An Epistolary Relationship For The Ages

Shortly after I finished high-school I bade goodbye to a good friend. He was headed to the United Kingdom, to join his father–he had taken up a job with a civil engineering firm. My friend would, so to speak, ‘repeat’ high school; he would take his A-levels and then seek university admission. I was sad to see him go; he had been a constant companion, providing a nerdy interlocutor for conversations about cricket, music, science, and of course, girls. We had cut school and harassed teachers together; we had fretted about life after school together.

But all was not lost; we could write to each other. We resolved to do so. I was not lacking in confidence in my letter writing abilities; I had, after all, spent two years in boarding school and built up a diligent correspondence with my mother, and over the years I had often exchanged letters with my grandfather. I had some facility in the art of writing a letter.

And so it came to be. For five years, from 1984 to 1989, as my friend finished his university education, we corresponded regularly. We wrote letters by hand, sometimes on plain sheets of paper, which were then folded and stuffed into vintage airmail envelopes–the ones with those colorful, seemingly serrated, blue and red borders–and sometimes, more conveniently, but less thrillingly, we wrote on Indian postal service aerogrammes.

My friend wrote to me about his school, the friends he made, the music he listened to–the kinds of things boys and young men in the making talk about. We discussed the Indian cricket team’s fortunes; we lamented sporting failures; we crowed over sporting glory. We ‘talked’ about the movies we had seen, and sometimes, in a nod to our growing maturity, we offered each other commentary on the world’s geopolitical state.

I looked forward to his letters; I presumed he did the same on his end. The sight of that aerogramme, the airmail envelope, marked with the distinct impress of her Her Majesty’s Postal Service and my friend’s stylish, busy handwriting, never failed to produce a little thrill. I would tear open the flaps, making sure not to destroy the missive visible within, and then, eagerly read through its contents.

I left India in 1987, but our correspondence continued. My address, my zipcode, changed; my friend’s did not. Now I typed up my letters using the fancy word processors whose use I had recently mastered; I used laser printers to produce gleaming printouts on fancy white paper; my letters sped across the Atlantic, powered now by the US Postal Service. Besides his letters, my friend sent me newspaper cuttings with cricket scores, commiserating with the sad deprivation I was now subjected to in the Land Without Cricket.

Early in 1989, we both switched to email. Later that year, my friend moved to California to begin his graduate studies. We continued to write but the frequency of our correspondence began to trail off. We met each other on our trips to the East Coast and West Coast; we spoke on the phone.  Later, after finishing business school in Boston, he moved to New York City and began work, first with a management consulting firm, and then later, with an internet startup. He got married; he had two children. Our lives steadily grew apart; I was a graduate student and an academic; he was a businessman. He once suggested my failure to respond adequately to a message from him indicated we had grown too far apart; I said I did not think so, and shortly thereafter we met again for a drink. All seemed well.

Last year, after my daughter was born, he wrote me an angry email, asking why he had not been sent a birth announcement, why I had not visited him in India on my last trip there. I wrote back, pointing out the only announcement I had made had been on Facebook, that I had not informed anyone on an individual basis, that my trip to India had been consumed by familial commitments and even some legal hassles. My explanation did not seem adequate to him; he did not write back. I have not heard from him since.

But I have not forgotten his postal address from those five years of sustained correspondence: 102 Wandle Road, Morden, Surrey, SM4 6AE UK.

Then, The Eagerly Awaited Letter; Now, The Notification

Every weekday of my two years in boarding school bore witness to the implacable ritual of the mail from home: run to the teacher’s staff-room, ask for the day’s letters and postcards–sorted into piles corresponding to your ‘house‘–and then, surrounded by eager supplicants, call out the names of the lucky ones. At the end of it all, some schoolboys would walk away beaming, a letter from home eagerly to be torn open and read; yet others walked away crestfallen, left to look on longingly on those who had been lucky enough to have been the recipients of those postal missives. Perhaps our family had forgotten about us; perhaps we were ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps we did not matter; we were not important enough to be written to.

After I left boarding school, I continued to correspond with some friends by mail; I waited for their letters too, with some of that old eagerness. I would run down, time and again, to our building’s post-box, looking to see if the postman had brought goodies. This search was suffused with an irrational longing; I would check even the day after I had received a letter from my most frequent correspondent, somehow hoping he might have written two letters in a row. Sometimes I would check multiple times in a day when the the post-box remained empty; perhaps the postman had been late on his rounds, perhaps there would be two deliveries that day.

When I moved to the US, my mother wrote me letters regularly. The nightly check in the post-box, or, if my roommates had returned home before I did, on the table in the kitchen, quickly became another persistent ritual. I wanted to read her words, see her handwriting, establish contact with someone I had left behind, who I knew longed for me, and who I longed for in turn.

I never quite got over that craving for that touch, that contact, that reminder that someone had reached out.

The years rolled by. I discovered email. And the checking, the search for confirmation, grew and grew. Now, I check email–on all four of my accounts–constantly. There is a work account, a personal account, a blogging/social media/Twitter account, and lastly, an old work account, that for some inexplicable reason, I have not shut down. And there are Facebook notifications, Likes, comments, link shares, mentions, replies; there are Twitter mentions, retweets, favorites, replies. I check and check and check. On and on and on. It’s the first thing I do in the morning; it’s the last thing I do before I turn in to sleep; it’s what I do in the middle of the night if I cannot fall back to sleep after being disturbed–perhaps because of a bathroom break or my wailing toddler. (Like last night.)

I look at my inbox and see the count is at zero; my heart sinks. I see there are only spam or administrative emails; I am enraged. I post a link to a blog post and see no ‘likes’, a minuscule number of views; I am crestfallen.  I see no replies to my tweets, no mentions; I feel anonymous and ignored.

But when people do reply, and I reply, and they reply, and on it goes, I’m exhausted and seek to withdraw. Words spring to my lips but I feel too weary to transmit them through my keyboard back ‘out there.’ I crave attention and then shrink from it when it arrives. I want to ride this train, but I want to get off too.

I’m neurotic.