The Missing Mail – A tribute to letters

There was this man in khakee uniform, whom I eagerly looked forward to in my childhood. To hear the tring-tring of his bicycle from a distance invariably brought me to the entrance of my home and not always did he stop by my door. He did not always bring covers directly addressed to me but I was still curious to know what be brought. I would subconsciously hum the song written by Gulzar –

Daakiya daak laya,
Khushi ka payam kahin,
kahin dardnaak laya…

(The postman brings us the post, some filled with joy and some sorrow)

In one of his recent films, Welcome to Sajjanpur, Shyam Benegal had an interesting character called Mahadev (played by Shreyas Talpade), who makes a living writing letters for people who are illiterate in his village and aspires to be a writer one day. A few decades back, Irfan Khan played a similar role of a letter writer in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. My personal favourite was RK Narayan’s Thanappa, the protagonist of his short story The Missing Mail, who not only delivered letters, but also kept a tab on what was happening in everyone’s lives. The postman uncle was definitely the most welcome member in our homes.
In my collection of tidbits at home, I have a treasure trove of letters I received from my friends and relatives, some old and some never to return, like my grandmother, who passed away more than 15 years back. But her letters always made me feel her presence. That cursive handwriting I so wanted to imitate, but never could, on that now yellow-with-time paper never fails to bring my entire childhood before me. How I wish I could also read the letters I sent her. Whenever my mother wrote her a letter, I would write a few lines along with it and later started sending her full-fledged letters about my school, my marks and the prizes I won in various competitions.

Stamps celebrated great
moments of our lives
Among other things, there was a letter from my grandfather, which he wrote to me when I scored low marks in a particular year and felt bad about it, where he asked me to take success and failure in my stride. I didn’t understand its real meaning as much then, as I do today. Unfortunately, I lost the letter while shifting my home but the message has stayed with me.
Then there is a letter from my Economics teacher which she handed over to me while I was completing Class 12, wishing me the best for my higher education and asking me to work on a few areas to improve myself. “We are all ordinary human beings,” she wrote, “with special qualities.” There is another letter from a Hindi teacher who taught me in Class 10, who asked me to always believe in myself. We have remained in touch over letters over the years. 

Their words were magical. I did not need any self-help books with letters like these to turn to whenever I was low on morale. A few letters from friends also can be found in that stack, where they have discussed their problems with entrance exams and medical seats. Today they are all successful doctors, are married and settled with kids.

These were released to
mark 100 years of Indian cinema
I don’t know if they still have my letters and if they do, whether they go through them the way I do. But these are not pieces of information locked away in my desk drawer. They say time waits for none. But then, I managed to steal a few moments from time and froze them forever in the form of these letters. I can go back to them to relive a life that I will never go back to. Running my hands through their hand-written notes, I can almost feel them near me. I have a personal memory, associated with each letter and in a time when people say they don’t have time, I have these papers as evidence (much like Arnab Goswami has on his shows) to prove that you can always make time. Where did all the time go? Life is all the more convenient today than it was even a decade back. Technology has helped us save time like never before and yet, we complain about not having time. This is the only reason I get from friends when I tell them to revive the good old method of letter writing.

I began an experiment a few months back. I started writing to many of my friends, who I felt still hold romantic notions about letters the way I do. I called them and asked them to respond through the good old snail mail and to my amazement, it worked! I got a reply from at least four of my friends and now, we have started corresponding largely through letters. And these consist not only of the written word, but also interesting pictures of the events that happened in our lives and the places we have visited. You can upload 100 pictures on Facebook but the 4-5 pictures I send with my letters will not depend on likes and comments to jostle for space in anyone’s newsfeed.

Thanappa, the postman of RK Narayan’s
The Missing Mail, from Malgudi Days
I often see that even educated people have a problem expressing themselves properly, even in the vernacular medium. I have been writing letters from the time I was 6 years old and strongly believe that it helped me a lot in communicating clearly in the written medium. Besides, I have come to realise that letter writing is an art and not everyone can be great at it. Ghalib simplified letter writing by removing all ornamentation from it and making them more personal. Nehru’s letters to his daughter and Guru Dutt’s letters to Geeta Dutt were published as books. There is even a form of literature called epistolary novel, where the story is told through letters written between the characters. 
Recently the Telegraph service was shut down and ironically, many didn’t even know that it was actually in existence. I find it surprising that many are not even aware that snail mail exists even today. But I know my letters are reaching the right people, who will treasure these moments for a lifetime. India Post might be more concerned with its Speed Post service and Post Office savings account. But my romance with India Post will continue till the end; whosoever meets that end first.

I recently came across a video, which looks back at the good old days of letters with a refrain of nostalgia and regret. Watch this and you will know what I mean.

13 thoughts on “The Missing Mail – A tribute to letters

Add yours

  1. Dear Arjun,
    I think my imitation of you is flimsy at best, but even that I feel will yield good things. I also got myself a fountain pen, I too began to listen to ghazals on youtube and I too wrote a letter. But you do these things with consistency. Whether I can show any consistency remains to be seen.


  2. 😀 … nice blog. I was never into writing letters- but I started blogging for that very reason- there was a time where I felt I could not be articulate about anything , converse and have fun with a stranger… and to overcome that I decided to blog and it helped a lot over the years 🙂 .. still does actually :D.. few years from now I will probably write a similar post on the death of blogging and be romantic about it! 😀


  3. Haha Prashanth true! You can't stop a change that is sweeping the world. Things are bound to change over time as well. But then we can choose to be or not be a part of some changes.


  4. Nice post, Arjun. I can’t but help narrating an incident involving a postman in my native village. After he took charge as the village postman, letters were irregular and sometimes for months nobody received any. But they were clueless as to what happened to them. One villager finally solved the mystery. He found the postman at the bank of the village pond, making boats of the letters and floating them in the water saying: “Here Rajendran, here comes your letter” or “Meenakshi, take this. This one is for you” or “Sumitra, finally some news from your brother”. No prizes for guessing what finally happened to the postman 🙂


  5. Haha I remember you narrating this incident. He was mentally unstable perhaps. And I know of postmen who delivered letters of Old No 41 to New No 41. The postman in my village brought a money order of Rs 100 (some 15 years back) in the name of my father and my mother was about to return the order as my father wasn't in India. The postman said, “Why waste Rs 100. You sign on his behalf and take it.”
    And there was this postwoman who would pass by our door and see my grandfather looking at her expectantly and say smiling, “No letters today mashe,” knowing well he was looking forward to a letter.


  6. Lovely post. I can totally relate to it especially the letters to grandma. One small section was reserved for me in my mother's letters to my grandmother. 🙂 brought back good memories!


  7. Honestly, nothing can replace the joy of receiving letters! I'll agree with you on the point that writing letters does help us in expressing ourselves better. Nice post 🙂


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