Writing letters in pandemic times

May 31, 2020

When all this is over, what will become of the new soundscape and landscape re-discovered in dense cities? Will the butterflies and fireflies stay or leave? Will birdsongs be heard as much as now? Recounting things that are worth retrieving from this time

Quite early in the lockdown days, a friend and I decided to write letters to each other. These were going to be proper letters, to be sent through email instead of regular post. Anyone need not know about them. We had no idea about what to say to each other in letters that could not be said otherwise. It was her idea to be honest that I grabbed, as if it was the last thing to take me ashore.

Incorrigible romantics that we both are, letter as a form excited us, even in those jittery, uncertain days.

The first time I sat to write, I didn’t realise what day or date it was. Time was something fluid; day and night, days and dates, weeks and even months had kind of melted into one another. In another sense, there was this assumption that there was all the time in the world: to write: letters.

The writing part was difficult. The mind, a jumble of disparate thoughts, was always exhausted. So was body, having taken care of the house and all inmates under one roof all the time. Sleep was obviously unsound. Yet, the groggy beings, anxious to know each other better through these letters or to find some meaning to life, persisted, seizing any odd time to write. I discovered that one writes a different thought depending on the time of day or night one chooses.

It took more time than usual to be able to write something sensible (a letter does allow you this freedom to not say anything sensible, does it not!) When there was nothing, we could exchange poems about love gained and love lost, and talk about them in the next letter.

Gradually, with the world outside resuming a more normal posture, the letters became less frequent. But the excitement, the anticipation about what the other person has to say only to you, two people voluntarily deciding to open to each other, is still fresh in the mind. No sooner had the letter landed in the inbox, than it was read. The replies may have taken more time on both sides, but the wait was worth it.


When everything around looks absurd, when impermanence of life and certainty of death loom large, what do you do? I assume different people deal with absurdity differently. Writing letters, reeking of a sense of privilege, is one way to deal with it.

But writing also documents the moment. In one of the letters, I had recounted a strange occurrence. It happened on the afternoon of the last day of March (the letter seals the date) on one of my short walks in the deserted neighbourhood — to look at trees and flowers, to hear the koel sing. Instead, I saw a kite lying dead on the road, then another and then a few more in the adjoining streets.

As I looked up at the sky, there were many more of them flying really low, anxious it seems to guard their dead friends; a little angry too, as if they wanted to pounce and carry them back to bury in the bird kingdom.

Watching so many dead kites together was scary, to say the least. Ominous. I picked up pace to get back to the comfort of home. It felt like the world was coming to an end. Once inside, I tried to figure out what might have happened: they were either poisoned or killed by gunshot. Knowing the neighbourhood, the latter appeared a more likely explanation. Some brat, too bored being locked down at home, had stood on the rooftop and, with a gun, shot those poor birds dead.

This is how privilege deals with pandemic. Brutally. Writing letters, baking banana bread and watching films pale in comparison.


There have been other disturbing things associated with the pandemic; for instance, the Social Darwinism on display, albeit in varying shades. Wealthy nations pitched against poor, rich against people of colour, cocky young against vulnerable old. The governments consciously letting go of oldish people to save ‘livelihoods’.

The first time I sat down to write, I didn’t realise what day or date it was. Time was something fluid; day and night, days and dates, weeks and even months had kind of melted into one another. In another sense, there was this assumption that there was all the time in the world: to write: letters.

Those who are fit get to live; the unfit must perish. If the fittest pathogen could survive, so shall people who have the best and most sanitisers and facemasks. Simple.

Like in normal times, suffering and death are unevenly distributed. Borders may not have mattered as the virus spread across the world, but once it did governments were expected to find a solution for it within their own geographical bounds.

At this point, the sense of certainty about time is not valid. Everyone knows the day will be followed by night to be followed by day again. No one knows what is going to happen to them in the time to come: will they be able to stick to jobs they currently hold; will the investments in banks and stocks stay secure; will the children be able to start and finish their academic year in time; will there ever be a method, a plan, to their lives.

Questions abound, with no sufficient answer. The higher the stakes, the more one is likely to lose.

The world as we know it will change when the pandemic is over. Are people thinking about what to make of the new world?


In my previous job as a journalist (do you ever stop being one?), in a discussion once on romance of radio, someone suggested it was radio’s unpredictability that did it — the sudden joy of listening to your favourite song without having to ask for it, or a completely new song you instantly fall in love with.

So, radio has this potential of being more fascinating than the best music put together in a pen drive.

This is one way of looking at the current times. Yes, there is tragedy and loss. Some look at it as ‘preventable human failure’ and others as ‘divine punishment’. But the meaninglessness is constant. The sense of mystery it allows may seem hollow from outside, no doubt, but it could also be deep.

This pandemic has taught us that ambition, tasks, achievements, goals, productivity are secondary. What is essential is health — ours and that of our fellow beings. What is important is family. The craving for friends remains but there is good home-cooked food in its stead.

To our shock, work as the humans know it, has proved to be a mere distraction they could do without — because there are other kinds of work to make us happier. There is no harm in slowing down, observing, processing and rethinking the idea of ‘success’ in an ‘accelerated age’.


These past days, I have walked along with unfamiliar couples, families, odd men and women. Walking, jogging or cycling, these people were forced out on neighbourhood streets because the parks and gyms were closed. Now I almost know many of them by face. When all this ends, we will all go back to our solitary selves, without making that much-needed acquaintance.

But will it ever end?

My real concern is: what becomes of the new soundscape and landscape re-discovered in dense cities? Was it the birds chirping again, or us getting a chance to hear them after the traffic and industrial noise subsided? Will the butterflies and fireflies stay or leave? How can we ever drive our motorised vehicles again without a sense of guilt? I am confident our governments have a plan to let the environment breathe by locking down all private vehicles at least once a week.

Who knows if this pandemic was nature’s revenge for our transgressions, our relations with animals, our refusal to coexist with other species.

As the world is likely to revert to its competitive, goal-oriented, social Darwinist mode, there are things worth retrieving from this time. There is a chance to wed science with literature and philosophy or fall back into the old trap.

The writer is a senior journalist and the director of HRCP.

Coronavirus: Writing letters in pandemic times