When I was 9 I got introduced to the concept of having pen friends.
My primary school had two shifts – a morning shift and an afternoon shift. We wrote to and received letters from the person who shared the same roll number as us and who belonged to the other shift. All of us would hand over our letters to our class teacher who would then exchange them with the other shift’s class teacher. It was a fun activity, one that I certainly enjoyed!
The exchange of letters would take place on a weekly (or possibly monthly) basis. I remember feeling deeply thrilled the first time I saw my name written on an envelope. A letter addressed to me, solely to me; it made me feel so important! I remember coming home, finding a quiet corner and eagerly scanning those words an unknown hand had written for me.
As I read I started making inferences about my correspondent. Her handwriting was neat, so I assumed she must be a tidy person. The cursive script and the fact that she’d mentioned she liked drawing proved she was the arty type. And she was fond of sports. So I imagined she was someone tall and slender and had long fingers (because someone had told me all artists have long fingers). She’d also mentioned she liked to read (Bravo!) and was fond of dance (me too!). So now I added thick, long hair to my mental image of her. I imagined her running gracefully towards a chair and eagerly reading an Enid Blyton.
Over the days we got to know more and more about each other. It was as though there was a window through which we got a glimpse into each other’s lives. It was a bit like reading a story in installments, waiting expectantly for the next chapter, all the while wondering what the contents would be. There would be that feeling of satisfaction when I read about things having turned out well and pangs of disappointment when they didn’t. I got so used to the routine of writing and reading letters that I was completely brokenhearted when the activity came to a conclusion.
I met my pen friend in person at our Annual Sports Day. She turned out to be shorter than I’d imagined, had medium length hair tied in ponytails and was way, way prettier than I’d thought. And she was slender and did have long fingers after all! Judging by the way she was eyeing me, she too was checking how much I matched her mental picture of me. We beamed at each other and she promptly told me she thought I would be a bespectacled nerd, and she couldn’t believe just how way off course she was. Being a complete introvert, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I was talking with this girl, despite us never having actually met before. How beautifully our words had weaved a bond between us!
We drifted apart a few years later but the memory of this experience is still fresh in my mind. It made me hope that someday I’d have a proper pen friend.
When I was doing my B. Sc., I saw an old movie titled “84, Charing Cross Road”. Starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, it’s based on a book of the same name written by Helene Hanff, an American writer. It features two things close to my heart – a love for books, and pen friendship. The book is actually a collection of letters exchanged between Ms. Hanff and a British gentleman named Frank Doel who worked in a bookshop in London. What started off as an order for books slowly turned into lovely discussions on literature, and gradually into beautiful expressions of their views and their lives in general. The two became really good friends, the friendship lasting well over twelve years. Ms. Hanff also became friends with other employees of the bookstore and with Mrs. Doel; all through exchanged letters.
I love this movie! I’ve watched it quite a few times and I can still never get enough of it! The acting is top class. Moreover, I can identify with Ms. Hanff in so many ways – her love for books, her long, detailed, witty descriptions; her overall demeanor. She seems like a person I would have loved to be friends with. And, needless to say, I begin to daydream about having a pen friend every time I finish watching the movie!
I used to begin to daydream I should say, for in these subsequent years I finally have pen friends of my own! Both of them are seniors of mine. I initiated the friendship in one case, and my senior initiated the friendship in the other. In both cases we knew each other by face and name, but had never really talked much in person. In both cases the friendship has developed after they graduated.
The friendship I initiated began with a request for guidance. He was quite nice about it, and helped me a lot. We hardly realized when all the technical discussions, casual college banters and exchange of text-message forwards slowly turned into expressions of our dreams and hopes, of our triumphs and failures, of our joys and sorrows! We hardly realized when we became close friends, confidantes! We turn to each other anytime and every time we need support and we can always count on each other to be there for each other. He belongs to a culture different to my own, but not once has that stood between us. If anything, it has helped us to develop more respect for the varying ways of the world. It has made us more secular! And all of this is only through written words!
He was in the city a year ago for some important work. That was the first and only time we met. It didn’t feel so, though. Just as with the pen friend from school, we conversed with such ease, with such familiarity, that one would think we met regularly over a cup of tea! We resumed the conversation from the last messages we’d exchanged, actually hearing those oh-so-familiar words and phrases of each other’s we’d got so used to reading on the screen! When we said “goodbye” we both knew it was just “Au revoir! See you again through your letters!”
The other friendship is a recently developed one. My senior complimented me over my blog posts and we got talking. Both of us have a love for writing long, elaborate messages. So it is hardly a surprise that after a few conversations we began to feel as though we’ve known each other for ages! Without actually planning to, we’ve slipped into the routine of writing to each other on a regular basis, and to wait for the latest episode about each other’s lives; discovering new aspects of each other, revealing new aspects of ourselves, our words threading together a friendship we’ve begun to cherish deeply!
Pen friendships are special. They bridge the gap between people separated by thousands of miles, so much so that one doesn’t even feel the distance. There’s familiarity but also a sense of mystery. And most importantly there’s a deeper level of commitment. What could be easier than breaking a pen friendship, after all? All you have to do is stop responding. You are less likely to feel guilty about bringing tears to someone’s eyes because you’re never going to actually see them, are you? Which is why every new letter is a reminder that someone out there really cares about us, really wants to see us happy and is really, truly willing to find time for us.
Could anything be more amazing?!