This year has been special for all the wrong reasons. The big “C” word looms over us and dictates our life, our movements, what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot meet. Something else that has come out of this though is the fact that we’ve never been more in touch with each other as we are now.
We are all going out of our way to talk to family and friends more than ever, check up on our family elders often, cheer each other up across a few kilometres distance over video calls and many such creative ways to somehow be there for each other in spite of all the challenges thrown at us.
All this elevated activity to keep in touch reminded me of how my Amma would keep in touch with all of her and Appa’s family, cousins and more through regular monthly letters. I can still see her sitting on the floor with a bunch of inland letters on the coffee table. It was the age of no telephones in most of our extended family homes as many lived in the interiors of South India where postal services and telegram was the only means of contact.
We had a drawer filled with letter writing tools and implements, from inland letter cards, postcards to later aerogramme or air mail letter cards for overseas letters, good quality paper carrying Appa’s letterhead, envelopes, and glue to seal the letters. This is probably what started my love affair with stationery shopping!
Once a month, Amma would gather all these writing tools and sit to write to her sisters, sisters-in-law, cousins and other extended family members. Her letters would be in written Tamil, which follows a more formal dialect and is not as easy to understand as the spoken version of the language. Weird but true!
The letters would be filled with routine news, what was happening with us (the children). Congratulations, commiserations and enquiries about the family on the receiving end would follow and all too soon, the inland letter would be full from end to end. I remember Amma always wrote to the full extent of the available space.
Today, to think of sitting down and pretty much write the same letter to so many people regularly every month sounds like a mammoth task and an impossible one to keep up to. With telecommunications reaching far and wide, followed by internet, innovation after innovation followed and somewhere down the line, the art of correspondence over long, handwritten, carefully drafted letters just faded away.
Where it was necessary to write these letters as the only means to stay in touch, now even the relatives living in the most interior regions have access to a smart phone, social networking and messaging tools that make letter writing an unnecessary effort.
We have been grateful though for our smart phones this year and the ease with which we could keep open channels of communication with friends and families through lockdowns and other challenges.
The biggest and most significant memory I have of Amma writing letters was brought to mind exactly due to the situation we find ourselves in. She always started all letters (as is custom in our culture and others do this too) with a small symbol signifying Lord Ganesha who it is auspicious to recall in our mind when starting anything. Additionally, Amma’s letters would always be formatted properly with the date on one side, a salutation and greeting followed by the rest of the letter. Loosely translated, the greeting would always be, “We are fine here. Hope your reply to my letter will also find all of you fine.”
The thing I never forgot though was that, on the top right corner of every letter, she would pen the words “Safe” right above the date. Growing up, I noticed it but never realised the significance of this tiny word right before anything else in the letter.
It was much later I found out Amma writing “Safe” was a custom adopted during those times to reassure the reader that there was nothing amiss in the letter, and the letter was just routine news. Right at the outset, the sender ensured that the stage was set and the reader could peacefully read on, knowing that all was well with the sender.
Today, in the midst of the very air surrounding us against us, I long for someone to write a letter to humanity. And wish it starts with the word “Safe”. Wouldn’t that be the first sign of relief!