Culture & Society

The Fading Art Of Letter Writing

While technological advancements are inevitable and modern means of communication make people’s lives easier, history will always remember letter writing as a unique art form.  

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A postman delivering a letter in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. Photo: Getty Images
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“It was the morning of June 1999. I was sipping nun chai when a loud knock on the main door interrupted the peaceful silence of our house. Taeth, my mother, abandoned spinning the charkha and rushed to the door. As I watched from the corner of my eye, a postman appeared at the threshold, holding a letter in his hand. Taeth exchanged some words with him and while he responded, she screamed at the top of her voice. Upon hearing her, every member of our joint family gathered. All of them were anxiously waiting to know what had happened. Despite our pleas, Taeth refused to hand over the letter to anyone except Abba, my father. What was in that letter? I couldn't wait to find out,” recalls Zahoor (50) [name changed] from Srinagar’s downtown area.

He continues, “Taeth gave Abba the letter with a smile and said, ‘Mubarak chuy, apari peth chey baey sinz chitthve chmech. (Your brother from Pakistan has sent you a letter)’. Abba had not heard from uncle in the last two decades. This letter was an antidote to Abba’s pain and years of yearning. All of us sat in the aangan as my father read the letter with great pride. The tears kept flowing as he read. Uncle had established a huge carpet business in Amritsar, Pakistan, and was married now. The letter also included photos of Rahat, Gaiti Ara, and Mumtaz, uncles’s children. My father kissed the pictures and gave the postman Rs 5. That day was celebrated like a festival. Neighbours and relatives visited us, we bought sweets and Taeth made yakhni in the evening.”

Zahoor was 20 when he realised how a letter could fill a void in someone’s life and bring them peace. 

Once upon a time, letter writing —a magical form of communication— ruled our lives. It was the only and the easiest means of communication that people used to stay connected to their families, friends, and loved ones who lived or worked miles away. Kashmir was no exception as the charm of letters held Kashmiris in their sway for centuries. People poured their hearts out onto paper, sharing stories, dreams and hopes with their dear ones.  

Letters from Kashmir provide some valuable insight into our history and culture. Those behind bars, in exile and the Kashmiri Pandits who moved from the region all used to send letters to loved ones they had left back at home. Important facts about Kashmir’s history are documented and preserved in many letters that were sent and received during turbulent times.

However, as modern gadgets began to secure a place in every household, letters gradually vanished from people’s lives, leaving us with nothing but memories of a time when the joy of writing and receiving letters existed. While technological advancements are inevitable and modern means of communication make people’s lives easier, history will always remember letter writing as a unique art form.  

According to officials at the General Post Office (GPO), Srinagar, people have stopped writing letters. “When it comes to personal letters, we receive very few and on some days, absolutely none at all. It’s rare to see people sending letters to family or friends anymore. People send just a handful of letters in a year,” they lament. The reasons are obvious — mobile services and social media applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook, IMO have replaced traditional forms of communication.           

Even during the times when mobile and internet services were suspended in Kashmir for months on end, as in 2019 after the abrogation of Article 370, the postal department did not notice any increase in the traffic of letters. “We thought that with no other means of communication available, people might turn to letters as a way to stay in touch but that didn’t happen. People found alternate ways to contact their loved ones, and that’s when we understood that letters have truly faded from our lives,” they say.

According to official data in 2011, the postal department reported that there had been a 70 per cent decline in the traffic of letters. With time, this only worsened. The speed post traffic during the financial year 2015-16 was 41.43 crores. The same declined to 31.18 crore in 2021. The traffic of letters in India, including speed post, insured letters, registered letters, value payable letters, and unregistered letters declined from 311.75 crore (2019-2020) to 291.06 crore in 2020-2021.

The declining figures in letter-writing are a worldwide trend. Screens have replaced blank sheets of paper as immediacy has edged out patience. As per the report from ‘The Letter Post Traffic Worldwide’, in 2020, 263 billion letters were delivered worldwide. This is 27 per cent less than the number of letters distributed across the world in 2011.

The Postal System Is Constantly Evolving

Despite the decline in the popularity of letter writing, GPO Srinagar debunks the myth that post offices in India are in danger of shutting down. India has the world’s largest postal system and it has been around for centuries. In addition to providing letter services, the department engages in various other services such as tie-ups with Passport Sewa Kendras, Adhaar Enrolment and Updation Centres, Indian Railways, E-Governance Services, and more.

“While the volume of personal letters may have decreased, the post office continues to play a crucial role in facilitating communication between businesses, government agencies, and other organisations. These days, we mostly deal with the documents, notices from banks, insurance companies, private firms, inter- and intra-department letters,” officials say.

The Indian Film Industry

Films serve as a testament to the beauty and prominence of letters in the pre-2000s period. Countless movies and songs from that time romanticise the joy of writing, sending, and receiving letters. They capture the essence of an era when letters were the carriers of joy and sorrow. In the history of Indian cinema, letters have played a pivotal role in shaping the narrative of many a classics.

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Iconic songs such as ‘Likhe Jo Khat Tujhe’ (‘Kanyadan’, 1968), ‘Chitthi Aayi Hai Aayi Hai’ (‘Naam’, 1986), and ‘Sandese Aate Hai’n (‘Border’, 1997) have portrayed the sentiments surrounding letter-writing so well that people fondly carry them around in their hearts till date. Some movies made in more in recent times have also used letters as a tool to capture the audience’s attention and evoke emotions. One of the most recent examples is ‘Sita Ramam’, a 2022 Telugu drama that revolves around the delivery of a letter written by an Indian soldier while being a prisoner of war in Pakistan.

A Peek Into The Past

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For Mohammad Yaqoob, the act of writing letters was once a cherished and frequent ritual. He recalls the golden period of the 1990s when letter boxes outside every mohalla used to be overflowing with letters. “Literacy was at a minimum in those days,” he remembers. “People would reach out to the few literate ones in their locality, usually a Pandit, whenever they wanted to write or read letters.”

Yaqoob, 70, used to regularly write to his brother, a doctor practising in Saudi Arabia. “It cost me Rs 2 to post a letter that would reach my brother in 15 days,” he says. He compares this to the present. His son is in Saudi Arabia and although it takes only a minute to call him, the effort, patience, and happiness involved in writing, sending, and receiving a letter is priceless.

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Mohammad Yousuf Reshi, a postman who has been delivering letters for the past 25 years, looks back on his journey with nostalgia. He says that the charm of letters has now become history. He says, “About 15 years ago when mobile phone services were not available to everyone, people used to wait for us eagerly. The moment we knocked on their doors and handed them letters, their faces would light up with joy. We used to celebrate their happiness and share their sorrows.”

With the advent of technology, the anticipation of a postman’s arrival has disappeared. For Yousuf and many others like him, the decline of letter-writing marks the end of an era.

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Some Good News

However, there is another side to this story. Many young people today believe that the art of letter writing should not vanish. Afreen, a 26-year-old from Srinagar, loves to send and receive handmade letters. She says that digital communication can never convey the emotions letters can.

As the trend of handmade letters has become increasingly popular among youngsters, Nazrah Khan, 22, decided to start her small business called ‘Made for You by Naaz’. She makes customised handmade letters that people can gift each other. Khan started her business in March 2023 and has received a great response from her friends and customers. Khan believes her business is a way to keep this tradition alive while also providing a unique and personal experience for her customers.

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“The emotions you feel while opening a handwritten letter from a dear one is much more intimate than the feelings evoked by a text message. The digital world can never give you the happiness of holding a letter, decorating it and sending it across,” she says. Khan is determined to make sure letters do not become a chapter lost in the annals of history. The legacy of writing letters must be kept alive.

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