Of Penpals and Of Lifelines
I received an email today – one that transformed my mundane Monday morning – a missive that reaffirmed my faith in human relationships, of something good done unknowingly, of appreciation and the power of human communication that makes a nonsense of physical distances. This rambling, meandering story explains all:
The penpal column of a sports magazine
I was fifteen, found myself in a new city, sans any friends to speak of and a trifle bored. It occurred that finding penpals to communicate with would be a good idea. Ergo my name, address, age and the rudiments of my interests (reading, cricket and music I think it was) appeared in the Penpals Column of Sportsweek magazine.
I remember my mortified brother asking me what I was up to (his friend had called up and pointed out the presence of Reena Kavina among the penpal hopefuls – something so not cool for the time).
What followed was a flurry of letters literally from near and far – some from crazy stalkers, some from people who genuinely wanted to forge new and meaningful connections, some who were after a ‘frandship’ of a very different kind.
There were letters each day, some of which I replied to, some of which I never looked at again and some of which I kept in a special bundle of ‘funnies’ because the writer’s rather tenuous grasp of the English language rendered the epistle uproariously funny (these to be read aloud to friends and family amidst much guffawing I am reluctant to admit).
Several idea exchanges ensued. Among these was a letter written in very small, very precise, neat and orderly handwriting. It was a newly commissioned officer of the Indian army. The prose as well as the griffonage easily made this missive the pick of the lot. He sounded intelligent, articulate, interesting.
This was to be the start of a connection that has endured for 25 years. While all the other ‘penpals’ have fallen by the wayside and I cannot even remember any names, this one endures.
A special friendship
He would tell me about his various (often dangerous) postings, but in breezy, conversational tone. He often sent me pictures – I used to especially look forward to those fat little envelopes as against the usual thinner envelopes or the blue in-land letters bearing the distinctive hand which I had grown to look forward to. He always signed off with “Adios Amigo”. Cute, I thought.
I would tell him about my extremely mundane life – starting out at junior college, making new friends, my beloved dog, long rambles in the woods with my father – and send him pictures as well.
After sometime we even met – he came home along with a colleague (to lend authenticity, moral courage; not sure what) bearing gifts. He happened to be in Pune at the time (doing a course in Khadki CME if memory serves) and so we met a few times and then he left and we reverted to the written word once again.
This lasted for several years. I remember sporadic letters even after I returned to Ahmedabad after 5 years in Pune. I am not very sure exactly when and why the correspondence petered out. It was a point in my life when I got busy with teaching myself to cook for me and my newly single brother, looking after my brother’s dog, partying and other frivolity. I was I suppose shallow enough not to pay heed to much else.
The end? Not quite
At some point however I got to know that my pelpal had become injured quite seriously, at some later point I found out that he had left the army. There were some phone calls that I remember at the time; at this point the letters had ceased.
It was many years later when I was in Bangalore, a much married mother of two and this old friend of mine resurfaced – via a networking site – don’t you know (how would any of us reconnect if it wasn’t for Linkedin and Facebook I wonder). A few polite email exchanges ensued – two old friends that happened to be in the same city.
We never met again, and didn’t find the need to restart that old friendship – perhaps we had become different persons, grown different and in different directions; perhaps got busy with other lives that didn’t quite correspond to that relationship between immature 15 and 21 year olds from 25 years ago.
The Thank You Note
Then this morning’s message put that old friendship of mine into vividly different, startling perspective. It was a small thank you note from my old penpal. Whatever for I thought to myself!
Turns out that those letters of mine had been something of a lifeline to a young officer – posted in Siachen at the time, bitterly cold, horribly lonely, utterly disorienting, terribly dangerous – sick-making Siachen. My letters found their way to that highest battlefield in the world and rather marvelously, my mindless verbiage actually made a difference to someone.
He said sorry that it took him 25 years to actually get around to thanking me. He thanked me for that semblance of normalcy that my letters imparted. The letters from his mother and my letters were apparently what made him want to live, to cling to life.
I am so humbled this morning – the tears are flowing pretty freely I am not ashamed to admit. If my letters 25 years ago made a difference, a small email did the same for me this morning. Thanks old penpal…