World Post Day: How My Mother Lost Her Voice as Emails Replaced Letters

First Person

World Post Day: How My Mother Lost Her Voice as Emails Replaced Letters

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

Google has a wicked sense of irony. Amid all the expendable memories that it has stored on my behalf in its cloud, is a set of digital images of a handwritten letter penned by my mother in her perfect Bengali scrawl. The letter is probably more than 15 years old. The “hard copy” is buried somewhere deep in the stack of consequential papers that document my birth, education, marriage and other milestones – a baggage that I have been lugging around for decades as I kept flitting between cities. This “soft copy” remains way more accessible – in my handset, in my head. I have to only look at the pictures to be reminded of the four words that define my relationship with my mother: “Bhalo theko, Anandey theko” (Stay well, stay in happiness).

Sometimes, when I miss my mother’s younger, healthier, happier self – the version of her that wrote letters to me – all I need to do is close my eyes and the beautifully formed letters apparate on an ivory parchment in front of my eyes. These letters are bright, luminous, and as distinct as the way she drapes her saree or wears her hair. Instantly, I feel transported back to my cold, dark apartment in Delhi’s Mayur Vihar, the last candle burned itself out by the bedside as I shivered under two layers of insulation. I was on my own for the first time in my life. Terrified and homesick, I was regretting my decision of rushing into the cold, indifferent arms of the city that could never be home. That evening also marked the third day of a massive power-cut torturing the neighbourhood. 

But all my worries disappeared the moment I noticed a long white envelope peeping from my bright red letterbox. Instinct told me that it was from my mother. You see, my father preferred emails, rather, Hotmail. My mother, on the other hand, was delightfully old school in her preferred modes of communication. 

As I read the letter in my freezing room, I could visualise my mother sitting at a table somewhere in our old house and writing the words on a piece of paper. Perhaps a faint smile danced on her lips as she thought of me. Perhaps her eyes were moist with affection, even though it must have remained hidden behind her thin, gold-rimmed spectacles. In that four-page letter, she told me how much she missed me. How my little bed in my little corner of the house waits for my homecoming. And how I should eat well, sleep enough and not take on too many responsibilities. More importantly, in my obsession with trying to make everyone happy, I should not ignore my own happiness. 

That night, the letter remained under my pillow, giving me all the warmth I needed to survive the nightmare that was Delhi. It was not the first letter that my mother had written to me – I have watercolour memories of her shorter notes written to me when I was younger and my parents travelled for weeks. 

With time, those long handwritten letters in chaste Bengali which detailed a day in her life and distilled a gamut of emotions in a few fine lines of verse, was left behind.

But that letter was one of her last. 

My mother’s health began to fail. The letters began to trickle, and then eventually stopped. I moved cities again. All communication between me and my family and friends started moving to email and messages. These were mostly in English. Maa preferred Bengali. She failed to keep up with either SMSes or social media. With time, those long handwritten letters in chaste Bengali which detailed a day in her life and distilled a gamut of emotions in a few fine lines of verse, was left behind. 

If you ask me now, I might not be able to pinpoint exactly when it is that I outgrew my mother’s letters. But the realisation that my life was going to be forever lacking in the salt of her written words dawned on me when her memory began to play hop-scotch with her, thanks to diabetes-related complications. Her legendary grip on the pen became unsteady and making her way to the post office to drop a letter was no longer easy for her.

Paradoxically, this was also the time when everyone else in my family, including me, was communicating much more with the world at large. The faster we jumped from one platform to another, one OS to the other, the quieter she fell. We betrayed very little patience or time for someone who preferred her life to play itself out in languid slow motion, who wanted to communicate instead of chat. Every time she called and began to start a conversation just the way she would have written one of her letters, I would cut her short. “Mom, I have a deadline. I have a meeting. I have to be somewhere. Can you cut to the point? Can you cut it short?” I was deaf to her anguish at that time. But I hear it all the time now: The crushing hurt at being interrupted, not being permitted to tell her story the way she wanted to. The world around her was only speaking in the alien language of abbreviations and acronyms. She retreated irrevocably into a shell of monosyllables. 

My mother and I live in the same city now. We speak at least once every day. I know everything I need to know about her physical well being. But not a day goes by when I wish I had a clue about what is going on in her beautiful mind.

These days, the only time my mother uses a pen, is to write a cheque. Or to convince her doctor that Dementia or Parkinson’s has not gotten the better of her… yet. She writes her name beautifully. But that’s about it. I’d give anything for her to keep writing on that same piece of paper. Tell me how I should eat well and sleep enough. And how much my little bed in my little corner still longs for my homecoming. 

Now that I am desperate to read all that my mother has to say, she has run out of words. And the world, out of time. Life, not just Google, has a wicked sense of irony.