The Return of Letter Writing

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The post script

LET’S JUST COME out and say it aloud, email has killed communication. The ping of a new mail in one’s inbox is greeted not with the cheer of ‘Oh, someone has thought of me’, but rather with the groan of ‘Oh, I have one more task to complete’. The sheer volume of messages has quashed the joy of receiving. Emails today are seldom, if ever, the voice of a loved one or the ruminations of a friend. They are quite simply only about one thing—work and business. So it is not surprising that in this avalanche of instant communication, the humble letter has become a beacon of hope.

All of us cherish certain letters, those which have travelled with us from city to city and decade to decade. Unlike online communication, and like us, these pages heed time, succumb to change and surrender to mortality. Also they speak in the voice of the sender, for an individual’s handwriting is unique and meaningful, in a way that a font can never be. We celebrate letters for all that email is not; not instant, not intangible, not effortless, and most importantly, not officious.

The return of the letter (or ‘slow communication’, if you wish to be a faddist) is happening at a business, social and cultural level. Companies (especially in the US and UK) are realising that a handwritten note might make it straight to the desk of a High Net Worth Individual. The 500th email is likely to remain unread and unattended. While sexting might be all the rage with the millennials, a few have noticed that a handwritten note will nick them ahead of the herd. Artists and authors have also discovered that letters from history can make for the best literature and live shows. The letter serves as both a blast from the past, and as a keepsake for the future. With the letter today, one can truly say, the medium is the message.

Over the years, a clutch of online portals (the irony is self-evident) have dug deep into the archives to unearth historic letters of note, and have attempted to bring letter-writing back into vogue. The two obvious leaders in this field are Letters of Note and Postcrossing. Started in 2005, The Postcrossing project is an ‘online platform that allows anyone to exchange postcards from all over the world, for free’. The website provides some fascinating data on the boom of the postcard exchange. While in 2008, a million postcards were exchanged, by February 2017 the 40th million postcard had travelled across the world.

The site also provides data on the number of postcards sent per country, while Djibouti has sent out one, Aruba has sent 342, and Germany has posted the most at 5,778,723. This data shows that letter writing is a universal need, it is not a whim restricted to one country, rather it is a rage across the globe.

Artists and authors have discovered that letters from history can make for the best literature and live shows. The letter serves as a blast from the past and as a keepsake for the future

Letters of Note started as an online portal ‘to gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos.’ Letters of Note: Volume 2: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, compiled by Shaun Usher (the founder of the website) released last year after the first volume became a bestseller. One can spend hours clicking through the archives (which contains 900 letters, by the famous and the not-so-famous) as one will chance upon the unexpected and the brilliant.

You’ll come across a wonderful thank you note from Roald Dahl to a seven-year-old Amy who, inspired by her favourite book The BFG, sends him her ‘dream’, using oil, water and glitter in a bottle. Dahl’s letter reads, ‘I must write a special letter and thank you for the dream in the bottle. You are the first person in the world who has sent me one of these and it intrigued me very much. I also liked the dream. Tonight I shall go down to the village and blow it through the bedroom window of some sleeping child and see if it works.’

Or you could chance upon Katherine Hepburn’s letter to her partner Spencer Tracy years after he’d died: ‘Who ever thought that I’d be writing you a letter. You died on the 10th of June in 1967. My golly, Spence, that’s twenty-four years ago. That’s a long time. Are you happy finally? Is it a nice long rest you’re having? Making up for all your tossing and turning in life.’

The serendipities of the site remind us of the beauty of the written word, and importance of the tangible. If this communication were rendered onto the cloud, would we have access to it today? Would we be witness to the exchange between Groucho Marx and TS Eliot if they hadn’t put it down on paper? Imagine if they’d chosen to WhatsApp instead?

In 2013, Letters of Note led to the annual event Letters Live a ‘celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence,’ where performers read letters written across time and from around the world. The event has brought to the stage the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Sir Ben Kingsley who read aloud letters from the past. Letters Live will be held this year at Hay Festival on May 27th and 28th.

“We get many requests from abroad. A US soldier in Iraq asked us to write a letter to his wife to thank her for raising their kids when he was away on duty” - Anubhav Ankit, co-founder, The Indian Handwritten Letter Co

TWO YOUNG TECHIES, Anubhav Ankit and Jashwanth Cheripally in Bengaluru, first caught scent of this desire for the tangible, and the need for specialisation in an era of the ‘bulk’ mail in November 2015. The two childhood friends started a blog dedicated to the letter. By March 2016 it had grown into The Indian Handwritten Letter Co (TIHL), a website for ‘personalised handwritten letters to the one you wish’. In the last one year, Ankit says, they have sent out 9,000 letters in 10 Indian languages. The volume of demand has ensured that the two young techies now run this business fulltime, and employ 10 freelance letter writers and six freelance content writers on their rolls.

Studying at a boarding school in Indore, Ankit made the most of the weekly mandated letter-writing session. If at first he wrote to his parents telling them about term papers and classroom antics, he grew creative over time. The weekly letters evolved from a chronicle of the days to philosophical inquiries centred around questions like ‘who is god’. Cheripally had always scored high marks in school because of his masterly penmanship. The Indian Handwritten Letter Co. arose because they realised they missed the feel of letters and the act of writing.

While handwritten letters obviously fulfil the criteria of being a surprise and retro, they can also have tangible results. Speaking from the IT city, Ankit says a special letter was written by a 10-year-old girl from Bengaluru. She scoped out their website and asked them to write a letter to her mother’s boss, requesting that the mum be allowed to come home during lunch. While the young girl sent out the request, TIHL secured permission from the adult and then posted the letter, complete with curly calligraphy and an embossed seal. And voila, the boss was so impressed by the 10-year-old’s enterprise that the mother was granted an extended lunch hour.

Ankit says that while individuals make up the bulk of their clientele in India, they also get orders from companies in the US and UK, which want to personalise their business communication. For confidentiality reasons, he cannot name the companies, but says most are in the real estate or mortgage sectors. Companies now acknowledge that there is nothing like a handwritten note to bypass and surpass the torrent of online communication.

With most of their clients aged between 18 and 40, it is clear that a younger demographic is looking at letter writing. As TIHL offers various Indian languages, they also get a peek into different minds and scenarios. A man from Guntur, for example, wrote to them asking for a Telugu letter. He wanted to write to his to-be bride (finalised through an arranged marriage) telling her who he really was, beyond the façade. If the man from Andhra Pradesh wanted his future wife to know him better, a man from Punjab asked TIHL to write to his wife of many years in the hope of salvaging a fractured relationship.

Letter writing in many ways is the skein of human relationships. What is mumbled and garbled through the spoken word, gains clarity and poignancy when spelled out. As humans we will misunderstand each other, but the written word bestows us a second chance, by giving us the gift of time.

“Handwritten communication inculcates patience. It sets apart the important people in your life. And, it makes people smile for no reason” - Shivani Saran (right) co-founder, Battees

Two National Institute of Design students Shivani Saran and Harnehmat Kaur took it upon themselves to incentivise postcard writing. Familiar with Postcrossing and interested in philately, they started Battees (the number 32 in Hindi; for 32 teeth) in 2013. The original idea was that they’d sell a postcard for Rs 30, if the person returned with a written message on the postcard, they’d be given a stamp and refunded Rs10. Now based in Delhi, Saran says, “Handwritten communication inculcates patience. It sets apart the important people in your life. It is understood that it is a meaningful exercise. And, more importantly, it makes people smile for no reason.”

Having started the project in 2013, while they were still in college, they took it up as a fulltime job only last year. They organise a range of activities around art and writing. Recently they tied up with schools to get children to write postcards for Mother’s Day. Battees organised ‘Daakroom’ (a letter-writing carnival) in Saran’s hometown of Allahabad in September 2016, and in Kaur’s hometown of Chandigarh this February. They realise that while many of us have grown up writing letters, today’s generation doesn’t even know how to stick a stamp and many have never even seen a postman. With Battees, the duo hope to get children and students invested in the idea of writing and posting, and hope people will embrace letter writing, one postcard, one city at a time.

Letters from history hold us in their thrall because they spotlight the past, and for their literary value. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Graham Greene’s A Life in Letters , Emily Dickinson’s Selected Letters are few of the classics that spring to mind.

Today, communication is of an altogether different kind. Emojis no longer merely supplement language; they are a language in themselves. Younger people conduct entire conversations in emojis, which might baffle the uninitiated. In the world of sexting, an eggplant is the penis, a peach is a woman’s rump, the ‘water droplets’ are semen, etcetera etcetera. It is like an alphabet system which we all can see, but only the young get.

London-based performer, writer and producer Rachel Mars was so intrigued by this contrast between the sexts of today and the epistles of the past that she conceived the show Your Sexts are Shit, Older Better Letters, which premiered in London earlier this month. The show features letters from James Joyce, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mozart, Charles Bukowski, Eleanor Roosevelt and others. It also includes anonymous sexts. Mars first thought of the show when she heard James Joyce’s ‘beautiful, filthy, honest and surprising’ letter to Nora Barnacle.

Mars voyaged through the Web to find such historic letters that were erotic, sexy and even scatological. The other revelations in her show include Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1922 letter to Alfred Stieglitz. She wrote, ‘I am on my back—waiting to be spread wide apart—waiting for you, to die with the sense of you—the pleasure of you—the sensuousness of you touching the sensuousness of me—all my body—all of me is waiting for you to touch the center of me with the center of you.’

In an email interview, Mars details the difference in the sexting of today and the letter writing of yore. She says, ‘We are so used to instant gratification. When you send a WhatsApp you can see the two little blue ticks and you know it has been received and you wait for the reply... ‘So and So is typing’. They are also more graphic much earlier on in a relationship, often—if they are from dating sites—the first contact is very explicit. (Here is a sext someone had received from a man they hadn’t met, ‘You look like a girl who would puke on my dick.’) I’ve been surprised at how forward people will be from the get go. Sexts are increasingly image led, sending a picture of your body is very different to describing it in words. The space for imagination and interpretation is shut down.’ She adds, ‘In letter writing…there is a long period of being in suspense. I think that not-knowing builds up expectation, tension and desire.’

Perhaps that is why letter writing is more important now than before. Letter writing involves a series of steps—the act of putting pen to paper, slipping the letter into an envelope, finding the postal address, sticking a stamp, going to a post office, wondering if it will reach the sender or not, and waiting for a reply, that might or might not ever come—which slows down time. By lengthening time, letter writing reminds us what ‘human speed’ as opposed to ‘machine speed’ might look like.