What's better than a letter?

Updated: Jun 14, 2020, 06:42 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

I was glad that he had rolled his thoughts up into the concentric symbol of snail mail. Posted letters are slow cooked in time

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Paromita VohraMay be there was a planetary configuration my Daily Horoscope neglected to tell me about, but last week, a strange and lovely thing happened. I got two letters.

One arrived in the post, borne by a postman in gloves, missing only the silver salver. Being from an estranged friend, it created some dread. Would it be apologies, recriminations or worse, a pretence of nothing wrong, breezy intimacies eliding the rift? But, quite simply, he wrote how he often remembered our conversations and shared times and updated me a little about his life. He did not know why he was using the post. "Just" he guessed.

I was glad that he had rolled his thoughts up into the concentric symbol of snail mail. Posted letters are slow cooked in time. Like stars, we see people in them today, as they were 4.3 light years, yaniki a few weeks ago. We read most letters twice, once on receipt and once before replying. Time elapses between those two readings, impacting how we reply.

This is not a nostalgic elegy for letters. As the doomed drama of mail and mail trains between Devdas and Paro shows, timing is of the mysterious essence in most things, but especially love, as precisely expressed in the Kannada movie koan "if you come today it's too early, if you come tomorrow it's too late."

Now, when most of our communication is not only instantaneous, but also fragmented, often in public view, or to a public, letters, stripped of urgency, take us out of the everyday into a moment of rapt privacy with our selves. There is a quality of emotional commitment in them, the setting time apart to read and respond, attentive to another. I had an aunt, who every morning, after her chores, would bathe, put on sari, soorma, pearl earrings and sit at her table writing inland letters to various friends and cousins. If intimacy is about stepping out of common time into private time, then letters are the original virtual intimacy—whether physical or digital.

Because, the other letter I got was on email, from a friend whom I know largely from social media. Our interactions had mostly been frivolous, and frivolity can be shared mostly with kindred spirits, without fear of misinterpretation—a luxury on social media. Many months ago, he quit social media and I've often wondered how he was doing. I woke up one morning to a letter-length, letter-weight email from him. He wanted to tell me about a new crush he had, because he had lovingly cooked something delicious for the crush in a vessel I'd gifted him. Reading his letter, I felt threaded into his romance and felt the warm and direct intimacy of fellowship.

The rhythms of instant chat and social media has its own pleasures—the speedy comebacks, the so-bad-they're-good puns, the gossipy screenshots and emoji-filled exchanges have the satisfying regularity of kantha stitch in the fabric of everyday—we feel each shift. Inevitably, it's also studded with the quick cuts, accumulated hurts and knotted misunderstandings of the here and now. Letters, operating on a different time scale are a time-out from that, a shift from 'how are you' to, as they said in old movies, 'apne dil ka haal batao' (how is your heart?). You can't answer that in a hurry, right?

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at paromita.vohra@mid-day.com

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