I belong to a time when letter writing was the only means of communicating with people at distant places. Other than sending verbal messages through people travelling to places, letter writing was the only means of communication. There was a place called “Wireless Station”, but I was not clear how it delivered messages then, and people did not use it to send love letters. So it was the good old post office that we turned to and a fifty chhetrum stamp was enough to get a letter going, to whichever places in Bhutan your letter was destined. But it took ages to reach its destination. I remember once, receiving a letter that took forty five days, from a place where it today takes eight hours by road!
In our school, distributing letters used to be a grand affair, sans the fanfare, of course. Letters used to be distributed during the morning assembly. Every single letter used to be handed over to each addressee personally by the ‘Gathpu’ – the Old Man – our headmaster. The ‘Gathpu’, with his ever present ‘pipe cane’ in his right hand, would carry all the letters, delivered to the school by the ‘dakwala’, as we called the post runner, to the assembly for dissemination. As the students, mostly the senior lot, waited expectantly, he would read out the names and hand them to the addressees. The proud recipient – yes, we used to feel proud to receive letters – would walk up to the dais and pocket the letters. The letters addressed to girls were censored and letters with undesirable contents were read out to the whole school, to the humiliation of the addressee.
As students, we used to write lots of letters, both to distant places and to local recipients. The lack of money to buy stamps did not discourage us from writing letters. We had developed a fine and fool proof method of reusing and recycling the used stamps. The post office seal that is stamped on the stamps were very easy to erase. We would remove the marked stamps from the envelope taking care not to tear them from the sides and then rub them on to the hair. The marks would have gone and the stamps would look as good as new.
I remember writing a lot of love letters for my friends too, though I never got lucky with any girl. A friend even treated me to a glass of tea and a loaf of bread. I call it a ‘glass of tea’ and not a cup because those days tea used to be served in glasses. A glass of tea would cost fifty chetrum and a loaf of bread was ngultrum four. The bread was a rare commodity. The treat was for helping him write a love letter to a girl. Obviously the girl reciprocated his love.
Today, letter writing, as some media put it, has become a “dying art”. People do not seem to be writing letters, except in some remote places where there are no access to telephone or mobile services. The reason for the decline is that simply there is no requirement anymore. The coming of telephone, mobile and internet services have changed everything. Talking to people over a phone is more convenient and hearing the voice real time adds personal touch to the experience, they say. So, letter writing has really become a “dying art” and is dying by the day. The sms culture has evolved so much that writing and understanding them is an art in itself. So much for the emphasis on correct spelling and grammar in the school!
Even as I am writing this piece, I received a letter – yes a proper letter, sealed in an envelope with stamps on it – from my daughter, who is studying in class six. Her call preceded the letter, through which she informed me of the letter. Actually her letter was addressed to her mother, who is presently admitted in hospital and I am by her side as her sick attendant. Since she did not know the proper address, she simply wrote it as “Thimphu Hospital”. I had to rush to the post office to collect it before they trashed it for lack of proper address. Luckily I reached the post office before the letters were sorted and I found it.
It was the first letter ever from my daughter and the only letter that I received in the last ten years or so! The letter was titled “Letter To My Mother”. It talked of how worried she was about her mother’s health and that her exams were nearing and such stuff. I could sense that the style she wrote, like for example the title of the letter etc, was the result of the lessons in the class. She never had any real life experience of writing or receiving such letters. But I am happy that at least she took the first step and gained some experience. For my part, I will write to her, as she requested, and tell my wife to reply her letter too. This way, I hope she learn a bit about this dying art. When I go back I will take back her letter, make necessary corrections and show her, so that she learns this art. I am afraid that my other children may not even get this experience, however small it may be, before this “dying art” completely dies.
11 June 2012