Friday, December 28, 2012

Things we Grew Up With - Inland Letters and Aerogrammes

Till late eighties or even till the PCO (Public Call Office) boxes appeared all over the place, the only way of communicating privately with one another was either to travel and meet them in person or to write to them. Here is where the postal department came into use big time. The post offices were amazing for the simplicity with which they worked and till today, I find that it is one of the most underrated and undervalued departments we have. Through the postal department you could reach anyone, anywhere in India. And the world. 

The modern day youngster finds it very easy to get in touch with friends and family. Pick up the mobile and call. Or get online and skype. But imagine if the mobile and the computer were not around. Then? That was our situation. We would go to the post office, buy those postal cards (if the news could be read by anyone and did not need any privacy settings), or buy an inland letter or an envelope which gave you some privacy or if you needed to write to someone abroad, buy an aerogramme. Once we got these letters and cards you needed to know the addresses, pin codes etc and then you needed to sit down and write. We'd fill in letters with tonnes of news, stories, and sometimes even pictures drawn by us. We'd fill up the margins to fit in some more precious words, scent them sometimes, young women would kiss the letters and leave traces of lipstick (which would stay with the young man forever). The receiver would receive the same with unbridled joy and read and reread them in private places and preserve them (I still have some old ones) for posterity. The joy of waiting for the postman (remember the song Dakwala aaya) was next to nothing. People would grab their letters, settle down in corners, smile and laugh and be in state of joy so everyone would know that he or she got a letter that day. Ah, sheer bliss.

The upside or downside to this whole thing was that it was a long drawn process. First you needed to go to the post office and buy those letters. Then you'd think well before writing, sometimes you had to plan financially as I had to when I would write to friends on those expensive aerogrammes, and pretty much communicate what you want to in a limited space. No room for follow up sms's or late night calls or fb posts. Once written and posted, the letter would reach in its own time, ranging from three days locally to a week or 10 days abroad. And after the recipient receives it, he or she would write back in his or her own time. The earliest would be the same amount of time surely.

Love stories were made, pen friends were made, long standing relationships were formed through letters. Several people still take great solace in letters of love and affection written by well meaning friends and relatives and remember a time when the heart yearned for these good words from faraway. The entire package was pretty much, a labour of love - from the effort needed to buy the letter and write - there was truly much investment and engagement. If we looked for comparisons, a letter to an email or an sms would compare like this - a life long love story to a one night stand. That is how the intensity would be. And perhaps the respect and dignity that the other person was accorded.

As with many things, like letters and even printed photographs, the physical element of getting them out and looking at them transports you away to another place. The email on screen or the sms in your mobile can never replicate that feeling ever. Those who wrote and received letters would understand the pleasure of anticipation,of quiet and patience, of knowing. For all its slowness, the snail mail truly was the champion of feelings and emotions, of clarity and sensitivity, of love and courage (in cases where letters fell in the wrong hands).

Let me get some pics of these items which are all still available in Post Offices. It's a good indicator of inflation to know that an inland letter now costs almost as much as an aerogramme did those days. Of course no one receives letters from people they know anymore. All we get is bills and marketing information. In fact it must be almost embarrassing if one receives a letter. But it might not be a bad idea to write a few once in a while. To the post office ahoy!

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