Monday, July 18, 2011

Love Of The Letter

Courtesy -
I read this article with a chuckle - The ‘hero’ of the letter is now 74 years old. Indeed, he and his lady-love had tied the knot, but are now divorced. The letter was written in 1958.

That got me thinking; half way into 2011, the act of ‘writing’ a letter has become so quaint. One ‘types’ a letter under exceptional circumstances. The norm is to drop an email. In fact, the first ever hand-written letter I’ve received as an adult was in 2010. It was from my neighbour, who stays opposite to my flat. She is a gorgeous 60+ British lady. The letter was written on a small cream-coloured paper with floral corners. The hand-writing was slanted and loopy, clearly written with a fountain pen. The letter was neatly folded midway and enclosed in a white envelope. The letter asked me if I could join her for tea on the morrow, at her home. Or if the weather permits, we could walk up to a cafe in the town centre. The letter had me smiling the whole day. I felt like a character in Jane Austen. There was something so warm, so sweet, so wonderful about those two hand-written lines. Of course, I responded with a letter of my own. (That’s when I realized my fingers are so stiff when it came to holding a pen.) Up until then, my coffee invites to friends have usually been on the email, or instant messenger. The message would usually be ‘coffee?’ This RSVP stuff was a first!

During my childhood, letters were common though. My father was posted in Gulbarga for a couple of years, while the family stayed back in Bangalore due to our schooling. Letters from my father would arrive in Inland letter – his handwriting big with loosely chained words which most of us could not decipher. My mom’s reply would be voluminous – with her tiny, economic scrawl filling up every empty space of the letter, updating him about our progress in school, local gossip, money transactions, grocery updates, and the usual dire warning asking him to take care of his health. The letters would usually start with the ‘Om’ symbol, and the word ‘safe’ double-underlined next to it. Other occasional letters came on post cards, and usually started with a ‘praise the lord’ sentence like ‘Srimathe Ramanujaya Namaha’.

I remember tying myself into knots in the grammar class – where ‘letter writing’ was a very important topic. Business letters, personal letters – how to address them, the importance of the subject line, how to sign off etc. etc. The business letters were a real pain the ass. One had to be concise, yet use the most ornate legal (as far as we kids were concerned) terminology. All this came out in our resumes at a time when it was fashionable to have voluminous bio-data. The introduction letter had all kinds of ‘forewiths’ and ‘herewiths’ and ‘thereofs’ and ‘highly obliged’. Indeed, as a person who has screened enough resumes, I was often stunned by the self-eulogy that poured out from these pages. If I had my way, all these resumes would have gone as suitable profiles for psychological experiments on narcissism.

Coming back to love letters; I’ve rarely come across anyone in my friend circle who have exchanged such notes. I mean, not even in college. No sign of a note being passed surreptitiously during the physics class. No hidden letters in the practical record that had been borrowed for ‘copying notes’. No official ‘letter bearers’ – the critical communication channel between budding lovers. Either that, or I just missed all the action by sheer thick-headed ignorance.

But I do remember vividly one particular love note. I was in third standard, spending my holidays in my grandma’s house. Grandma’s neighbour was a family of four sons –all teenagers with raging hormones, particularly of the Telugu blood enriched by NTR and all the Babus. But one of them was an ardent worshipper of Bruce Lee. Well, while he had the body of a praying mantis, his hair was carefully groomed like Lee’s.

We shared a common balcony wall, and it meant my cousins and me, termed as ‘Vaanara sainya’, would usually jump across and create mayhem in their house too.

On one such morning, when this particular guy was adjusting his locks to cover his ears a la Bruce Lee, we were monkeying around with his shirt that was draped across a chair. One of my cousins felt the heavy shirt pocket, and assumed it was Cadbury’s. This was confirmed by Mr.Lee absently. The ‘chocolate’ was brought out tactlessly, and it turned out to be a couple of sheets of paper, torn out from a notebook. Kannada words were scrawled on the pages, some words were written in red ink, most in blue. My cousin started to read it aloud – “Oh nanna praanave...’ and before he could proceed, Mr. Lee sprung into action. Indeed, original Bruce Lee would have been proud of this prodigy. Ears were boxed, arms were pinched, the letter was retrieved and order was restored in a matter of seconds. I don’t know if Mr. Lee ended up with the woman he loved. Probably not. The law of averages tells me Mr. Lee would have been swatted away like a fly.

History is witness to many such embers of the heart; now timeless memories in the form of love letters. From the most powerful men to the most peaceful poets – the love letter has become a subject in itself in literature. From Byron to Beethoven, from Churchill to Napolean – they’ve all trembled and choked as their pens formed the words. I guess now love letters are more of character bytes on twitter, or incomprehensible sign language in an SMS. And somehow, writing love letters has become too sissy an act in this war-mongering world.

I suppose many of us will never, ever know the pleasure of the blood rushing to the cheeks, the pulse racing, the heart hammering as we open that mysterious letter which says -

Haseena Likhoon, Meherbaan Likhoon, Ya Dilruba Likhoon

Hairaan Hoon Ki Aap Ko Is Khat Mein Kya Likhoon

Yeh Mera Prem Patra Padh Kar

Ke Tum Naaraaz Na Hona

Ke Tum Meri Zindagi Ho

Ke Tum Meri Bandagi Ho


© Sumana Khan - 2011


  1. Beautiful post!! and it was so nice of your neighbour to invite you to a tea party with a hand written letter.
    Yes,the handwritten letters are almost gone now. I remember whn I when I went to the hostel for the first time, my mom,dad and sisters used to write letters to me and I so looked forward to their letters.
    The phones, emails, IM, FB have all tried to replace those sentiments these days :-)

  2. We used to be connected on webcam and yahoo chat and mail all the time but when there was a chance to send a proper love letter with a parcel. Flop, he sent a mail saying could not write as don't know who will receive the parcel!!! that was 11yrs ago...

    About two years ago I wrote a nine pager proposal but it got rejected. My heart was shattered!

  3. @Dile Se...true :) I know that many say that the medium of communication is irrelevant, and what matters is the content. but the joy of tearing open a letter is something different!

  4. @Anon - I wish you love...and more love! I believe it takes courage to bare one's soul on paper; there is something so permanent about it. For that, you deserve an applause!

  5. Interesting thoughts. When I find my head is all messed up, nothing like a pen and a paper to clear up my head. But I would not dream of writing a story, poem or article without a pen. Letters have the momento value that a e-mail will never have. My mother had preserved all the letters I had written to her from college (Those days e-mail was just catching on )to her last day. And before e-mails, I remember the excitement of pen friends from magazines. All the excitement of pen friends gone with communication becoming so easy.

  6. I was smiling ear to ear while I was reading this.Reason being the second post on my blog. I don't think you noticed it or you would have said somethin seeing what you have written here. Btw beautiful post as always. Surprising though, how you could have missed the love-letters in school. Why, they were in vogue even durin our early days. Though with the advent of internet everythin has become boring so to say.

  7. TF - when I'm studying or making notes, I need a pen and paper. 'Pen friend'...yes! that's a blast from the past!

  8. Leo - no surprise. all girls school. all straight.