At one time, when our only means of communication with family and friends was by letters, we would never leave home without a supply of inland letters, stamped envelopes, aerogrammes, plain envelopes and stamps of various denominations.
It was customary for us to put pen to paper as soon as we reached our destination in order to let those we had left behind know we had arrived safely. That message took several days to reach, but everyone was prepared for the wait and there were no frantic phone calls, no desire to connect while we were en route, no need to know if our train or flight was on time, whether we had eaten, how we liked our meal and a whole heap of other irrelevant and unnecessary information. (Thanks to the audibility of whispered conversations in confined places, now, even if we manage to steer clear of doing it ourselves, we are likely to be privy to all this information about the person sitting next to us on our journey.)
Today, letters are on the way to being considered an art form — and there are serious reading groups in various cities in the country where private letters and letters in the public domain are read out to understand and appreciate personal narratives at various levels.
Somehow, I don’t see myself in such a group, sharing my letters or the letters of friends and family or peeking into the lives of others, however distant or remote they may be from me.
Perhaps this is because in our home, we had strict rules of privacy of correspondence and no one ever peeped into someone else’s mail. If and when we wanted to share something a friend had written to us or deliver a message sent by them to the rest of the family, we read it out. We didn’t pass the letter around for others to read it in its entirety — or “forward” it as we are wont to do with email today.
Although many members of the family are no longer with us, we still continue to be intensely private about the old letters in our home.
My parents did not leave behind the letters they had exchanged with each other and with their friends and relatives through the years. They made sure they destroyed them so that, when they were gone, none of us children would be privy to their personal fears or fervour, happiness or angst.
None of our business
Similarly, when my mother-in-law passed away, her letters to and from her husband were burnt without going through any of them. Those letters contained her love story and other prying eyes, even those of her children, could never really understand what went through her mind when that correspondence was in progress.
While we may perhaps have empathised, taking into consideration what we knew of their natures and their life stories and what we have experienced in our own lives, all of it was essentially just none of our business — and we would probably squirm with guilt were we to invade their privacy.
Somewhere, deep in one of my cupboards, there is a box of my “un-throw-away-able” letters that I have saved over the years. From time to time, when I am searching for something else, I come upon them — and once again experience a thrill as I read about long-ago events.
For me, these letters are treasures, but for those who come after me, they are relics — and I don’t think I would like them to be read out by anyone, either in private or in an open house.
Maybe it is time to let go and shred them — even if they still bring a smile to my lips and a tear to my eye.
Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.