When did you last receive a letter? No I mean a proper handwritten one. Come to think of it, when did you actually send one yourself? I must confess that ever since the advent of the e-mail my letter writing has waxed and waned — reserved only for a few special people, on special occasions. Yet it need not be so!
Back in 1956, when we baby-boomers were growing up in Mauritius, out there in the US there was one particular record that was hogging the charts for weeks. Entitled “Cindy”, the song was co-written by Robert Barron and Burt Long, and the singer was the ever-so popular Eddie Fisher. Fisher passed away in 2010, but the beautiful, catchy tune lingers on in the minds of many of us.
More than anything else, I think it was the lyrics of Cindy that caught the imagination of the record-buying public at the time. And even after some 60 years, the message remains evergreen and likely to remain so for another 60. It went something like this:
“I joined the Navy to see the world, but nowhere could I find
A girl as sweet as Cindy, the girl I left behind.
I’ve searched the wide world over, can’t get her out of my mind.
Cindy, oh Cindy, Cindy don’t let me down.
Write me a letter soon, and I’ll be homeward bound.” (My emphasis)
The vital words in this song for me are “write me a letter soon.” Anyone who has ever been separated from their love (or loved ones) will understand the extraordinary power of the letter — unlike any other medium — to transmit our thoughts and our feelings, and give solace in our separation.
Certainly other media, like the telephone for example, have their uses. But, unlike the telephone, where conversation is instantaneous and mistakes can happen, the luxury of reflection that letter-writing affords keeps us relatively safe from many a regrettable slip.
Long after the telephone conversation has faded into vague memory, and the email/SMS deleted, the letter remains with us to touch, to feel, to smell, and to read over and over again, reminding us of the writer. It’s not only the permanence of the letter that makes it such a unique medium, but also the fact that it is such a personal and intimate piece of communication between two people. Even as we take the envelope out of the letter-box, we know who it is from!
Furthermore, what we may feel shy and awkward to tell another person, we can somehow easily spill out from the safety of the A4. Think of your classmate Basanti, Brigitte or Bilkiss whom you may have written to, avowing your feelings all those adolescent years ago.
For those of us old enough to remember the time when there were no private telephones, letters were the only means to keep in touch with anxious parents whilst we were studying abroad, across thousands of miles and the vast expanse of the ocean that separated us from them. And how we looked forward to the letters!
Indeed, letters have always been important to human civilization. Without letters, we are told, much of the New Testament would not exist: apparently Saint Paul was a prolific letter writer.
Similarly, without letters, much of human history would be incomplete. For instance, think of the battle of the Sommes and the letters that were written by the ordinary soldier fighting on the frontline in WWI. Unlike the sanitized version of generals, given miles away from the battlefield, the soldier’s letter gives a vivid description of how the War was progressing on the ground from the battlefront, and oftentimes of the sheer ugliness and futility of it all.
The history of the world is the history of Everyman, as well as of the high and mighty. Fortunately modern historians are well aware of this and their accounts tend to be all inclusive, and much of Everyman’s story is gleaned from his letters and notes. Why, even the life stories of the famous are enhanced by the personal letters they may have written because, unlike their well-managed public image, these contain their true thoughts and feelings.
In the context of Mauritius, it is an incalculable tragedy that slaves and indentured labourers were mostly illiterate, and could not read or write. Otherwise, imagine the rich accounts we could have had of their life experiences, their hopes, their dreams as they toiled hard on the sugar estates of the 1700-1800s. These gaps, alas, can never be filled satisfactorily by archeology, or forensic history. Consequently our social history will forever remain incomplete. Of course there are oral accounts and recounts, but how reliable and how objective are these? We will simply never know.
There is no denying that modern ICT has brought tremendous benefit to mankind. Information that would have taken hours to get is now available at our fingertips; and we can have intimate chats on Skype. Letters that would have taken days to get to their destination can now be transmitted in a fraction of a second by scanning.
However hand-written letters take time and effort. As we slit open the envelope, we can imagine the sender going to the stationery shop, putting pen to paper and, having finished, walking to the post-office to buy and fix the stamp before popping his missive into the post-box. That’s why letters are so very special.
For Christmas/New Year 2015, my wife and I received loads of colourful e-cards with lively jingles, and we were grateful that people near and far were thinking of us. Sadly, the hand-written cards numbered just 12 this year — a very far cry indeed from the dozens we used to receive before the ubiquity of the “modern greeting Card” took over.
Of course the e-Cards are still there in the Inbox, but the 12 solid hand-written ones sit proudly on the shelf for all to see, feel, touch. And above all, to pick up at will and read the small, heart-warming personal messages written inside in the senders’ very own handwriting.
If the missus has her way, they will probably sit there on the shelf till next Christmas! For either of us, nothing can replace the joy that the hand-written word brings!
So, go on, pick up that pen and write your loved one(s) a letter.
* Published in print edition on 16 January 2015