Let's get physical

Updated: Jul 26, 2020, 08:19 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

Reconnecting with old friends on pen and paper is helping many make sense of the anxiety brought on by a health and economic crisis they never imagined

Prof Aloke Kumar says his letter to his son was both, confessional and reflective. He discussed his anxieties, and the need to be prepared for the new world order
Prof Aloke Kumar says his letter to his son was both, confessional and reflective. He discussed his anxieties, and the need to be prepared for the new world order

Writing letters to his son is second nature to Aloke Kumar, associate professor at IIM Calcutta. Their rooms at his Kolkata home are just a few feet apart, and the two make it a point to spend quality time daily. Yet, it's the letters where Kumar is really able to open up, and have deeper and meaningful conversation with his son. The lockdown necessitated it more than ever. Holed in at home for the first time in many years, and having to settle for online classes with his students over an airy and more engaging classroom, Kumar was experiencing a multitude of emotions. And so, on June 19, three months into the lockdown, he slipped in a letter under the door of his son's room. The letter was both confessional and reflective, recalls Kumar. "There was this sudden human pause. We were all overwhelmed. Online teaching was a new learning experience for me, too. I wanted to share my anxieties with my son, and how much of it is going to continue in the future, and the need for us to be prepared for the new world order," he says, while speaking about the contents of the letter. Writing it, he says, made him feel like he was unburdening himself, and at the same time, documenting an important time in history that both he and his 24-year-son were now part of. "I wanted it to be a keepsake. Something, he could go back to, and remember when all is okay."

Aloke Kumar

With social media allowing for quick, yet half-hearted real-time interactions, the art of writing letters has long been consigned to oblivion. Yet, the pandemic-induced lockdown, which has forced almost everyone to make the transition to the virtual world, has everyone craving for the small little things, we had taken for granted. It's what's causing many to go back to the written word, feels Reeti Roy, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur and tour guide, who started the 100 Letters Project at the beginning of the lockdown. For once, there is a lot of time at hand, and also, with how vulnerable and helpless everyone is feeling due to the Coronavirus outbreak, reflection has become the order of the day. Roy's project began when she moved back home to Kolkata to be with her parents. "I was missing my friends back in Mumbai, and no amount of phone calls, even though a close approximation, could replace physical company." In order to fill the vacuum, Roy decided to hand write letters to 100 people, who have touched her, even if in a small, insignificant way. There were no rules to this, except that they could write to her back, if they wished, or take the project forward. The idea was to keep the gratitude chain going. "It was a way for me to connect with people, who I had cared about, at some point or the other, or who touched my life. We might not be in touch, but there's no better time to celebrate the small things," says 31-year-old Roy.

Children’s author and creative writing teacher Sakshi Singh says that writing letters has helped her make sense of the current situation
Children's author and creative writing teacher Sakshi Singh says that writing letters has helped her make sense of the current situation

Children's author and creative writing teacher Sakshi Singh says that "gratitude is one practise" that has always helped her cope with anxiety. "It makes me feel like I am in a loved place. And writing a letter or receiving one, has that effect." Singh has encouraged her young students to write letters, and now more so, because of how much screen time they are being exposed to. "Earlier, when I'd tell them to write a letter, they wouldn't care. And now, they've been asking me to write them letters. Thankfully, the post has opened since the last couple of weeks, and I have been able to send them small notes." Her letters to them are as simple as "what have you been up to?" or "tell me about your new hobby". "At a sub-conscious level, I do want them to pick up the pen and write back to her."

New mum Shraddha Uchil, who has been in confinement for nine months now, made a friend on the pen pal app, Slowly, during the lockdown
New mum Shraddha Uchil, who has been in confinement for nine months now, made a friend on the pen pal app, Slowly, during the lockdown

New mum Shraddha Uchil has been in confinement for nine months, after she had a baby. "Life had changed drastically, and the lockdown made it tougher. I just needed an outlet. I wanted to reach out to someone who was not my husband, because we have the same kind of conversations everyday. I wanted another perspective, especially on parenting." It was on Twitter, that Uchil learnt about the pen pal app called Slowly. "It's quite interesting, because it works like snail mail and matches you with people based on your preferences. So, if you are writing to someone in the US, the mail will take two days to reach the receiver. It also shows you the number of hours left for the mail to reach them. That keeps the anticipation going." While Uchil reached out to many people through the app, she did hit it off with a German parent, Severin, whose son is a year old. The two have exchanged nearly eight letters over the last couple of months. "We've talked about so many things—what parenting during a lockdown looks like, what measures our respective countries have been taking, and what the future holds."

Nishath  Nizar
Nishath Nizar

For some, this has been the time to reconnect with the pen and paper. As a teen, media professional Nishath Nizar wrote letters as a hobby. "In fact, some of my closest friends today started as my pen pals. But with the advent of instant messaging and the barrage of social media outlets, the need to write letters slowly faded. I shifted to long emails, and that probably lasted until maybe four or five years ago," he says.

 Reeti Roy started the 100 letters project in March, handwriting letters to a hundred people, who have touched her, even if in a small, insignificant way. She has written nine, so far
Reeti Roy started the 100 letters project in March, handwriting letters to a hundred people, who have touched her, even if in a small, insignificant way. She has written nine, so far

Around three months ago, a friend of Nizar's, who is currently in Germany, messaged him, asking if he wanted to be part of a tradition, where they wrote letters during birthdays. "This sounded right up my alley. It did feel strange penning down the long letter to my friend. There is no backtracking, no backspaces to correct what you are writing when using a pen. But once I got it going, the words flowed, and I was able to fill up both sides of a full-scape paper." The letter, he says, took around three weeks to reach, but the excitement was palpable. "There is something innately raw about receiving a letter in hand. The emotions connected to a handwritten note don't find space around an electronic mail. The handwriting, the varying darkness of the ink, the fragrance of the sheet are all unique to a physical letter. A romantic like me will always be fascinated by the slowly fading art of letter writing and would give anything to keep the tradition going."

Reeti

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