Years ago when I fell in love, I wrote what I considered then a really evocative letter asking for a hand in marriage. There were no drafts, no soft copies, no emoticons or extreme expressions. Written with ‘Royal Blue’ Camlin ink, the prose spilt from my heart onto two crisp sheets of paper through a pen that had my fingers firmly curled around it. It felt like magic, almost like being transported to another world. Thinking back to the moment when I finished, kept my pen down and read it one last time before sealing it in an ‘airmail’ envelope still gives me goose bumps after three decades.
That the letter fell short of achieving its intended purpose owed nothing to the medium or the power of my expression. It failed for other reasons. But it was and still remains one of my best pieces of writing, straight from the heart. It was a heart-breaking decision to consign that letter, among other memorabilia, to flames once the one-sided flight of fancy came crashing down to mother earth.
I met my soulmate Madhuri a couple of years later. Soon, love was in the air once again. Foolscap sheets ripped from a register, onion paper, Archies cards, A4 sheets borrowed from the Ship’s Office – anything worked as I pulled out that fountain pen once again. There was no Email, Facebook, WhatsApp or Google then. The ship’s mailman became the most important man in my life as I awaited her letters, fingers crossed to the daunting ratio of about 10:1 (for every 10 letters of mine, I received one). But the feeling of holding that envelope, opening it ever-so-carefully, reading it over and over again and then tucking it deep into a secret corner is something our children may never ever experience.
Welcome to the age of hyperbole. Internet penetration and the veritable explosion in social media channels have all but replaced pen and paper. Over-the-top expressions for things we used to consider pretty mundane are the norm now. If something isn’t ‘awesome’, it’s definitely ‘rocking’. Multiple exclamation marks, strange arrangement of brackets, colons, semi-colons and obscure terms not belonging to any language have seeped into our diction. The pen has abdicated to the keyboard. A red tick announcing a new notification on FB or a new green blurb on WhatsApp has replaced the postman for future generations. As you open the notification, a fleeting sense of happiness is best you can get. The sheer impermanence of it makes you want it again and again. I don’t know whether to celebrate or commiserate with this turn of events.
Anybody with a smartphone and data has almost infinite access to the information superhighway. A good thing. But, with little effort, knowledge or poise required to use the powerful mediums we hold at our fingertips, it’s easy to fly off the handle in any debate (if the term ‘debate’ is still valid). And boy, don’t we all see a lot of it today!
I am all for going green, saving paper, trees and all of that. But try much as I can, I am unable to wean myself from the pleasure of putting pen to paper. Sadly, these days it’s kind of déjà vu. Commanding a pen to write out few straight lines on a sheet of paper is fast becoming a challenge as muscular atrophy sets in. Years of tapping on a keyboard makes my handwritten lines look like a series of illegible signatures. My signatures fare much worse.
The easy availability of ‘software’ has reduced us to the denomination of slaves. The reams of paper we used to chew up getting format, syntax and margins correct while working in Headquarters would have wiped out small forests. Children grew up and wives pursued other interests in the countless hours we spent fine-tuning PowerPoint presentations for that ‘important’ conference. The easy portability of what constitutes ‘work’ today ensures that it accompanies us all the way home. Plagiarism is on the rise as the ‘cut, copy, paste’ syndrome modifies and ultimately replaces original thought. I have often come across people who are mortified or unable to proceed from a blank sheet of paper unless they have ‘some kind of template’ – a term used to denote something to plagiarise from. By the time I attended the prestigious Defence Services Staff College, things had reached such a head that then Staff College Commandant Lt Gen ‘Tipsy’ Brar proscribed computer printouts altogether. All submissions had to be in manuscript. It was too little too late. Since desktop PCs, pen drives and laptops were in every officer’s arsenal, matter was first rustled up on computers, then printed and copied into manuscript. Some argued that our course deserved a double MSc for all that trouble. I salute the Lt Gen for going down fighting.
What problems the great minds who invented these packages aimed to solve and what problems they actually ended up creating in us is something we need to ponder about. And yet, when our own ‘gen next’ Abhishek (he turns 19 today) & Akash insist on using complete words & sentences in all our chats, Madhuri & me can’t help but feel hopeful for the future.
I regard very highly the simple words and elegant hand with which my 88-year old father writes even now. For him, even writing out a cheque is a careful evolution involving mind, paper and pen. No amount of sales pitch from smooth-talking bankers or eager ‘gen next’ can get him to migrate from cheque books and pass books to net banking, ATM cards or PayTM. Whenever he travels, he still maintains a diary diligently. His hand is rock steady as he writes. At half his age, I admit I am not capable of the deftness with which he wields a pen. In my eighties, I would be happy if I can hold a glass of whisky without spilling it all over the carpet. And ours is a generation which saw computers only in our twenties. Think of our children who were born with these devices.
For folks who grew up in the 70s and 80s, try asking your parents about the most memorable thing they did in their lives. See how carefully they choose their words, reflecting before speaking, nuanced in their description, often benchmarking it against their experiences, however modest, of decades. Even if they come from a humble background, words like ‘awesome’, ‘great’, ‘billions’, ‘absolutely’ etc. hardly ever find place in their description.
Balanced, temperate and nuanced expression has become a dying art in our private and public lives. So is handwriting. Please keep it alive whichever way you can.
If you are lucky and still have your letters from courtship days – preserve them like you would some treasure. Soon, they will be a collector’s item. Keep writing and encourage your children to do as well, using full words and sentences without going over-the-top or injecting needless intoxicants of jargon, hyperbole and ‘emoticons’. You don’t have to use it just because it’s free. Nothing is free anyways.
Also, be moderate in your expressions. Everything cannot be awesome.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.