Sunday, December 12, 2010

Article in the Indian Express - December 12, 2010

The following article appeared in my Sunday column 'Un Intended' in The New Indian Express today.

 Snail Mail Could Make a Comeback

Harimohan Paruvu
People are worried sick these days. With Wikileaks, Radia tapes etc everything is leaking into the open. Forget what they actually did, even stuff that people thought about is being leaked. What about our privacy they ask. Privacy? Privacy is archaic (even the term archaic is archaic). Ever since we discovered that secrets are no fun if they remain secret, privacy became public property. Privacy, as we know, is as boring as a doornail. 

One of the biggest victims of our changing attitude towards privacy has been the noble, upright and straightforward postal letter. The letter vanished, not because it was slow. It faded because it was uncompromisingly private. Of course, letters made great sense in the olden days –when words like privacy, integrity, honor were alive. So, when secret missives were sent from the queen to the handsome general, they went, seal intact. (In present days of course, copies of the letter would be available with the entire army, uploaded on the internet, along with photographs, videos and telephone transcripts even before the poor general had a look at it.) 

To better understand what went wrong with the righteous letter, I got hold of one the other day and was shocked. Its entire structure and design is actually meant to provide privacy. No one can see what is written inside. Not even the postmaster (unlike webmasters who see everything)! So what is the purpose of writing a letter to someone if no one can see it? Or comment? At least sms? 

But there’s hope. If the Postal Department quickly redesigns the letter, keeping modern needs in mind, the letter can make a spectacular comeback. Firstly, it must be so designed that all contents of the letter are written on the outside and not on the inside. This way, our private lives are out (which is what we want) and our public lives are inside (which is also what we want). Reality show meets useful information! People will queue up outside post offices, even staying up all night, to read everybody else’s letters as they arrive, once this basic flaw is corrected. Many would pay hefty premiums in advance to read their neighbors’ letters first, to find out their affairs, their financial position and such other stuff. Neighbors, script writers, marketing companies would throng post offices. 

Another improvement could be to enable readers to leave comments on the letter, as attachments. This way, the recipient of the letter will receive hundreds of comments from unknown people along with the actual letter (which may not really interest him anymore). With a billion people writing and many more commenting on it, the Postal Department would become the richest company in the world. Companies would vie to sponsor specific letters – for example, letters from spouses can be sponsored by headache tablet manufacturers. Large companies might even try to buy the Postal Department by influencing the Ministry through the media. The letter would thus return, as the hero. 

There could be some minor issues of course. Each letter will grow as thick as the Bofors files by the time it reaches the other side adding to costs. Also the letter will reach the addressee only after a few decades, if at all, what with it going round and round collecting comments and counter comments on it. Sometimes, even before the original letter reaches the original addressee, the original writer may fall in love with a pretty comment, thereby leading to unwanted legal tangles between the principal and the subsidiary recipients of his love. But who cares. A simple sms poll will settle the issue.

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