When letter writing was an exciting event

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There is also a good deal of protocol involved in responding to letters received. I found that Justice Hidayatullah (Vice President of India, (as whose Secretary I worked in 1981-82) meticulously followed the practice of replying to people who wrote to him, in the same manner which the senders had employed.

There is also a good deal of protocol involved in responding to letters received. I found that Justice Hidayatullah (Vice President of India, (as whose Secretary I worked in 1981-82) meticulously followed the practice of replying to people who wrote to him, in the same manner which the senders had employed. A handwritten letter, for instance, was replied to in the same fashion, even if the sender had been a driver of his car earlier. Likewise, a printed greeting was responded to by a printed reply, even if it had come from the Prime Minister.

I heard this story about a village scribe who declined a request to write a letter, on the ground that he had a thorn in his foot. When asked how the foot condition prevented him from writing a letter, his reply, apparently, was that it was he who had to go to the other village to read out the letter to the intended recipient!

Illiteracy can have strange attendant complications. My grandmother, for example, used to ask my grandfather, how he continued to read the same newspaper day after day, without getting bored!

Letters have also been a favourite theme for lyrics writers of movies in various languages. From Hindi movies, one remembers evergreen melodies such as 'Chitthi Aayi Hai' and 'Yeh Mera Prem Patra', apart from 'Likhe Jo Khat Tujhe'. And who can forget the way the Beatles rendered that unforgettable number 'PS I Love you'? Or, for that matter, the golden voice of Pat Boone crooning the lilting melody 'Love letters in the sand'?

There is also a strong emotional connection between the anticipation, and the actual experience, of receiving letters. From the days of my training at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie, I still remember the flutter in my heart, at seeing the unmistakable handwriting on the envelope containing a letter from my fiancé (then, and now my wife!) in the allocated pigeon hole.

Another welcome, and much awaited, event, in student days, was the arrival of the postman with what was then called the 'money order'. Usually in response to an SOS asking my father to come to my rescue when I was in dire need of money. On the other hand, at least in the olden days, the arrival of a telegram often created a sense of apprehension as bad news was expected.

Letters have also historically been a powerful medium of communication between persons. The celebrated 'bunch of letters' by Pandit Nehru to his daughter, Indira, conveyed, from father to daughter, the essence of a lifetime's experience. And, that, while Nehru was in prison!

And then there was the famous letter from Martin Luther King, who, while in prison in Birmingham in 1963, wrote an open letter in the course of which he said "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

Einstein and Gandhi also exchanged many letters on important matters of contemporary significance. The correspondence between the two great minds contained many memorable thoughts and ideas. In one letter, Einstein wrote to Gandhi, saying, "you have shown through your works, that it is possible to succeed without violence even with those who have not discarded the method of violence". Another great thought was expressed by Leo Tolstoy who, writing to Gandhi, said that "Love... Represents the highest and indeed the only law of life... As every man knows and feels in the depth of his heart (and as we see mostly in children), and knows until he becomes involved in the lying net of worldly thoughts. Any employment of force is incompatible with love."

Another such profound sentiment was expressed when a maternal uncle of mine, while writing to pep me up after my father had had a heart attack, just on the eve of my civil service examinations, saying "frustrated and furious, he was a force. Mellowed and mature, he is an influence. Benefit from learning from him."

Satire, and lighthearted wit, and have also often been expressed through letters. The story goes that Groucho Marx, the legendary Hollywood comedian, actor and writer, had once been admitted, on his request, to an exclusive club in Hollywood. He is said to have written back saying "I have no desire to become a member of a club, which admits people such as I as members!"

In a similar vein Mark Twain, the famous writer, once on a visit to Calcutta as part of a worldwide lecture tour, is said to have read out to the audience a letter he had received from a friend. The friend had written, lamenting that he was missing the intellectual company, which his association with Twain had provided.

Therefore, the friend added, he was eating a lot of fish which was supposed to be good for the brain. Twain promptly wrote back telling his friend that what he (the friend), actually needed was a whale, but a medium-sized one would do!

So, just as many species of animals are becoming extinct, the 'letter' is beginning to fade away into the annals of history. Once powerful tool of communication, it will soon probably only adorn display windows in museums!

The familiar sight of the letterbox outside one's house as well as the characteristic red post box in the street corner will be things of the past. And, save the occasional 'courier' who will deliver things sent to you by others, the archetypal 'postman' will also probably not be seen any more.

And thus comes to an end a long and glorious period, straddling centuries, dominated by a magnificent method of human communication. The act of sending a message, and its receipt will be separated, not by weeks, days or hours but by nano seconds. An art practised with love, care and careful preparation, conveying emotions, thoughts, requests and directions will soon disappear.

In its place we shall have the crass brusqueness of crisp sentences, if not words or, what is worse, acronyms. As a student of mathematics I feel I have crossed over from the land of prose to a region of symbols and alpha numerals. Before I sign off, I must apologise for writing such a long piece as a wit remarked at the end of a letter, I did not have the time to write a short one!

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh) 

(The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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