A Love Letter to the Letter


I can't recall the last time I'd received a postcard. Or an inland letter. Or anything hand-written, for that matter. Very soon, I think, we will forget that we ever put pen on paper, or sent loving notes to dear ones, that travelled via round red boxes on city streets.

I indulged in the habit of writing letters all my student life, right from school to University. I wrote to everyone - friends, parents, lover - within my home-city, in another metro, across oceans.

A couple of years back - when I still 'composed' long formal emails & had just grown out of the habit of writing personal e-letters - I started working on an epistolary novel, centering around a late 80s romance... which was to be my love letter to the letter. After two years of intense involvement with it, of both research and writing, I had to shelve it... as other books/ projects/ life-realities demanded priority... & kept demanding more...

Every few months, I take an oath to get back to it, in right earnest. Every time, I fail. It is a pattern I have got used to now... but last week, I received a postcard... that made me want to return to my shelved novel with all the rage of thwarted desire... in a way I hadn't experienced before.

It was from an artist I had briefly met at an Exhibition and then had an online chat with, continuing a discussion we had to leave half-way in the gallery. There was an instant connect... a conversation pregnant with many more... that couldn't be contained within the confines of a chat box.

I love the romance of budding friendships - the possibilities they hold (just like life in one's youth) - before they, almost invariably, settle into familiar patterns of behavior and exchange. That chat, after our first chance encounter, held such a romance!
The connect deepened with the book I received a few days later - LETTERS TO MYSELF.

It is a book, but not quite, at the same time. It is a box full of letters. 'Unclaimed'.

Opening the box, I was reminded of GRIFFIN & SABINE, by Nick Bantock -- the way the book actually has letters in it, folded nice and proper inside envelopes, complete with address and postage stamps, which the reader is required to 'take out' to read, as one would a letter in real life. How delightful!

But no - the comparison cannot be taken beyond the design of the book. And there, too, it's qualified: a few envelopes within the covers of a book against all postcards in a single box. The box being the book.

The greater difference, however, lies in the fact that one book gives us 'an extraordinary correspondence' between two people, while the other is letters to oneself.

Taken together, these letters - originally published in "LearningandCreativity.com" - also constitute a love letter to the letter. To the postcard, in particular. Also, a love letter to a childhood in a specific city at a particular time: Calcutta of the 80s.

22 stories and 6 illustrations map this past, in an enchanting jugalbandi of captivating image and lyrical prose. Steeped in longing, etched with desire.

If you yourself happen to have grown up in 1980s Calcutta, it is impossible not to feel those old worn-out clichés - 'a lump in the throat', 'a tug at the heart strings' - while reading this book. It is also very difficult to pick favourites from the stories. Still, there are some that stood out for me: a forgetful electrician losing his memory and himself in the city (Forgetting); a child writing letters on behalf of an illiterate widowed relative to her family, adding her own bits as her fancy dictates (Kunjo Dida); an aunt lovingly cleaning a brass lamp on the edge of a pond in a village, reminiscing Durga Pujas of yore (Tales of the Evening Lamp); a first crush, blissfully unaware of his status, dismissing his admirer with the most cruel indifference (Letter to You); budding cricketers of a para, with equal nonchalance, making use of a teenage girl not allowed to play the game herself, to run between wickets for lazy batsmen (Between the Wickets); a father teaching life lessons on a river's shore (The Ferry Ghat); a teacher oblivious of tea turning cold, engrossed in his drawing (To Sir with Love).

The letters here are obviously letters to the past - always irretrievable; they are also, most intriguingly, letters to an acutely observant and sensitive child self, destined to haunt one life long.

We all compose these letters to our past selves in our heads. Piu Mahapatra wrote them down!