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Letters lost

April 19, 2011

Photo Courtesy: Creative Commons

There was a time, not too long ago, when you and I used to write letters. I remember a sweet childhood poem and it went something like:

‘I sent a letter to my father

On the way I dropped it,

Somebody came and picked it up

And put it in his pocket.’

I honestly don’t think I can blame ‘somebody’ for stealing my letter for I haven’t written a traditional one in at least a decade, and there are so many acceptable reasons for it.

I recently found an old letter I had written to my father some 13 years ago; it was thoughtful, original and personal, so diametrically different from an email. Let me insist that the implication is certainly not that email is not an extraordinarily fantastic method of communication but simply, it can never be a cherished letter.

Old letters, old cards, little old notes are charming, and when you stumble upon one unexpectedly it brings memories of lost times and sentimental moments in an almost tangible way. I can most certainly admit to sitting with an old shoebox reading old letters and cards and rediscovering delight in much the same way as I did upon receiving them initially.

On my previous visit to Pakistan, I was gifted a box full of letters that belonged to my father. It was precious to say the least. I read a few letters instantly and learnt a few valuable family history lessons that afternoon which would otherwise have been eclipsed by time.

I discovered that at the time of Partition, my six-year-old father was accidentally left behind while the family began their march for migration. His nana discovered that the head count was less one and walked back several miles to pick up the little lad who was fearfully hiding under a bed. The ink on the letter smudged as my heart became heavy with the thought of a lost little boy and his bahadur nana, my great grandfather. Until that day nanajee was just a name on the Shijra but now, he is the reason I exist.

Remember a time when our ancestors, and we, were writing letters to stay in touch – there was pen and paper and some meaningful thought, unlike the direct method of Q and A and information passing we engage in today. There is cc, bcc, text messages, Twitter, and Facebook and thus the art of letter writing has gradually worn away. The truth is that even with all this technology and the message being delivered instantly, we do not have an extra moment to indulge in niceties.  We may have the courtesy to ask, ‘how are you?’ but do not have the patience to wait for a reply. I reckon we could easily blame the dying art on a cultural shift, but remember instant messaging is here today gone tomorrow.  I somehow cannot picture our children sitting with our old computers and cell phones and getting sentimental over nanajee’s valour.

There is a sea of information out there – how do you sift through it and find and believe what you are looking for? If looking for a penpal, one just goes onto a search engine looking for a chat, unlike the yesteryears when we actually had pals who were our friends because of the pen.

I cherished sharing letters with Amy from Alabama. I was a ten-year-old in Pakistan and she in the US, and it was awesome! I used to wait for Latif, our postman, to bring me a letter from Amy at least once a month, and then there was Rimmy Apa who always indulged me and wrote beautiful long letters to me. I was inspired by her intelligence, impressed by her beauty and even developed a little bit of an attitude because an older cousin seemed to show an interest in me.

We miss composing and receiving letters maybe because they remind us of a time that was simple and pleasant, but I also believe that the fondness and joy comes from the imagery and emotion that letters carry – something akin to a time capsule.

Writing letters gives our emotions relevance; it makes us no intellectuals but certainly lends us the opportunity to put on paper our fundamental self, and certainly is a wonderful and ‘now’ unique style of showing appreciation and affection in a crazy world. And as for receiving a letter, well, it is almost like having a dear friend stop by for a cup of chai unexpectedly.

Bisma Tirmizi is a writer based in Las Vegas

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.