Ever since the New York Times ran a piece on the ancient (and disappearing) profession of scribe in India, I’ve been coping with a case of nostalgia.
You see, I love writing letters for other people. There’s something about slipping into another person’s identity, applying my imagination to the best way to say that person’s truth (or to avoid saying it), constructing a bridge of words from a yearning heart to a receptive eye—what can I say? I’ve always thought I was born too late, that I could have lived happily doing the job that G. P. Sawant performed for so many years in the marketplace near the main post office in Mumbai.
I would have liked my words to plead a lover’s case and soothe a broken heart, to make a good showing for a supplicant or persuade a tough-minded parent to reconsider a child’s request. As it is, I sometimes write fundraising letters for groups I support, or try my hand at letters to the editor. But that’s not the same as sitting face-to-face with a real, live embodiment of the desire to communicate, as helping to turn an anxious hope into a satisfied smile.
Alas, too late. Now India is the planet’s fastest-growing cellphone market, Mr. Sawant’s four children, whom he sent to private school with his proceeds as a scribe, are prospering in the new globalized economy, and on the afternoon he was interviewed by the Times, he made a grand total of 12 cents.
I thought about Mr. Sawant as I watched old movies over the holidays. (For my fellow ancients out there, I want to stipulate that even films from the sixties, seventies and eighties now qualify as unambiguously old.) Time after time, the hero found himself in a jam that any present-time film would have resolved by his flipping out a cellphone and pressing a few buttons. Time after time, as the hero dashed down the street hanging onto his fedora, pounding on doors and calling out, I found myself flipping out of whatever time period the film depicted as, unbidden, the image of a handy cellphone arose in my mind.
Indeed, virtually all of the time-honored plot devices of westerns and films noir, spy films and war stories have now been rendered unusable by new technology, consigning them to period pieces forever more. The damage technology has done to my personal ability to suspend disbelief is severe. If mentally reaching for a cellphone doesn’t spit me out of a movie’s spell, I’m sure to find myself sitting in a multiplex, wrapping a hand around an imaginary remote control, stabbing my thumb in the air in a vain attempt to instantly replay some line or image I missed.
Meanwhile, I sometimes wonder what happened to those great hunks of time that seemed to be free for the taking when I was young. Coming up in the sixties, when my generation launched the renewed love of things handmade that now infuses our culture, I had time to embroider something on every garment I wore (I made many of those garments too), to macrame a plant holder when a spider-plant turned up, to bake bread without the help of machines, and when I wanted to send someone a card, to draw it myself and fold it into an envelope I’d fashioned out of craft paper. (This all sounds unbearably twee now, I know, but then, it was fun.) When we wanted to make a flyer or newsletter, we had to type out the text using white-out to make adjustments, or draw the illustration with a rapidograph. We had to rub each letter of the headline onto the paper from a transfer sheet called presstype (you’ll have to look it up), then make a stencil and run it off on a mimeograph machine (look that up too).
If I’d understood then how easily and quickly I could produce a daily output of work three, four, a dozen times what a whole day would have yielded forty years ago—well, how could I have understood it? It would have sounded like science fiction.
It’s silly, isn’t it, to sing a song of the good old days? It can be argued that what we’ve lost in terms of time to be aimless, in susceptibility to silver-screen illusions, has more than been repaid in our ability to communicate rapidly at a distance and all the amazing things that have come with that. I love my computer, rely on my cellphone, and my relationship with my iPod can’t be adequately described in a family blog. But the daily relationships Mr. Sawant had, face-to-face, with real live beating hearts requiring the services of a scribe of skill and delicacy—I don’t think we’ll get that back.
One of the movies I watched recently was the 1940 version of Louisa May Alcott’s story, Little Men, in which Jo March grows up and with her hapless, good-hearted husband operates a school for poor boys. It is sappy beyond belief, of course, full of retrograde nonsense and yet quite wonderful. In my favorite scene, Dan, a tough little boy (on account of being brought up by an adoptive father who sold a snake-oil cure for drunkenness), having acted out repeatedly, has reached the end of Jo’s tolerance and is finally to be punished. Jo and Dan stand in the barn. She directs him to find a switch for a beating, and he reluctantly complies. But then, surprisingly, she presses the switch into Dan’s own hand. “This is how we do it,” she tells him, extending her upturned palm to be hit. “The things we do hurt others as much as ourselves.” Dan forces himself administer one or two of the half-dozen lashes prescribed, then breaks down, sobbing, having been taught an unforgettable lesson in empathy and human connection.
The main plot, which turned on the difficulty of reaching a traveler, could have been dispatched with a simple cellphone call, naturally. But I doubt I have seen a wiser approach to discipline than one grounded in the face-to-face, heart-to-heart, eye-to-eye encounter between Jo and Dan: See me and see yourself, her actions said. And Mr. Sawant’s. But things are changing. Here’s how the Times story ends:
His son works at a bank; one daughter works as a civil engineer in Denmark; another daughter is studying computers in college; and there is Suchitra, who is currently in New Jersey on assignment for Infosys.
Mr. Sawant’s mention of New Jersey prompted a suggestion. A producer making a Web video for this article was about to return to New York, not far from where Suchitra is working. Did Mr. Sawant want to scribble a letter to his daughter for him to hand-deliver?
His answer was instantaneous.
“Why would I send her a letter?” he asked, perplexed. “I’ll just call her on the phone.”