As the last century drew to a close, we inhabited a world where our primary means of long-distance communication was written – those were the days of hand-written letters, light blue, seventy-five-paise inland letters to be precise.
While phones (landlines, not mobile phones, which did not become popular until the turn of the century) were fairly common, for those of us who stayed away from home (in hostel, pursuing a Master’s degree in a University in a city hundreds of miles away), the only way we could speak to our parents was from one of the ubiquitous ‘STD booths.’ No – these were not kiosks that peddled sexually transmitted diseases. Rather, they were small business establishments run by enterprising individuals with telephone connections. They would allow you to make long-distance calls (or STD calls, as the all-knowing Department of Telecommunications had decreed they would be called. The STD stood for Subscriber Trunk Dialling, an appellation that made no sense whatsoever except to the departmental mandarins who mandated it.) on their telephones, to which there would be meters attached. Like a cab’s meter, you could see the bill you were running up as you spoke to whoever it was you were speaking to. Since this was a relatively expensive affair, STD calls were reserved only for calls to parents (the reasons being more financial than filial) or to girl/boyfriends (the reasons being self-explanatory).
Since most other communications were not too urgent, they were carried out via the post office. Postcards would normally suffice (you could get 6 of them for less than a rupee, at 15 paise a pop), but if you were a bit more verbose, or did not like the contents of your missive to be read by the fourteen different people who would handle it by the time it reached its destination, you would spring for the relative luxury of a seventy-five-paise inland letter. The Post Office was a stunningly efficient organization, given its size, nature of employees and infrastructure. Within cities, or even within towns, your letter would get delivered within a day or two. If you used special post boxes labelled with city names, you were almost certainly guaranteed a next-day delivery. However, they also seemed to have an infallible algorithm which would figure out how important your letter was – and the alacrity with which it was delivered was inversely proportional to it. Nevertheless, we all managed splendidly with the Post Office, importance algorithm and all, sending applications, money orders, registered letters, parcels, subscriptions, inland letters, postcards and receiving letters of admission, letters of appointment (and disappointment), money, registered parcels, subscribed magazines (almost always mostly undamaged), inland letters and postcards.
It is in this world of Post Office communication hegemony that my tale is set. For those of you long enough in the tooth to remember the old inland letter, it was a work of art in its simplicity – you just had to fold it and stick a single flap, and the receiver just had to tear it open at the flap and you were in business. The nasty three-flap letter that replaced it was a travesty – you had to seal three flaps, almost always guaranteeing that the receiver would mess up the opening, tearing the folded letter instead of just the flap, and spend a lot of time trying to figure out what was actually written on the torn part. But, I digress.
My tale is set in the gentler times of the original inland letter – that little sky-blue messenger of good news and bad, that little seventy-five-paise miracle that instantly bridged thousands of kilometers, that little piece of stationery that ensured millions of us kept in touch and knew about births and deaths and marriages and all that was important to keep civilization going at a reasonably well-oiled pace. It was one such letter that was handed to me one morning as I was rushing to class. I instantly recognized my mother’s big, bold handwriting in turquoise ink in the address. As I stepped out of my hostel, I tore it open (not something I could have done with the later inland letter – that would have been a more careful operation involving perhaps a couple of helpers and several implements, and I could have said goodbye to any prospects of getting to class that day). As I tore it open, I staggered back by several steps. At the beginning of the letter was written, in the aforementioned big, bold hand of my mother, the word ‘Hell’.
I was literally taken aback by this, and was unable to continue reading any further. For you see, my mother is a God-fearing Christian woman, and does not use words like hell very lightly. She probably doesn’t even use such words very heavily. I was so thrown by this that I folded the letter and thrust it into my pocket, unable to take this blast of hellfire and brimstone from the mater. What had I done to deserve such damnation, I began to wonder. At this point, my peregrinations were interrupted by several of my hostel-mates making a dash for the university – if we didn’t get a move on, we would be late for classes. I allowed myself to be rushed to class, and I went through a rather rushed and hectic class day.
Through the day, the mystery of the broadly-scrawled ‘Hell’ at the beginning of my mother’s letter kept coming back to me. I hadn’t done anything particularly extra damning that warranted a confirmed trip to the devil’s abode. Maybe she had had enough of all the combined shortcomings I had in the religious department, and was giving me a warning of where I would end up if I didn’t mend my ways: Hell – that’s where you’re headed if you don’t… Or maybe this was a definitive statement of damnation: Hell – it’s been confirmed you’re going there… But then she was a conscientious mother, and wouldn’t give up on me so easily – so it perhaps was an appeal to get me to go to church. Whatever it was, it kept tugging at my mind through the day. My day was sufficiently filled with more pressing activity that I was not able to spend more than a few moments ruminating on the strangeness of the letter at any one time.
I got back to my room late that night. By this time, I had become a bit resigned to facing whatever was in the letter – I am quite sure I went through the five stages of grief before coming to this state. Denial: I’m sure she didn’t write that, but I saw it with my own two eyes, but she isn’t that kind of a person; Anger: How could she do this to me, isn’t she the one who is supposed to keep from going to hell; Bargaining: Maybe she is just saying it to get me to do something – if I look at it in the right way, it’ll be alright; Depression: That’s it, there is no way out, I’m going to hell, and my mother is sending me there with a first class ticket. I’m sure she’s told them to extra-sharpen the nails and super-heat the boiling oil; Acceptance: Whatever is, is. I will face this. Oh man – Kubler-Ross will personally come for me with a pitchfork if I keep this up.
In the end, it turned out to be quite simple and innocuous – in her hurry, my mother had left out the ‘o’ in her opening Hello, and it was a run of the mill all’s-well-here-hope-all’s-well-there-rub-oil-on-your-head-everyday-don’t-bunk-classes type of letter that all mothers everywhere write to sons and daughters everywhere.
Nevertheless, I had a very interesting day because of this, and though I am not the biggest fan of Milton (slogging through PL and PR in my BA did that), I tend to agree with him that “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”