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June 22, 2022

When Nostalgia Strikes: Why I (sometimes) Miss the Lost Art of Letter Writing.

Something weird happened a few days back.

It wasn’t the two years of the pandemic that made us all feel like we were living in some never-ending horror movie kind of weird, but it was enough to freak me out.

I got a postcard in the mail.

Yes. An actual postcard.

I’m not sure the last time I received anything by snail mail that wasn’t bills or junk mail.

The card was dated some four years back. And get this, it was written by me. And it was sent to me! What was weirder was that it was full of affirmations about how wonderful I was and how kind I should be to myself.

I’m still a little spooked by it.

Let me take you back in time to how it all came about. It was four years ago, on a Sunday in Shanghai, when I’d gone browsing around some local art galleries near Fudan University. I used to do that once a month: browse the galleries and finish the evening by ordering milk tea at this local café that sold greeting cards, souvenirs, tchotchkes, and, of course, tea. While my friends would order different types of tea, like chamomile, oolong, blackberry, mint, or matcha, I always stuck with the Indian-chai counterpart in Shanghai, which was milk tea.

As I waited for my hot beverage that Sunday, I walked upstairs for the first time. That’s when I saw that an entire wall was filled with these tiny enclosures labeled with dates like January 1, 2019, March 22, 2019, and so on. I later found out that each one of those cabinet inserts was a mailbox and represented every single day of the year. Yep, there were 365 such mailboxes. I also saw postcards inside most of these mailboxes.

Confused, I asked the café owners about it and they said that customers can buy these postcards for friends and family, write personalized notes on the cards, pay for postage, and decide when they’d like the postcards mailed to any part of the world. All you had to do was drop the postcard inside the enclosure with the date you wanted it mailed.

So, if it’s your mom’s birthday three months from now and she lives in the UK, you’d write her a postcard, allow for the postcard to take about a month to reach the UK, and place the postcard for a date of two months from now. Each day, the café owners take the postcards from that particular date and mail them all over the world.

That seemed like such an amazing idea. I was excited, not just because the idea was so sentimental and gave me all the feels, but because I wanted to send a postcard to a younger family member who had never received a letter or a handwritten card in the mail in her young life. She’d get birthday cards from friends and family, but they were always hand-delivered to her.

I remember a conversation I’d had with her once where it took her a while to even understand the concept of people mailing letters to one another. “But you live in the same country! Why would you write something on a piece of paper and post it? Why couldn’t you call them or email them or WhatsApp them?” she asked, flabbergasted.

She also never quite understood what the “big deal” was with mailing and receiving handwritten letters from friends or family. “Can’t miss what I’ve never experienced!” she told me wryly.

I knew I wanted her to experience the unparalleled joy of receiving a postcard, so I immediately wrote one to her. Then I picked and wrote cutesy stuff on five other cards to family and friends and dropped them in the mailboxes on the dates I wanted them mailed. Deep down, I did not believe that the postcards would find their way to their destination, but I gave it a shot anyway.

As I dropped my final postcard in one of the enclosures, the café owner asked me if I had mailed one to myself. When I shook my head, she picked one out and gave it to me. “It’s free!” she announced gaily, as she advised me to write to myself and say nice things, hence the affirmations.

From the seven I sent, two found their way to my parents in 2019. But none of the other five cards (including the one I wrote to myself) ever made it to their destinations.

And with time, I completely forgot about them.

Until mine arrived a few days back—four years later—randomly and out of nowhere.

As I touched and felt and read the postcard, I started to think about the lost art of letter writing. As much as I loved writing and sending and receiving them (when I lived in the states, my parents would send me these long letters, even though there was email), I couldn’t remember the last time I wrote anything with a pen or a pencil on a piece of paper. I am so used to writing everything on my phone or my laptop, from grocery lists to to-do lists to reminders to short stories to humorous limericks.

As my mind wandered and wondered about letter-writing, I also wondered about the joyride my postcard took to reach me after four years. I wondered how many countries it probably traveled through, the many people it probably met, the many smells it inhaled, the life experiences it had. And then I thought, Nah! Maybe it was just stuck in some postal facility for all these years and someone finally laid eyes on it and sent it to me.

Whatever happened to it in those four years, it was bizarre and a little spooky to get it out of the blue last week.

But once I got over the weirdness of it all, I had to admit: for someone who isn’t very nostalgic by nature (I’m hard-pressed to watch films and TV shows older than five years because I find them passe and “dated”) and loves being able to get in touch with people instantly via technology, the fact that I was so moved by a postcard surprised me.

“That just shows you still have a heart that beats, Roopa!” said one of my friends acerbically. “That you’re not fully dead on the inside!” Can’t blame my friend for her caustic put-down; as I said, I think shows older than a few years are boring and old.

But even for a non-nostalgic nutcase like myself, I was moved by this postcard.

Ping!

And just like that, my phone goes off with messages from students and colleagues, all of whom need something from me urgently. For a moment, it was nice to have escaped the reality of life to a nostalgia-filled time that used to be. But life calls, so I set aside the postcard and get back to my reality.

PS. The young family member for whom I started this journey never actually got her postcard. Well, not yet anyway, but after last week I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she’ll get it at least by the time her future child turns 21.

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