Friday, April 19, 2013

Blogging from A-Z: P for Past and Penmanship

I sometimes cannot help but wonder that succumb as we may to the general fluxion of the world, can we indeed totally jettison the past and all the elements related to it in our process of change. Doesn't the waves of the eternal sea that envelop us and drown us also contain iota of sandy particles gleaming with the essence of the past? I think they do for even full metamorphosis of nature and character can never take place unless a body rooted in past is laid “etherized” on the table of the present.

As a preteriest myself, one who collects antiques for her home and antiquarian memories for her writing, I feel the past has more to offer than we consider. It was the sniff of the past gathered from an article on penmanship I read this morning that led me to today’s topic of blogging discussion.

Think of those ancient letters, yellowed with age lying in dead-trunks and mummified-suitcases, those notes composed by some invisible hand dedicated to one or other member of your family, now dead. I have several of the letters composed in blue inland papers or yellow post-cards by my grandfather, who was a colonel in the Indian army, during his postings in the remote corners of India. Those letters written to my grandmother may be mundane notes of a daily and dreary army life, but they suggest his love for his family, his worries and apprehension; behind all the logic and realism, these letters were notes to his life and perhaps, and notes to my past. My grandfather is long dead and whenever I miss him I often read and smell those letters he left behind. In the quivering words and faded ink I see him, my grandfather in person. It is his handwriting that connects me with him.

Penmanship has a sentimental value to all of us. Those days in school when we were taught copperplate inscription technique, or perhaps when we wrote using our trembling hands our first inchoate and curlicued sentence: A for Apple or something, it was our handwriting that gave us a head start to our future. Among the Bengali people in India we have the tradition of Haate Khori (the beginning of writing). Devi Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, is akin to the Pierian muses of ancient epics in a more humble package, for she inspires knowledge and wisdom in all as compared to the select few the muses zero upon. And so, on the day of Saraswati puja (Basant Panchami, which usually comes in February near about St. Valentine’s Day, is the  day the goddess is worshipped), thousands of Bengali children under the careful supervision of their elders are given little chalkboards and chalks to curve their first letters. Thus the ritual initiation into the world of learning begins for the little ones. You can read more about the custom here:

As we get used to typing letters on our computers, we realize that the process is much easier and fast. But do we have a connection with the text we write? Maybe we do, but that connection is a virtual one, I believe; and like all the other virtual connections we have, it is limited and erratic.  You walk away from the computer and the relationship you had developed with your text is frayed.

The writer of the New York Times article mentions the book “The Missing Ink” where the author talks about the direct communication that penmanship establishes. But then I wonder in a world where most of our relationships are virtual, does penmanship hold any importance for its inmates. Of course, there will be enthusiasts of penmanship, a few people like you and I, who will miss having pen-pals and buying pens before examinations from stationary stores; nevertheless, we must agree that the formality of the tradition of penmanship is fast dissipating in the informal virtual set-up where the code words of texting (ROFL, LOL, BRB) have taken over like monstrous alien troops, the uncomplicated habit of penning our letters.

We do write however, on cheques and examination sheets and on post-its, but those are loosely constructed scribbles devoid of heart. When was the last time we wrote a note to a friend or exchanged pleasantries to a relative via the written medium? When I was a kid I used to exchange letters with my sister where I used to write how much she meant to me and how I loved her. She used to write me back and the process went on for a few years and then they abruptly stopped. We still have those letters and the greeting cards we exchanged with such platitudes printed on them as: “…if hearts are true distance doesn’t matter,” or “Make new friends but don’t forget the old, / because new is silver while old is gold.”

My sister and I often talk about those days and laugh at our foolishness, but then we do miss those times when all it needed to communicate one’s real feelings to a person was a piece of paper and a pen. And then there were love letters; I wrote a million to my husband and he, being a scientist, wrote me one, just one, before we got married. That letter is my treasure; and I am not sure if I would loved that one handwritten yellow sheet of lined paper any more than I do had it come straight out of a print machine.

My Lily and Waterman fountain pens

To keep alive my love for penmanship, I have adopted the habit of scripting my daily one hour of free-writing on paper. I have a leather bound diary wherein I write everyday using my two favorite writing instruments: a Lily fountain pen, which was a gift from my father, and another, an indigo-blue Waterman fountain pen. The Lily is very old but it still writes very well. The greatest fun apart from writing with it is refilling the ink. Of course, inks for fountain pens are hard to find nowadays in the metropolitan city I live in, but you do get them in certain stationary shops.

In conclusion, however much we try to diminish the exolete art of copperplate scripting or and penmanship, it will demand its existence in some form or the other in our quotidian written communications. There will always be writing enthusiasts, book lovers, and intellectuals who will embrace the old and the new with equal √©lan. To them, writing will always be a ritual that crafted our history: “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and they will never think of formally putting a stop to penmanship despite the outcry of the world for they know, as the writer of the book “The Missing Ink” says “to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish, in a small but real way, our humanity.”