Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Dead Letter

serendipity ser-ən-dip’i-ti, n. the faculty of making happy chance finds. –adj. serendip’itous. [Serendip, a former name for Sri Lanka. Horace Walpole coined the word (1754) from the title of the fairy-tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ whose heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were in quest of’.]
Chambers 20th Century Dictionary

Yes, serendipity it indeed was. I was in front of my computer searching for something on the ‘net’. As it happens to most of us, surfing soon gave way to ‘wilfing’ (For the uninitiated, WILF stands for ‘What was I Looking For?’) – and I lost my way, hopelessly.

It was in those labyrinthine mazes that I found you – by serendipity. A happy coincidence indeed it was that this lovely word, with a beautiful etymological background to it, is what I associate with my first contact with you a little over five years back. Because your vocabulary, your felicity with words, your easy erudition, have all held me in your thrall ever since.

Wait a minute! Did I mention that we have not met? I mean physically. We have met only in the cyberspace. The byline of your blog was ‘Madly in love with words’. And did it show! Among your first posts was one on the daily crossword puzzle in the Guardian. The thrill you experienced when you cracked a clue was palpable when one read your post. Only a numskull of unexceptionable merit could, after having stumbled on your blog, have gone ahead, overcoming the urge to read on or without making a mental note to come back.

To say that I was impressed by the range of topics that you were at ease with – from classical music to poetry to Sanskrit to Scrabble – would be the understatement of my life. You wrote about human frailties and miseries, about nature, about caterwauls, about parrots. You wrote about the most ordinary chore of a housewife like making tea with as much seriousness as about the nuances of how the Carnatic raaga Gamaka Saamantam is similar, but not identical, to Multani, a Hindustani one. Your everyday experiences like the travails at a bank branch, the passport office, etc found as prominent a place in your blog as the one on the different sounds a cat makes mean different things.

Your posts entertained as much as they educated the reader. Only one out of 117 readers of a blog take the trouble of posting a comment, I have read somewhere. Going by the dozens of comments a post of yours would elicit, the number of readers you have would make any blogger green with envy.

I had not bothered about the names of cruciverbalists like Aurcaria (Rev John Graham) of the Times, Paul, Bunthorne, Bremmie… which would roll off your tongue. In your blog, you talked of special crosswords, like theme crosswords (Christmas, Chemistry, Western musicians, Greek gods), crosswords with solutions consisting of the same number of letters, crosswords with only one vowel, crosswords with no anagrams ... the works!

You never gave out much details of your family except that your husband was a mathematician and you have a grown-up son employed in Bangalore. I got the impression that you prided yourself upon your innumeracy – ‘I get cross-eyed when I see three-digit numbers’, you had confessed in a post.

You were transparent and made no secret of the fact that you enjoyed a drink of two – something a Bharatiya naari would never confess to. A schooner of cold beer on a Sunday afternoon with your husband, you wrote, was your idea of a perfect Sunday, made more perfect if followed by a game of Scrabble with your son.

You would often rave and rant about the liberties the Indian painter of signboards would take with Queen’s English. That brings me to your spelling and grammar. One thing you could just not tolerate was typos and grammatical errors, irrespective of who committed them. Armed with a reputation of being the best proof-reader this side of the Suez, I scoured your blog for a solecism. When I did spot one (Let me confess, the only one I could in over three years), I pointed it out to you with a ‘Gotcha!!’ expression with infinite glee that I could hardly suppress.

You responded, matter-of-fact-ly, rather, in a dignified manner, that both versions were listed in the dictionary and added that I must have consulted an American lexicon. If I were you, I would have cocked a snook at a critic who was not on sure grounds, but you were too decent to do make the ‘opponent’ eat humble pie.

Many (I, for one, was one such) found it difficult not to fall in love with you, but some could not make a secret of their infatuation. I particularly recall one who kept on with his thinly disguised professions of affection. You never got cross with him; you simply replied back with a puzzled civility. In many of his subsequent posts, he kept paying you compliments and getting a word edgewise about the prospects of spending some time with you, but the unflappable you responded correctly, rather, frigidly.

Some readers would make extravagant statements, sometimes sexist, sometimes just plain stupid, to prod you out of your prim manner but you would to maintain your cool, composed self.

In one of your posts, you talked of having woken up in the middle of the night with a severe headache. A doctor had to be called in; it must have been an emergency, but it passed. A fortnight later, you wrote of a day in a nursing home. After that, the frequency of your posts fell. You wrote once about your tonsured head and chemotherapy. No, that was not how you did it: you joked about having had your head shaved for nothing because it was ‘anyway too late for the chemo, after all’.

You didn’t whine. And for some reason, I could never make bold to ask you how you were doing. I knew I could never deal with the truth. It’s in selfishness that I miss you. Because in your love for words, and your anagrams, I saw flashes of such strength and compassion one could learn a lot from.

Mortified as we were by the unspoken C-word, all the readers prayed. Your next post was after a longer spell in a hospital. Rather than dwell upon sordid details of the stay there, which merited just a casual mention, you wrote of the bough of the laburnum and the birds perched on it, silhouetted against the blue sky as seen through the window of the hospital room.

Then there were no posts for long. I would go to your blog, see no fresh posts, and, disappointed, shut down the computer. One did not now whom to ask.

Several people, it transpires, did. They were in touch through the comments page of your blog. It was by accident that I opened that page. By then, the worst had happened.

I’ve known you for just over three years. Too short a time to know someone so wonderful. You know how it is, sometimes you sort of adopt someone and make them a part of your life. I have your blog open in another tab, and for some reason, I choke.

I know what happens to people when they die, I mean, to their mortal remains.  But what happens to the virtual ones? Do they perish? When? Or, do they get irredeemably sucked into a black hole in the cyberspace?

I can see you in my contact list. There you are, I can see your name - but there’s never going to be a round green light next to it. I find myself wondering what happens to the online Scrabble games you have saved, your words, your blog… Does your email account get purged at some point? I am tempted to mail you.  

PS This, again, is the rehash of an old post. Updated and expanded, as they say.


முகுந்தன் said...

Though I was expecting something Wodehouse-like (or is it wannabe?)... I LIKED IT! Made me sit up and become serious , suddenly!

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

What a piece!

A Stoic said...

Very sentimental...

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

"The dead letter" is a stunningly beautiful piece, I think it's one of your best. I disagree with Mr. Stoic that it's mushy. If you write about a person who has passed away recently, you cannot but be a little sombre in your tone. Let's not give up the traditional folly of treating the dead with a little respect.

I often think about how the Net has changed our life. If your story is based on real experience, (which I believe it is,) it is just another example that shows how human relationships have been irreversibly altered by the WWW.

The story also tells us that we humans are capable of creating our own worlds and our own freedom. Stephen Covey, in his book "Seven habits ..." tells us about an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp, who realizes one day that his body is fettered, but his mind isn't. Despite the terribly degrading environment of the Nazi camp, eventually he starts to create a world in his mind and starts living in it, as a perfectly HAPPY man!

Although I live an infinitely more comfortable life than Covey's hero, I badly need to create a world of my choice, just to preserve my sanity, if not for anything else. I have been trying to do so, with partial success. So I can relate to your late friend in the cyberspace, and I offer her a posthumous bow.