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Lives of a Letter

One day at the dinner table, over a whole lot of biryani and mutton curry, my best friend asked my parents how they’d met. My dad, as always, described their story as an “arranged-love marriage”. I’ve heard the tale countless times and the setting of its narration is almost always the same: some guests are home for a meal, everyone’s done eating, and there are remnants of laughter and strange feelings of longing around the room. It’s late, there’s mellow music and someone or the other will ask my parents how they met, expecting a cheesy high school romance or an anecdote of rebellious eloping. But it’s as simple as— my parents' families introduced them to each other; upon meeting the families came to the conclusion that they would not get along; she was far too shy and him, far too outgoing and hence, dropped the marriage proposal. My parents however continued to stay in touch via letters, a practice they adopted into the early years of their marriage. Secretly, without the knowledge of their respective families, they snuck out for lunch to a historic restaurant called Buhari Hotel and decided that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. So, a little exchange later, two simple people fell in love and here I am, trying to uncover many interwoven emotions I’ve grown up with, as a result of always being surrounded by a love that is good and like I said, above all, simple. 

The letters exchanged between the two of them date back to the early 2000s, when both my parents were at the end of their medical studies. They are written using blue ink on paper that has now faded to form yellowing edges and frailing corners. They’re stored inside khaki and cream-coloured envelopes, though not fancy, the kind that has a special kind of magic of their own. All the letters in the little bundle my mother holds in her hands are brimming with doctor’s handwriting— incorrigible and messy but full of love and hope. My mother opens a few and lets me read them, the paper feels soft against my fingers.  I can’t help but think about how their versions of being in love in India back then are so different from mine. They were written during a time when Post-Independence India was opening up to countries abroad and thriving— this was a time when anything seemed possible. A girl and a boy, both from middle-class backgrounds could achieve their dreams of ending up together: through the (affordable) art of letter writing.

My mother says that she wasn’t too keen on writing as a practice because her childhood never required it. Before marrying my Dad –  Appa as I call him affectionately –her whole life could be wrapped up within her neighbourhood in Madurai. In contrast, Appa and his brothers were made to write practice letters to their friends, family and sometimes, even public figures like the Prime Minister. In Appa’s case, a daily ritual manifested itself into a hobby that gave him enough space to be vulnerable and pour his heart out. Although Amma only began writing in fluent English post-marriage, she says that she’s always kept mementos from different stages in her life, which taught her that deep meaning is embedded in the simplest of objects. Every time we travel to a new place, she will make sure to buy a keychain and a magnet, to put up on our already overflowing-with-travel-tokens refrigerator door.  

Some of the papers have Appa’s official letterhead on top, he says that it was an intentional move to impress Amma and that most of his actions back then were deliberate in the sense that they were always aimed at making her smile. However, it wasn’t the letterhead that caught her attention of Ma; it was Appa’s way with words. He’d always find the perfect concoction of words to put his feelings into sentences— something she learnt to do from him. She loved that he’d write about their future together; how many kids they’d have, the kind of house they’d live in and the life they’d go on to build. Amma tears up as she says, “All we wanted was a good family and a good home. Reading all these letters now makes me so nostalgic because we actually built this life for ourselves; something our younger selves wanted so badly.” 

Our generation often defamiliarizes and romanticizes concepts like letter writing as a love language. Defamiliarization, in this context, means taking something familiar or mundane, like a chair or a horse, and making it seem utterly unfamiliar and strange by virtue of how it’s described. When you become too accustomed to the things around you, they stop seeming extraordinary; when you step back and reflect on how rocking chairs, televisions, or markers work, though, imagine that you are describing them to someone who has never before seen them, they begin to take on an air of magic, of the marvellous, and the true strangeness and wonder of the world around us begins to feel visible again. (Bellot, 2022) We’ve defamiliarized letter writing to an extent where it is not the mode used to tell someone you love them anymore; social media-based culture has taken over our lives. This is why, when someone in our so-called “emotionally unavailable” generation decides to sit and write a letter, we romanticize the activity in order to retain its charm. Appa says that the joy of receiving a letter is unmatched, even in this day and age. When I asked him why he stopped writing letters to Ma, he says that they’ve both embraced technology— they text on WhatsApp and FaceTime when they miss each other now. 

But the life of a letter is never-ending. After our discussion, my mother stacks the letters up against each other and ties them up using a small thread of gold string, puts them in an old wooden box and places it at the back of her cupboard, behind all her precious saris and jewellery. She locks the cupboard carefully and I’m left with a sense of fulfilment and compassion.