King from the Birmingham Jail that became an important text in the American Civil Rights Movement. Personal letters from a father to a daughter studying in a boarding school that was later printed as a book – “Letters from a Father to a Daughter”, penned by Jawaharlal Nehru.
Letters also feature in some iconic songs from Hindi movies. The joy of receiving a letter as exemplified by “Tere khat leke sanam” picturized on Meena Kumari in “Ardhangani”. The poignant “Chitti Aayi Hai” sung by Pankaj Udhas that captures the loneliness and pain of separation as one travels abroad and receives letters from home. The romantic “Yeh mera prem-patra pad kar” from Sangam. “Sandese aate hain” which features soldiers singing about letters received from home in the movie “Border”. However, I think the song that captures the essence of the India postal system is “Dakiya dak laya” picturized on Rajesh Khanna. The song follows the route of a postman on a given day where he distributes letters bearing happy and sad news. He reads out letters to illiterate people and delivers much-needed money orders to mothers.
Pen pals seem antiquated now and are probably restricted to High School programs where kids from different countries write to each other to practice their Foreign Language skills. Pen pals were a fairly mainstream phenomenon in the 70s. A periodical in India called “Mirror” had lists of people seeking Pen pals. I wrote to a boy in Sri Lanka but never heard from him! My brother had a pen pal in Finland and they wrote to each other for a few years. I never read those letters, I’m assuming they wrote to each other about their respective childhoods and school. She had sent a picture once, I don’t know if my brother has preserved any of those letters.
There were different ways one could write a letter. There was the postcard, it cost 15 paise and the messages were not private. There was the inland letter, it cost 35 paise and one could fold and seal the letter, so there was privacy. Then there were the postal envelopes which had an embossed silhouette of the state emblem of India, these cost 20 paise at one point in time and finally, there were the Aerogrammes for international destinations and these cost a princely sum of Rs 5. There was the “book post”, usually used for invitation cards where the envelope was not sealed.
During the “Shravan Maas” (auspicious month as per the Hindu calendar, usually in August) my mother would perform the “chudi pooja”. A ritual, probably specific to my community, it involved worship of the Sun god and the Tulsi plant. My mother would then send mini “bouquets” made of blades of grass and wildflowers to all female relatives who were older to her. These were sent in envelopes. My dad also received envelopes from temples bearing “vibhuti” (sacred ash) or the unmistakable red “kumkum” powder (turmeric powder with slaked lime). The outside of the envelope would be smeared with the kumkum as if to sanctify it.
There are famous letters displayed in museums but I reckon in humble dwellings around the world are handwritten letters that carry a trove of memories for the recipients. A form of communication that lasted for centuries is now slowing buy surely being replaced by digital media. In a world of instant gratification, it is hard to believe that one had to wait patiently to exchange information. Julia Childs exchanged recipes and notes via mail with Simone Beck while writing their magnum opus “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. One had to take time to compose one’s thoughts and actually write complete sentences. Email slowly took over and has now been replaced by SMS and WhatsApp messages. Chat programs use AI to supply pre-canned responses and auto-correct tries to guess what I meant to type.
The digital forms of communications have their conveniences but I still wax nostalgic when it comes to letters. The fraying Aerogramme that was once handled by my grandfather. He did not write the letter, he was too ill, it was dictated to my teen-aged cousin who wrote it down patiently. It flew by air, went through assorted sorting stations and was eventually delivered to my mailbox. There was a special thrill in receiving letters from home. Unlike a fleeting conversation, I could reread the letter at leisure. Each letter that I have is in the writer’s own hand. From the squiggly, unsure writing of a six-year-old to the shaky scrawl of an octogenarian. It’s not the impersonal, precise font of my email editor. True, the letters held only so much, but there was always anticipation for the next one when the letter ended in “Rest in next”!