Letters in Post

I am sure many of you will remember a time when we used to wait patiently for the postman to deliver a much-awaited letter. The post was always capable of evoking strong feelings, at times it was a job interview or an appointment letter or it could be a distasteful invoice or bill to be paid, a long awaited letter from home or a most awaited and endearing letter from a loved one, which made your day or say the whole week. Those were simple things which gave you so much joy. Fast forward to today, most of the communication is done with little words and even less character, now it is a smiley here or a social media acronym there, sent uniformly & electronically. Granted they are much faster than snail mail, but the feel and individuality is long gone.

I still remember the post card, the cover (that was what the envelope was called) and the blue inland latter which we used as our communication medium (An airmail letter or a parcel were rare object, not regularly encountered). So much had to be crammed into that little space with our squiggly cursive writing and so, much importance was attached to one’s handwriting, for it was meant to mirror our soul and define character. My uncle used to castigate me with the comment that if the writing slant was towards the left you were a goner (his handwriting was to the left and he did pretty well, actually!). Fountain pens were a joy for some and a pain for others, the latter sort blessing the manufacturer of the ballpoint pen. In my childhood days, I even saw some types of pens (not the older quills though!) which had to be dipped in ink for writing. With pen and paper, you had to think out and plan each line before putting pen to paper, for scouring out a line and writing again destroyed the look of the end product and also reduced space. There were no auto correct or erase possibilities, no backspace or delete buttons as you can imagine.

Picture yourself, holding the pen or usually nibbling at its rear end, eyes screwed in focus, mind lost in thought, pen hovering or poised above the paper, eventually bringing the pen down, pausing for some moments till the thought and the words it formed moved the fingers into action, over the paper. The pen moved fast and furiously creating a masterpiece. Everything had to be right, and each writer had a preference to get it all correct, thin nib, thick nib or medium nib (called tip or point in USA), the ink was usually royal blue or black, sometimes blue black (I had decided to be a bit different and used turquoise blue during my college days!).

Good pens were like watches, always inherited and mine came from my father, a plump Green bodied Parker 21. Of course, grown up kids had their trustworthy standby Hero pen, but holding a Parker just set you apart, as the affluent thinker.

Decades later, when I was researching Abraham Ben Yiju’s letters from the 12th century, I could easily understand his predicament. As a calligrapher trading in medieval Malabar, he had no way of sourcing parchment or ink or quills. Malabar had only palm leaf ‘taliola granthas’ written with the iron stencil. The English term leaf and folio with reference to the printed word appear to be derived from palm leaf writing they observed in Malabar! So all of Yiju’s parchment was imported from Egypt, and he would use and reuse every bit of working space on it (light, grayish and thick paper). Replies came on the same parchment, and if space was still left, that would be used to reply a reply! It must have been tough for historians deciphering these Genizah scrolls, I suppose!

Back to pens, some held the pen’s nib slanted to the right, some to the left just to get that right thickness, some even wrote with the back of the nib to get the text super sharp! Older pens had leaks and you could see shirts with blotches or kids with stained fingers. Some pens had to be opened and filled straight into the barrel, some had these pump fillers (some side fillers had a lever pushing the rubber tube). Rare pens had filling pistons which were screwed in and out and as you all know, the very color of the barrel and the cap set the pen apart. Some pens had squeeze converters, some had pistons, some had built in piston filling systems, and the oldest of them all, using an external dropper or ink filler to transfer ink from bottles to the body! The material and the balance were not too important for us kids, though Europeans (and very rich people) spent fortunes to buy those masterpieces made with the right material and gold nibs. I was always happy with my dad’s Parker 21, which I still possess and used the workhorse pen mostly, the Chinese hero with its unique nib. Gold nibs, steel nibs, gold tipped nibs, double metal nibs, iridium tipped you name it, they had it in the market.

I wrote my first letters as a small boy growing up under the tutelage of my aunt and uncle in Calicut. As my uncle was a retired headmaster, you can imagine how strict he was in such matters. Now let me ask you a question, do any of you recall an object called the ruler? Not the colloquial usage for the footrule, or scale but a real wooden (usually teak or mahogany) highly polished cylinder, a foot long? Well, that was the device used for drawing lines, by rolling it along the paper and running a pencil along it!! Flat scales came later, in wood and eventually in plastic. Paper was always unlined, and the ruler was used to draw lines. Having them drawn equidistant was, as you can visualize, an acquired skill. And we had blotters to dry up the writing quickly.

Paper was not always white in our younger days; the highly bleached white variety of writing paper was a rarity. When ball point pens arrived, we were never allowed to even talk about it, they would as elders put it, not only destroy your handwriting, but also your character. It took many years before jotters (with imported jotter refills e.g. Parker) and ball points became commonplace, but they were not quite reliable in a tropical place like India, so much so when they stopped writing, we would resort to many tricks to get ink flowing, rolling the refill between our palms to warm it up, holding the tip to a flame, but only just… and inserting thin sticks in to release air locks! If that ink ever bled on your shirt, you had it! It could not be washed away, and it was eons later that we discovered the trick of asking a friendly girl in your class for a bit of her nail polish remover to get that mark off! It also presented many opportunities, as one could envision, though I suppose it may have been easier to ask your sister!

Unlike the west where pencils are still favored for school going children, Indians wanted their middle and high school kids to use pens and become gentlemen/ladies. I was trained in writing and keeping diaries (all thrown away, sadly) and writing often to my parents which I did. It was my dad who replied me; mostly in English, and his handwriting was not easy to decipher, but naturally, he was a doctor! My mother had a dainty handwriting, and thinking back both would write such beautiful letters, a bit of advice here and there and a lot of what was happening back home, relatives and all. My uncle was more stentorian, and his letters were short and to the point. There was a period when I was envious of my brother, he had a pen friend in Australia! Their letters told us about another world, far away!

College was fun and once I joined a silly pyramid scheme where you had to send a rupee to 6 people or something through a money order and I would soon see a torrent of money orders from all over the country, but the main intention was to go to the post office and eye that wonderfully beautiful lady we had at the counter. By now I had so many friends to write to, some of the fairer sex, and as you can imagine, it was a delightful period, exchanging thoughts through this medium.

My letter writing continued to flourish, during our courtship my wife and I exchanged hundreds of letters, keeping the post offices busy and it was only recently that we destroyed a whole tranche of them.

Soon ball point pens became the norm, and quickly thereafter, the roller ball pen. I did not let go of my fountain pen, though the ruler was long forgotten. As I started to work, the collector in me came out and my pen collection soared. I collected a variety, and soon I boasted of many a fine name -  Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Cross, Mont Blanc, Caran d’Ache, Rotring and many others. But by then I realized the sad fact that there was no commonplace paper supply available here in the USA for these fountain pens to write on (the ink spread!), simply put, to use them, you needed to buy special paper! As time went by, pens and ink bottles went out of fashion and vanished off the shelves of retailers like Staples & Office depot (Amazon still supplies them!), and ink cartridges became the norm.

During that forgotten era, clever analysts could figure out a lot about you, from your handwriting. Put simply, you could too, on a basic level, looking at a letter from person decide if she/he was sick or doing well, happy or sad. But there is much more if you were trained. Until quite recently, it was said that the way you dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s” would reveal hundreds of differing personality traits. There is so much your handwriting can tell, for example, outgoing personalities tended to write in large letters, whereas shy, introverted preferred small text! Experts opined that if you left spaces between words, you were the type who enjoy freedom, while those who squeezed or cramped their words together were the ones who liked companions around.

All through your school., your teacher may have stressed about how one should handle their i’s and t’s. Well, it appears there is some science behind it, though I doubt your teacher knew it. Seems (per the article by Juliana and Brittany listed under references), if you dot your “i’s” high on the page, you could be one with an active imagination while an “i” with a dot up close showed that you were an organized person! Furthermore, they say that if you dot your “i’s” to the left, you might be a procrastinator, one who put off things for later but if you dotted your “i’s” with a circle, you could be one with playful qualities.

Juliana and Brittany state that T’s are equally important, that if you cap off your “t’s” with a long cross, you’re could very well be determined and enthusiastic, and possibly even be one with stubborn tendencies. If you use a short cross, however, it could be because you’re lazy. If you cross you lowercase “t’s” up high, you likely have many goals and aim high. If you cross them low, it could mean it’s time to raise the bar for yourself; low crossers tend to aim low as well. A tight handwriting may mean that you are intrusive or have the tendency to crowd people. A right slant means you like to meet and work with new people, while a left slant means you prefer to keep to yourself. Left slanters also tend to be reserved and introspective. While a very heavy pen pressure can suggest tension and anger, a moderately heavy pressure is a sign of commitment. A soft pressure means you’re empathetic and sensitive; you might also lack vitality. A legible signature is a sign of confidence and comfort in one’s own skin, while an illegible signature is the mark of a private or hard-to-read person. Pointed letters are a sign of an intelligent person who might be holding back aggression. Rounded letters signal creativity and artistic ability.

There is more - If you write the letter ‘I’ (as a pronoun) much larger than any other capital letter, you might be arrogant. If the slant of your writing (or any other feature of your handwriting) changes dramatically over the course of a piece of writing, there’s a good chance you’re lying, according to handwriting analysis experts. If you connect your letters when you’re writing, it might mean you’re very logical and most of your decisions are based on facts and experience. If your letters are disconnected, you might be more imaginative, impulsive, and base your decisions on intuition.

After my dad passed away, my mom continued to write, and after she left us, there were no one else who wrote and with that letters ceased to arrive our homes, by post. Soon emails took over and they too are becoming a rarity with the abbreviated exchanges over chats and whatsapp’s. My children do not follow my cursive writing anyway, so that was it, no point writing to them in that old fashion.

Nevertheless, I think often of times, when I would be half asleep in my college hostel room, and I would jump up in joy as the postman slid a latter under the door. Or the joy when I returned after a long day at the office and opened the door to see a couple of letters lying on the floor behind it. These day the only stuff we get in our physical mail box are tons of junk mail, soliciting a variety of goods or asking for donations. As you can imagine, I grumble as I toss them into the trash basket and my wife tells me repeatedly ‘I know you like getting these in your mail box. If you don’t see any you complain about that too’! I try to reason to her that nobody writes real letters nowadays and she chides me saying ‘but then you don’t write to anybody, so how can you get a reply’! Yeah! She has a point.

Analyzing chatter from social media is a new science, especially how you could decide if a Tom is an introvert looking at the emoji he posts! Deciphering aimless Doodles is another matter altogether, and we will get into that another day. They say that as humans, we are designed to de doing things with our hands, to check out all around with our eyes, and walk or run distances. If we are not doing all that, we tend to fidget, fret and doodle whenever we are forced to sit still and inactive for a long period.

Some moved progressively from writing on paper to pecking away on a typewriter and are totally comfortable today fingering a computer keyboard. I believe I can write quicker with a pen, though transcribing or wordsmithing it back to a word processor will take more time. I tried jumping over to a software which would convert voice to text, but it refused to understand my accent properly and I gave up on it. Maybe, one of these days a good responsive stylus will arrive, and I will start to use it for freehand writing, not yet though! For now, I double finger my text laboriously, noisily tapping away on my keyboard and thankfully the results are not too bad, I guess, for I have a few readers who stick on….

My pens live a lonely existence however, most of them have never been used in ages and are in deep hibernation, resting beside a few ballpoint pens and a few mechanical pencils. Gone are the days of traditional letter writing, and the smart phone, PC and the Ipad have taken over our lives.

Now do you want to take up that idle fountain pen from the drawer, fill her up and write a page of stuff? Do it naturally and then apply the process detailed by Juliana and Brittany, see if it makes sense and post a comment. Some may think it is not all that scientific, that it is like palm reading, but there were global standards such as the ASTM E444-09 for Forensic Document Examiners and it is a science in itself.

If it does not interest you, don’t bother testing your writing, just punch in a comment anyway, I enjoy the interaction…

Here’s What Your Handwriting Says About You - Juliana LaBianca, Brittany Gibson - Readers Digest


Farewell to a Friend - S Muthiah (1930-2019)

We are not destined to meet some people and, in my case, S Muthiah was one of them. I have always held him in great esteem, high regard and in our various communications found him never to be distant or aloof, considering the stature he had in Chennai, a city he would have loved to and I still continue to call, Madras.

I had not spent a long time in Madras, but the few years I lived there, remain etched deeply in my mind. As a footloose, greenhorn electrical engineer working with Easun’s at Parry’s corner, I spent a lot of my spare time wandering through that sprawling metropolis during the early 80’s. Tamil, both its music and films, have always held a fascination, so also the vestiges of the British Raj. My parents and uncle had studied there and throughout my growing years, I had heard so much about the city and its character. Of course, the Hindu Newspaper was as omnipresent as filter coffee in Madras, and it was among those pages that I came across S Muthiah for the very first time, years ago. I continued to read his prolific output over time, and after the arrival of search engines, any research on a landmark or person who lived in Madras, usually started or ended with an article penned by Muthiah. Before long I had perused, referred or leafed through almost all his books for some reason or the other and was soon in communication with him on subjects of mutual interest. I posted one or two articles or essays on ‘Madras Musings’ and often Muthiah remarked about their length, gently suggesting a trim here and there. Our last communication dated March 11th was about Higginbothams, when I wrote to him seeking a small clarification, and as usual, the reply was definite and prompt. Interestingly, even with a wide disparity in our ages, our approach to the history of a land, almost always coincided.

He mentioned me now and then in his articles, once as ‘US-based ‘Maddy’ who tracks South Indian history and keeps me posted from time to time with his findings’. Another time, he wrote in the Hindu thus - Herbert Claus Friedmann was brought to mind the other day only by an item sent to me by Ullattil Manmadhan (Maddy to friends and the blogging fraternity), an electrical engineer settled in Raleigh, North Carolina, US. Maddy does historical research as a hobby and posts a wealth of little recalled Indian historical information on his blog site, often briefing me for this column before he puts up a long and detailed story on the site. Like you would imagine, those small mentions ‘made my day’ as they put it in this part of the world. Once he thoughtfully sent along a copy of a printed anniversary compilation of Madras musings, the post man as you would imagine, surprising me pleasantly, with that parcel from India.

A fascinating man, and I don’t think I need to mention his life’s work and achievements here, for all of you who know him, know it already! That was Muthiah, the ‘Chronicler of Madras’ a sobriquet he fully deserved. His columns ‘Madras Miscellany’, ‘When the postman knocks’ and of course ‘Madras Musings’ will continue with others stepping in, but the tone and the timbre of the prose will change, with the times. People like me will nevertheless miss that gentle and persuasive bent seen in his honest writing, reminiscent of a previous era, laced with a little bit of humor and always the right amount of correct fact.

Lest he frown at me from up above for a longer than necessary obituary, let me stop.

Muthiah – goodbye sir! and may your soul eternally rest in peace…

Pic courtesy – Madras Musings