Spelling it out

Once upon a time there was something called a “pen.”  It came in many different forms and shapes but performed the one single function it was designed for – using a fluid called “ink,” it produced shapes on another medium termed “paper” – and the act of such inscribing was called “writing.”  Savvy people also used another version which did not use ink; this instrument was a “ballpoint” pen.  In “those days”, most people had learned how to hold a pen between their thumb and the index or middle finger of either hand, and “put it to paper” to start writing.

Writing was then considered to be an art.  There were strict rules for writing and irrespective of whether it was a personal or official letter, a story or poem, or just a note to communicate informally with another person, the “grammar” (another thing that existed in “those days”), syntax and nomenclature etc., had to be rigorously observed.  Typically, a writer would reflect on something and then transform their thoughts into several alphabet-based characters called “words.”  Words were quite similar to what are today known as “texts” or “tweets,” except that words were “spelt out” in full and not simply made up of numeric-alphabet-character-symbol composites.  Not only did the writer have to rely on her/his memory to choose the words appropriately to express their thoughts but as no “autocorrect” feature was available, the writer also had to know how to spell out all that they wrote.  A mistake could only be corrected by scratching out the word or an entire sentence, which then had to be rewritten since the “cut and paste” option did not exist in “those days.”  Frequent use was made of Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Chambers and other dictionaries – thick tomes that proved invaluable to find the right words and express oneself eloquently.

My own best writing years were the mid-1970s.  I had finished school and was enrolled in a college.  The obligatory ritual of weekly letter writing – usually full of mundane non-activities – to the family from the boarding school hostel had ended.  At college, I was now penning what were termed “love letters” to a wonderful person that I had met and lost my heart to.  Maintaining our long-distance relationship involved prolific and frequent letter writing, as even the most banal activities were now deemed worthy of sharing with the addressee.  Narrating the most trivial daily routine, reviewing a book or movie, sharing a poem or a song or, just trying to put words together to convey the yearning during what seemed like an interminable wait before we were together again, one was rarely at a loss for words.   It would take three or four days for the letter to reach my (then) girlfriend (and now, wife) and for her response to be delivered to me.  In order to remain constantly in touch, we took to writing and posting a letter each day, over a period of four years or more.

Oh, the agonizing suspense and thrill of waiting for a response!  Those of you who are accustomed to the instantaneous communication ‎mediums and styles in vogue today may not appreciate the anticipatory pleasure of waiting for what felt like an eon, to receive the “latest” updates and sweet endearments.  The gentle complaining about not writing sooner or in more detail, the apprehension of not being able to get together or thinking up possible excuses to meet during the forthcoming vacation and the nagging fear that the family was becoming suspicious of this sudden barrage of mail.  So much more pleasurable don’t you think, than wondering whether to put “xx” or “XXX” and receiving a tweet or a text declaring LOL?

The legendary poet Mirza Assadullah Khan Ghalib’s sher best illustrates this sentiment:

“Qāsid ke aate aate ḳhat ik aur likh rakhūñ

Maiñ jāntā huuñ jo vo likheñge javāb meñ

[Pending the arrival of the messenger (letter bearer) let me write out another letter

I know what they (she, beloved/friend) will send in response]

3 Replies to “Spelling it out”

  1. Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a time and place far, far away, an emphasis was placed on good communication skills. There was an etiquette associated with writing. One was taught the proper way to address someone in a letter and the appropriate sign-off for different types of letters. Now I receive e-mails that are a single, unmitigated block of text, all lower case, with no punctuation and wish I could arrange for a mass distribution of copies of good old Wren and Martin.

    It was an age when being called a Man/Woman of letters was a high compliment. I remember using the expression many years ago in a different context when I came upon a bundle of letters in my mother’s closet. These were letters my parents wrote to each other while he was away in England for three years. I asked if I could read them and, permission granted, picked a few at random. Instead of the torrid love letters I think I had hoped for, I found a quiet accounting of their lives apart. How we the kids were doing at school and how his first winter was. There was love, longing, but more a sense of tenderness, grace and an over-riding decorum.

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  2. It’s okay these days to send and receive messages with incorrect grammar and incoherent syntax because we intuitively know that everyone’s talking and no one is listening.

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