Humour: From text to text messages, the lost signs of letters
“Austin is the sort of person who feels he can change the world by writing a letter.” So says an Iris Murdoch character in her novel, An Accidental Man, of the titular character. The line made me pause. I’ve been that man in my time, with slightly less facial hair. The kind who writes a letter with such heartfelt emotion and linguistic rigour that the world ought to bend to its will. The world, sadly, is not the ideal reader. And letters remain unanswered as much by humans as by cosmic forces.
The case of the missing letter
So, many wish-fulfillment dreams revolve around letters written and received, like in those sappy epistolary novels of the 18th century, or Bollywood family dramas from a few decades ago. The idea of that perfect letter, addressed to the right person at the opportune moment, that somehow gets misplaced, or intercepted by the villain of the piece. When it is finally found, everything is better. Misunderstandings are cleared and forgiveness is granted as sender and receiver walk hand in hand into a magical sunset. But no more! Pithy WhatsApps and cute emojis are great substitutes for tear-streaked letters, whether hand-posted or emailed. Even better: use telepathy. It’s free, there are no logistical hurdles, and you can edit the contents of a message even after it has been read.
Already the days of receiving physical letters have acquired a touch of sepia. The long-awaited lines from a lover. The unexpected postcard from a travelling friend. The acceptance letter from a university. Even a rejection slip from a magazine. Something that can then be pressed between the pages of a book and accidentally discovered years later to much delight, like that one potato wedge in an order of fries. Or stringy gum under the arm of a chair, as the case may be.
Saved as draft
“Adulthood is emailing ‘sorry for the delayed response!’ back and forth until one of you dies,” tweeted writer Marissa Miller in 2016, to much fanfare. Truer words haven’t been typed about that unique feeling of dread as your fingers hover over the keyboard, wondering how your obscene delay in response can be justified. One good way, dear respondent, is to paste the tweet quoted above. But it comes with its own limitations: it can only be used once per person.
The more brazen among you (read myself), might think nothing of replying to a long overdue mail, completely ignoring the time lapse. What might to some seem arrogance is actually deep remorse strutting about as innocence. Psychologists are still mulling over a good name for this deeply distressing condition. I’ve been meaning to write to a shrink about it, but I just can’t seem to get around to doing it. The one thing I do know is that few people really care, in the end, how many weeks or months your reply is late by. The relief of renewed contact with a friend far exceeds the awkwardness caused by one’s tardiness.
The challenges of conducting a successful personal correspondence are many. Among these, is the matter of how to address and sign off a mail in a way that suitably captures the relationship dynamics between the two parties. Like those zealots who stress about the perfect emoji (eg., heart balloon vs loved-up eyes, raised eyebrow vs Munch’s scream), some of us routinely agonise over the Dear vs Hello question, like characters out of a high school grammar teacher’s dream. And when someone is extravagant in their addressal, using superlatives like “darling” or “dearest,” how do you reciprocate without being insincere?
Then there’s the question of the sign-off. Would “Cheers!” sound too trivial? “Best” too abbreviated? “Warmly” too warm? It gets tougher when you’re writing to “growner-ups”, those a rung or two higher than you on the ladder of age. Aunty sounds too cheesy, but the alternatives are too intimate. It feels like all of one’s thoughts about the relationship need to be neatly summarised by these few symbolic words, and they’re never good enough. All I know is that one should try hard to resist the temptation to go with Gmail’s Smart Compose suggestions. They might be helpful but that doesn’t stop them from being presumptuous.
Yours (almost completely) sincerely.
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From HT Brunch, July 26, 2020
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