SOAKED in the ink of love, the familiar handwriting, fragrance of home that emanates from the crisp piece of paper, the smile on the lips when the envelope is opened…a letter evokes a multitude of emotions and a flood of memories. For people of India and Pakistan, catching a glimpse of one of their own depends on stringent visa norms and trains and buses that are stopped on and off, with no clear indication about what’s going to happen the next hour. And in this uncertainty, a thread of love that survived 72 years of hostility, was postal exchange, khat, chitthi.
The power of handwritten words gleams like the sun in the times of E-mails, WhatsApp and video calls, even on dark, gloomy days. That ‘khat’ preserved in a book like a dried rose spreading fragrance and many memories, that impatience to read it and then never getting tired of reading it again and again, letters have made people survive borders, drawn on maps and in their lives.
On a late September evening, 2019, history was on the verge of being made, with the excitement about the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor marking Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. But in the midst of the celebrations, a distorted WhatsApp call from Pakistan informed me about another history that was already made, without a noise, without any mourning. Before the historic Kartarpur Corridor opening, people to people contact between India and Pakistan touched another low and there were no alarm bells, no whispers, just a quiet burial.
An editor of a local Punjabi magazine from Lahore, with pain and sadness in his voice, informed, “Pakistan ne India naal postal lain den band kar ditta hai. Saade rasaale waapis aage ne. Pehlan kadi ni hoya.” (Pakistan has stopped postal exchange with India. Our magazines have been returned. This never happened before). He added, “Bade dukh di gall hai, oh vi jado aapa Baba ji da saadey panj sau saala bana rahe ne (This is too sad, that too when we are celebrating Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday).”
The extra cautious journalist inside me replied, “No sir, you must recheck. There must be some other reason for the magazines being returned. Had India and Pakistan stopped postal exchange, it would have been all over the media.”
He insisted that I should check and verify the news on the Indian side. The next day, the India Post officials confirmed that Pakistan ‘unilaterally’ stopped postal exchange with India without any prior notice. And thus, the one surviving link that had spread love on both sides, was snapped too.
In fact, Pakistan had stopped accepting mailbags in the last week of August and for one long month there were simply no questions, no protests, just a quiet burial. Despite getting official confirmation, I decided to check again, for I wondered how nothing was reported or said on the matter. But the news was true. Those khats and chitthis gathered dust in post offices on both sides, and those eyes waited for replies, clueless if the letters had been delivered. Many questions, but no answers, just another quiet burial.
In the two countries, where everything, from Kashmir to UN speeches, from cancelled cricket matches to censored movies and even pigeons or balloons entering each other’s space became ‘news’, an intricate thread that spread love and hope was snapped, but it did not qualify as ‘breaking news’. Televisions did not scream, online sites did not flash and there were no debates, just a quite burial.
“Aaj ke zamaane mein chitthiyaan koun likhta hai…?,” a ‘modern’ 21st-century mind will surely ask here. It may be a grave mistake to underestimate the power of handwriting, even in the times of chats and keyboards, handwriting still invades many hearts and the words blur the borders. Some from both the sides have kept the link of words alive.
I remembered Kewal Dheer, an Urdu writer from Ludhiana but born in Lahore, who waits for his raakhi to be delivered every year on Raksha Bandhan from Pakistani novelist Bushra Rahman, a ritual that has been going on since 32 years.
I remembered Amy Singh, a young poet from Chandigarh, scripting a new bond of love- writing and posting letters to the General Post office (GPO) Lahore with the initiative ‘Daak: to Lahore With Love’.’
‘Dear Lahore, How are you?…Dekho na main sarhadon ko saraab kar aayi hoon, faraaz ne kaha tha so dosti ka hath barha aayi hoon! Lahore will you hold it?,’ she wrote to Lahore and soon her initiative turned into a campaign.
“Hum apne lafzon se aisa galiyaara banayenge, jahaan hum bekhauf milenge aur milte rahenge,” reads another letter to Lahore.
“So many people posted letters to the Lahore GPO and even to people who shared their addresses with us on social media and even they wrote back. But most of those letters never reached, as postal exchange was stopped. So many people from Lahore also wrote back to us, but we never received any replies,” reflects Singh.
Braving the oceans of hostility that have been nurtured for over seven decades, those letters of love would somehow cross the borders. But when they couldn’t this time, there was no uproar, just a quiet burial.
In this 21st century, where technology has moved ahead of us, there are some who value the effort behind those handwritten words. I had realised it this year when a friend of mine in Chandigarh would have a different spark whenever I would say the word handwriting. “What fascinates you so much about this word,” I would ask and his reply, “Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder. Not everyone can see it!” And when I wrote a handwritten birthday note to him, he described it as “precious”.
For many, those few envelopes and postcards that still bring love between both the countries and are preserved for life in someone’s heart, the Daak must live on. And when on November 23, after three months, mailbags were again exchanged at Wagah, I recalled a couplet by Mirza Ghalib — ‘Qasid ke aate aate, khat ik aur likh rakhun, main jaanta hoon jo vo likhenge jawaab mein…’