I cannot recall when I last wrote a letter on that cheap, yellowish, thick, cardboard-like paper. It was called the postcard. The Indian postal service was kind enough to provide a page and a half of writing space in just 25 paise. That is, barely a decade back. Even if it costs eight times now, it hardly matters to those who write letters. The problem is: very few actually do; and so, even fewer care about it, unlike the case of hike in railway fares where you find loud confused uproar from all sorts of unlikely politicians.
Well, returning to the question of ‘space’, anything you get for such a small price is actually like a football ground. So, cheerfully, you start writing, and very soon, you realize that there is a serious dearth of space. I will give examples of two opposite situations. During examinations, when I did not know the answers to most questions, I have been tormented by my invigilators: “Do you need an extra sheet?” I had to politely nod in refusal, while cursing him or her for such a sadistic attitude. And when I have been asked to summarize something exquisitely philosophical and esoteric, I did not have the liberty to use as many words as I like. In bold letters, is a warning: Word limit: 100 words! That’s how you feel when you write a letter on a postcard. You have to be overly cautious not to exceed the “space” limit. Thus, you cut short the interesting incidences you wanted to share with your septuagenarian Grandpa. Now, you cannot reduce the size of your already-tiny alphabets, bearing in mind his senescing eyes.
Plus, you have a format to follow; something you learnt in school and which earned you a few marks even if you left the body of your letter blank. It had to start with a “Dear” or “Respected” and end with a “Yours lovingly” or “Yours faithfully”. You say, that doesn’t take up much space? Think again! You have to leave spaces before and after these ‘special’ words, no matter how scarce the writing space is! To compensate for the lost space, you have to move from horizontal space to vertical, along the margins- left or right. The words push and shove one another to make space for themselves while the reader has an agonising time following the sequence.
Now that you have managed to somehow fit in words- the most unsuitable ones in the most unsuitable places as part of the space management- you have to worry about privacy. Yes. The postcard is an “open” letter; the postman can read it at his leisure while it is on its way to the intended receiver. So, one has to be cautious; in other words, if one intends to broadcast an “interesting secret” to the world, there is no better way than to mention the same in your postcard letter. The reverse page is shared between the concluding section of the letter, the address of the receiver and the postage stamp. And while you have a space crunch, you have to tolerate the address written in clean handwriting, enough spaces for the aging postman to read and deliver your “open” letter to the right door.
Having said all that, writing a letter on a postcard was a real test of your classroom learnings (remember, the elaborate format?), vocabulary (remember, shunning verbosity while resorting to brevity?), management skills (space, I reiterate) and ciphering ability (privacy issues, you know). This is in no way meant to insult a form of a once-very-popular system of communication: letter-writing. As telephone wires (and wirelesses) have gathered strength, the use of postcards has plummeted. And so have postmen. The khaki-uniform is barely seen riding the bicycle. You wrote a half-correct address and still the postman identified you by your name. He shared a relationship with your family not defined by the boundaries of PIN codes and streets. And he never actually read your letters (That was just to scare you off). He was a paragon of trust; simply exemplary. Compare and contrast: now, telephone calls are being tapped! We have certainly come a long way: from penmanship to articulation, from paper to radio and from trust to helpless doubtfulness.