In the Indian Railways, presenting bouquets of flowers to visiting dignitaries was banned three months ago. Now, employees will no longer be allowed to exchange greeting cards either. Officials said this New Year, an e-mail greeting or SMS should suffice. According to newspaper reports, this is the latest in a string of directives from the board Chairman Ashwani Lohani and Railway Minister Piyush Goyal to banish pointless ostentation.
One can only wonder why it took the Indian Railways so long to realise that greeting cards are no longer trendy. Most of English speaking India ditched the culture of sending ‘Season’s Greetings’ at least 20 years ago. It was one of those things that slowly began fading away, like the Kodak film you bought for a camera, or a CD, or a photo album. If you’ve lived long enough, you can see the graves of so many businesses that were so huge in the ’90s. Back then, New Year cards were de riguer. They were proudly displayed in homes during the festive season, as an indication of your network and popularity. Then began the magical growth of greeting cards for every occasion: Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. For young adults, a subset had sprung up — the naughty card. It carried a paragraph inside without any cheesy declarations of love, but coy allusions, ideal for somebody more comfortable with leaving lots unsaid. The equivalent of today’s ‘It’s Complicated’. My generation did not have the love letter but these cards were an acceptable replacement. Paper is at least a real souvenir, the loss of which marks a permanent shift from a gentler time.
You know it’s finally the death knell for greeting cards when the tradition has been done away with even by a lumbering institution like the Indian Railways. Cards are a waste of paper. Especially if they’re being sent as a PR exercise. They barely register in one’s memory and most people chuck them within seconds of opening. In fact, today’s 20-somethings can’t imagine , there was a time people went to the trouble of writing in a card, affixing it to an envelope, and then went to find a red letter box to post it. My teenage son thinks of stamps as something quaint, to be collected. A throwback to the era of the pre-stamped blue aerogrammes where you wrote in your tiniest handwriting to fit in the prescribed space. No doubt, we have gained with technological advancements. Mobile phones have been fantastically liberating. When you can instantly video call someone a million miles away for free while not degrading the planet, one can’t help but think that nostalgia for handwritten notes and cards is somewhat misplaced.
Except, you don’t always want to FaceTime but you wouldn’t mind giving someone a friendly nudge, a reminder that you exist. It’s a very old fashioned way to keep in touch. For the recipient there is a delicious novelty about a card, even if it carries just one affectionate line written in ink. Often it’s linked to personal history, something an e-mail just can’t capture.
For one, e-mails rarely begin with ‘dear’ or end with ‘love’. They’re not thoughtfully written, and nowadays are often littered with incomprehensible emoticons. It can be hard to interpret what a Hmm or a twisted smiley face actually mean. Texts, WhatsApp’s and Facebook chats are fantastic in their immediacy but too easy to delete. The argument that paper cards are wasteful is completely true, and the e-card is a legitimate substitute. It is, after all, the thought that counts. In ten years, cards will probably be consigned to history, another custom lost to the march of time. Still, it is worth remembering that in a largely digital world, physical symbols, even if they’re just fragments of paper, have their own special value.