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Scented mails and long hand written letters fade into a bygone era as pen friends are swept aside by Net pals

The search is on for a die-hard Potter fan. Another one just wants to get a recipe right. A few young men are convinced they are giving out a matrimonial ad. The quest is often for "cool", "broadminded", "intellectual" girls. And if they are game for dirty talk or even worse, the better.If this makes you wonder whether the writer is nuts, just click onto a pen pal site on the Net. A novice into the world of e-pals, net pals or whatever they are called, will take a few moments to make sense of this deluge. Pen friends or pen pals are no strange terms. Most of us had that odd aunt or uncle whose claim to fame was a pen pal from an exotic land. They sure grew in stature as they unravelled the bundle of letters from England with quaint stamps on them and read aloud. The old world charm of perfumed snail mails and the wait for the mailman has given way to a flurry of activity on the Internet. If you unearthed a friend from a tiny box ad on Target, at a click away now are a hundred websites that will gift you with a pal from the country of your choice, sex, age-group and even with the desired proficiency in English. The idea of a pen pal has never been so blurred and old timers find it tough to understand the contemporary net pal. "Despite e-mail, we have not bothered to keep in touch that way," says M. Narayan Prasad, 50, whose correspondence with his pen pal in England dates back to 1981. Jayanti Alam began her friendship with Priscilla Pendleton in the United Kingdom when she was 11 and likes to keep the charm of handwritten letters alive. "It is not only the letters of Tagore and Gandhi that are great literature. Even the letter of an ordinary person can be interesting," says Alam, a 62-year-old writer and retired teacher.Though e-mail or online chatting is not scorned upon by either of them, it is the feel of a snail mail that they treasure. "Snail mails are about patience and an inclination. You need to be committed to that friendship to take the pain to write," says Prasad. Writing long letters is also finding the right words and the right moment."I have still not replied to her Christmas Day letter and I keep telling her that I am waiting for the right time," quips Prasad. He is quick to add that he is allowed to take liberties with time and there will be no judgment made."For me, it is the ambience of a letter, the private mood you are in when reading it that is lost in e-mail," observes Alam. Prasad met up with his pen pal almost 15 years after the first letter and Pendleton has visited Alam quite a few times. Since international calls are not beyond reach now, there are phone calls on Christmas, New Year and other occasions, but these veteran pen pals are sure there is no replacement for the handwritten note. The fountain pens, the weekly letter allowance, the nuances of the handwriting and the tinkle in the voice that stayed on long after their first telephone conversation all make this friendship unique."It is a very healthy friendship and we have literally grown up together," sums up Prasad.Despite the choices presented by technology, Alam believes it is the patience to nurture and treasure a friendship that is on the wane. "Sentiments are so much less now," she says with a tinge of disappointment. "I may never write a snail mail to my Net friends," says 26-year-old Shreya Sircar, who has found good friendships on the Web. She agrees the idea of a pen pal has become fluid, but insists it is a fallacy that enduring bonds are absent here. Snail mails are way too personal for her, but if you are looking for "a confidante in anonymity" you will find one here. For 23-year-old Kingsley Peter, snail mails to Net pals are not a strict no-no. "Initially, it was music that drew me to find Net pals and later, when I started travelling, I looked for someone who will be able to take me around in a new city," he says.The range of choices presented gives rise to a new set of problems, new-age pen pals agree. But those can be dealt with if you can make the right choices. "If you define yourself well and state clearly that you are only looking for friendship, it is resolved," clarifies Shreya. Of course, there will be those keen on blind dates, but you have the choice to ignore. Today, the concept of a pen pal is not watertight compartments, she points out.In a kind of friendship that begins with e-mails and then spreads on to phone calls, chats and SMS, caution is the key word, warns Ishtar Akhter, CEO, Concern Infotech, that manages www.thisismyindia.com, where you can find net pals. The anonymity of the Web also becomes an avenue for fake information where the chances of being cheated are also high. Kingsley too was disappointed when he realised his female pen pal for over two years was a man just having fun."Some of the ads may have unsavoury material, but it is better to let it go as the prospective friend will be warned about what is in store," says Ishrat. "But, it is important not to get carried away and know what you want," she cautions. Care should also be taken not to furnish too many personal details.ANIMA BALAKRISHNANWhen searching... Don't give too much personal informationDon't exchange phone numbers, credit card number and address initially Create a separate e-mail id for Net palsDefine yourself clearly in your ad. Make clear you are looking for friendship alone Choose your Net pal with care

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