In the early 90s, the run up to January was dominated by an important ritual in our house. Hidden in my Father’s briefcase among several other mysterious pieces of office stationary, would be a stack of white and blue cards, identical to each other in every way. The well-meaning organization responsible for this was the Indian Air Force, which in addition to a monthly ration of cottage cheese tins, onions, rice, sugar, custard ready-mixes, and other such essential survival supplies, also gave its devoted employees a free stack of New Year cards every year.
My Father had already been in the IAF for several years and my parents, as a result of our travels around the country and their gregariousness, had amassed a wide and varied collection of acquaintances and friends. We couldn’t possibly allow any of these good souls to start their year without a fond note from our family. Thus would begin the annual process of crafting a greeting card for everyone.
Not wanting to leave anyone out, my Father would collate a list of everyone-we-knew including their uncle, aunt, and dog. Then, he would begin writing happy-new-year wishes. Depending on the degree of closeness of the addressees to us, the cards would at times contain a personalized message; enquiring about each family member while informing them of the exciting occurrences in our household. My contribution to the whole affair was my beautiful signature which proudly stated my full name and my class at school. If I had a fondness for the recipients of the card, I would also draw some scenery and square people in the corner. On occasion, I was also allowed to sign instead of my baby brother, who at the time was more consumed by playing with toy cars than inscribing his name in greeting cards.
In return, we received New Year greeting cards too. These cards would be displayed in diagonally drawn ropes across our living room till we reached a common consensus that it was too late to be celebrating New Year and brought all the cards down.
Gradually, my parents’ social circles got smaller. We moved to South India, and with most of our relatives close to us, there didn’t seem to be a need for any extra communication. Around that time, we also got introduced to the Wonderful World Wide Web which made staying in touch with international relatives/friends a tangible and quick thing. So one year, without any discussion or drama, my family outgrew its lovely little greeting card tradition.
My parents’ collective attitude to communication and staying in touch has always been martyr like. Both place a high priority on remembering special anniversaries of their friends/family with or without social media. The goodwill is not always reciprocated, but without a grudge, my parents aspire to communicate with their loved ones, via any form of communication available to them.
Despite being exposed to all these enlightening experiences, my own approach towards staying in touch with my friends and family has charted out quite differently. I used to be a happy follower and creator of postal traditions. Writing letters and cards to all those who left me behind or who I left behind was an experience of patience and pleasure. Long gaps between letters were acceptable and a complete shift in paths and interests used to be treated with grace. But now, years later, some moments are still plagued with insecurities. Why would anyone not respond to my love filled e-mails, my well-meaning phone calls, my cheery messages on social media? Why would anyone fail to do these things when it was so easy to do them and so instrumental in improving our understanding of each other?
One of the most unusual things about London’s spring cleaning culture is that once people feel they have exhausted the lives of their possessions, they tend to leave those things outside their doors; most things in their senile stages; missing a leg and/or several screws/functional elements. But people still seem to want to give the object one last chance of either being forgotten completely or being picked up by a passing soul who felt the need for a moth ridden mattress or a broken desk.
Walking back home one evening, I noticed that there seemed to be a large number of things outside people’s doors that day. One of the houses, a white mansion, guarded by two cats, had a discarded sofa outside and as I looked at the sofa, I had an image of each one of my loved ones/ex-loved ones, boyfriends and all, sitting on that sofa and me placing the sofa outside with that person on it time and time again.
I thought about those New Year Cards we used to send out all those years ago and remembered something about them – there never really was a perfect equilibrium between the cards we sent and the cards we received. We got replies but we also got cards from some people who we hadn’t sent cards to in the first place. We deemed some people worthy of our good intent, while others deemed us worthy of theirs and many times, the two sets didn’t cross paths. The reason that my parents can stomach all the forgotten birthdays and missed phone calls with such good humour is that they have always understood this. That it doesn’t matter how easy it is to communicate. That all the immediate modes of communication around us have just made our lives more complicated and don’t necessarily enthuse people to contact you or respond to you. That however the world transforms, there may never be an equilibrium between the thoughts you send out and the thoughts you receive. We do these things because they are simple, give us joy and there is much merit in creating new traditions.
Perhaps there are far more easier and unspoken ways to cherish and nurture those relationships that are truly dear to you.
‘When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.
Let the voice within your voice speak to the ear of his ear;
For his soul will keep the truth of your heart as the taste of the wine is remembered
When the colour is forgotten and the vessel is no more.’
On Talking, Khalil Gibran