Writer's block Society

The letter writer


So the entire world now knows Amitabh Bachchan has written a letter to his two granddaughters. That’s because he wanted the world to know. He not only wrote it — beautifully, in blue-black ink, with an elegant black fountain pen — but also read out the contents to a camera and posted the video on social media.

Most of the audience found the gesture — and the contents of the letter — heart-warming, even though any sensible man would say pretty much the same things to his kids or grandkids: make your own choices, don’t let others dictate your life, don’t worry if people talk behind your back, and so forth. Some people saw the exercise as a gimmick to promote his upcoming film Pink. Whatever may be his motive, he made headlines for a day or two, for having written that letter.

For me, what matters is that he wrote a letter, in the old-fashioned manner. Even though he spoilt the charm of the handwritten word by making the video, he still managed to put the focus back on the art that is almost dead: letter-writing. Really, when did you last write a letter? And those born in the year 2000 and later — they would be 16-plus years old now — I am curious whether they even know that there’s something called the letter. One cannot blame them if they don’t, because they don’t see letters arriving or letters being written at home. What they find in the mailbox is phone bills or bank statements or receipts from insurance companies. When I was in school, letter-writing was a separate subject — “Dear sir, I respectfully beg to state that I am suffering from fever and the doctor has advised me to stay home for a week” — but you actually picked up the art at home because writing letters was a way of life. There was no other mode of communication. There was the telephone, of course, but how many people had it? Then there was the telegram, which the middle-class used only to convey bad news: “Mother expired. Rush immediately.”

And letters, since they weren’t password-protected or prone to deletion like emails, could be accessed by the family or by researchers, and therefore served as the authentic document of that time. Much of modern history has been pieced together from letters that people wrote. Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, wrote thousands of letters during his lifetime, and much of what we know of him is because of those letters, which survived him. Imagine if Nehru used email.

My personal library includes many compilations of letters — written by Nehru and Hemingway, correspondences between Henry Miller and his lover Anais Nin, between Naipaul and his father, and also a fairly recent publication, Here and Now, which puts together letters exchanged between J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster from 2008 to 2011. How delightful to dip into these books from time to time and peep into these great minds.

I often wonder what future historians would rely upon when they set out to write the history of the 21st Century and thereafter. Facebook updates and tweets? But what we write on social media is often fake, because we write keeping in mind that people are watching — we invariably try to put our best foot forward. Can status updates, therefore, serve as an authentic document?

That is why I admire what Amitabh Bachchan did: he has rekindled people’s interest in letter-writing. I only hope more people now write letters — and not just to their granddaughters. Or how about this: next time when you want to put a status on Facebook, why not write it longhand and take a picture and post it?

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Printable version | Dec 10, 2019 3:46:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/The-letter-writer/article14630754.ece

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