02 Apr 2017 16:45 IST

Are you in the well?

Connectivity in the age of smartphones: it sometimes feels like you’re a frog in a well

“How are you? I am in the well. Are you in the well? I have drawn a nest at the bellow.”

This, more or less, was the sum and substance of the first letter I ever received, and which I am sure has found mention in these columns before. It was a postcard; not a picture postcard, but one of those things you bought at a post office. The writer, my cousin, must have been about 5 or 6 then; I was a year older. This is one of my most prized personal possessions.

My grandmother and her seven siblings always wrote to each other on postcards: as an uncle-by-marriage once remarked when he discovered how quickly and efficiently news travelled on the family news network: “They keep the post services alive and kicking hard” — or words heartfelt to that effect. Every move anybody made, every breath anybody took was instantaneously relayed via postcard across Madras, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Anantapur, Panyam, Delhi, and wherever else the siblings may have been roaming. Note, without roaming charges, only stackloads of postcards bought dirt cheap at the nearest post office.

They went nowhere without a bunch of ready-to-use postcards on their person. They were cheap, they were light, they were readily available and replaced before you could say ‘Post it!’ Besides, they were biodegradable.

Every one of the siblings, particularly the sisters, without exception, wrote a legible hand that crammed hundreds of words on the one-and-a-half surfaces that the postcard afforded; the other half was reserved for writing the address. No matter was too insignificant to be mentioned, no detail too private: examination results however embarrassing, a new job, the matching or mismatching of horoscopes, the birth of a baby, fortunes and misfortunes, everything was conveyed in a few tightly scribbled lines for all the world to see and savour. The moment a letter arrived, another would buzz back in return, redolent with all the news fit to or not fit to print. They always began with respectful salutations and ended with blessings sought or dispensed.

And it wasn’t just to each other that they wrote — that they did, practically every day. The criss-crossing of those postcards would have created an Amazon forest-like canopy across the communication skies. They wrote to the rest of the family too: children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, grandnieces and nephews… the works. Every member of the family has samples of letters they surely treasure as much for the information as for their benevolence of blessings. They are heirlooms.

Today, we hardly ever write letters by hand. It’s mostly email. While this has made life easier in many ways, it has also, in a way, robbed the conveying of news and information of feelings. Emails reflect personalities, undoubtedly, but differently from handwritten letters. They can also lead to misinformation simply because the writer was in a hurry or was careless or forgot to delete something.

On the other hand, literally, the old-fashioned letter forced the writer to think before setting things down. Or, in some cases, if they changed their minds about what was written, then you physically scratched it out. But mostly, you reflected on what you wanted to say, you framed the idea or thought into a suitable sentence or phrase, or chose the right word, and then you wrote it. Five- and six-year-olds may have made spelling errors, but generally, older letter-writers didn’t. Words set down stayed the way you wrote them down. They didn’t change on their own.

Thinking about all this, I realise that writing on these postcards was a terrific exercise. There was not the luxury of space — remember, just one–and-a-half sides. So, the handwriting had to be small. It also had to be legible if you wanted a reply. Then, there was every likelihood that someone or several people other than whom the letter was intended for, would read it. No wonder the village postman was ‘a fountain of knowledge’. Even among those who corresponded on inland letters (these were letter papers fashioned to be folded over and sealed for privacy, and are still sold in post offices), several needed to have them read aloud because of poor or no reading skills. Once the postcard was received, anybody could pick it up and take a look. Therefore, the letters had to be written with sophistication and subtlety. It couldn’t be an ‘out-there tell-all’ affair, the contents had to be couched in language so clever that only the intended recipient understood the meaning of the letter in its entirety.

Then again, the writer and the recipient, both needed to have an inbuilt continuity mechanism that enabled them to convey and/or understand the context of the letter without a recap. If my grandmother had written abcacbabc to her Brother Boo in the previous letter, she had to remember to continue with defdefdef in her next epistle, and not confuse it with the defdefdef she had written to her Sister Soo who now awaited the next instalment which would have to be ghighighi.

Confused? So you would be! But not these Siblings Eight. They were on the ball all the time. While their hands wrote, their brains worked. They didn’t need smartphones, they were smartones. As for 4G, 5G and the restG, they stand no chance against PCG!

Does this mean writing a letter a day can keep the doctor away?