One of the literary devices used by Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, in the second part of his trilogy River of Smoke, is the letter. I deliberately didn’t use the word correspondence because we see the missives of only one side: Robin, an artist sojourning in Canton in the 1830s, in the days prior to the First Opium War. Instead of describing directly the strange and exotic scenes, the food, the smells, and the lives of foreigners and locals in this cosmopolitan city during this period, Ghosh employs the character Robin to give his unique take on things. And there is no doubt that Robin’s amusing, minutely detailed letters greatly enhance the story, reminding us of an era when writing, and in particular, receiving letters, was a most pleasurable experience.
Many authors from earlier eras used this device, and indeed much of their own lives were taken up with letter writing. Genteel women, such as Jane Austen, like the women characters in her novels, would spend hours bent over their desks, dipping their pens into the inkwell and composing pages of news in a painstaking, cursive script. They would then fold the pages, place them carefully in an envelope, which they would then seal, and later walk sedately to the post office (or send a servant) to purchase a stamp and post it. The letter might take days, weeks or even months to arrive at its destination, depending on where it was going.
And imagine the excitement of the recipient when the postman brought it to the door, or she collected it at the post office. Although impatient to read it, she would wait until she was alone, or had finished her chores, sit at her desk and carefully slit the envelope with a letter opener. Out would come a number of thin folded sheets, which she would peruse eagerly. The letter might be from a relative, a friend, or even a beau. Like the letters she sent, it would be filled with news of small daily trivialities – the welfare of families, an outing, a book read, and mutual acquaintances.
Can we recall the last time we received a personal letter sent by the regular postal service (“snail mail”) − not a bill, a receipt or a promotional letter (and even these are in decline with the growing use of online services)? Probably about 25-30 years ago, which is not a great amount of time, considering.
In fact, when my family emigrated from Ireland to Australia, leaving all our relatives and friends behind, letter writing was almost the sole means of communication. Telephoning was used only in an emergency as it was very expensive and had to be done through an exchange. We would take pleasure in composing letters; even people with the most illegible hand would write them, since typing a personal letter – on a typewriter, not a word processor or a computer! – was considered impolite and used only for business purposes. Of course, deciphering letters from a friend or relative with illegible handwriting could be an interesting or an irritating challenge. For long-distance mail, we sometimes used aerograms, which limited the length of the letter, sometimes mercifully if we were forced to write to a relative that we didn't have much to say to.
Although emails can be used for personal letter writing, we tend to keep our correspondence to a minimum, never really elaborating on our news. Gone is the patience we used to have when writing letters to friends via the postal service. For, willy-nilly, we have been cast into the age of instant – instant communication, instant gratification. If we don’t receive a reply within a few hours, we frown in frustration and wonder whether our mail got lost in cyberspace or in the recipient’s spam mail.
While email and the internet in general have done wonders for communication, I would like, occasionally, to return to a slower era, when people had time for each other, paid attention to each other, and responded to their interests and concerns in a long newsy letter.