I wonder if today’s youth have heard of pen friends — a very popular concept in the ‘70s. Those days there was no Internet and thus no chatting facilities. Some popular magazines in India, used to publish, in their youth pages, names and addresses of students who wished to make pen friends. The interests of the person concerned — hobbies, choice of country of the prospective pen friend, etc — would also be given. The main idea of having a pen friend was to share and learn about another country, about the society and the lifestyle of people there. This was especially so when pen friends were encouraged through the schools and colleges.
I started corresponding with my pen pal who was a student in Germany almost 40 years back. She had got my details from her school newsletter. A cord of friendship struck between us immediately. Her English was poor, as they did not have to learn the language at school. She knew a little of the language, just enough to communicate. With all the limitations she wrote long letters running into several pages describing her family, school, neighbourhood, country, etc. A picture of India and our way of life was given by me too. We also found some common interests. It appeared that they also had family values like in India and were close knit. Over the years, we went on in life. She finished school and took up a job and I went to college and started working in due course. She got married very early and ‘became a girl’ in a year! That was her way of informing that she had given birth to a girl. Life went on and the years passed by. She went on to become a grandmother, thrice over. Yet the contact remained. Not a single birthday was forgotten although the length of the letters reduced over a period of time. The number of letters also diminished to one or two a year. With Internet coming in, communication became easier and was more frequent through e-mails, with exchange of photographs of the growing families. She an avid gardener, sent photos of her garden when it was covered with snow and when Autumn felled the leaves and when Spring brought back the blooms.
Two individuals from totally different backgrounds and diametrically opposite lifestyles continued to be friends. She was a home bird not very keen on travel and did not accompany her husband who was in a Brass Band group and travelled a lot. She always talked about meeting me some day and when she said she was visiting India, my joy knew no bounds. She and her husband chose a South India tour.
When we finally met, after four decades of correspondence, we recognised each other immediately. We had not heard each others’ voices till then. Her English was what it was years back, but her skill in communicating was excellent! We felt as though we had been together for years. There was no cultural divide, there was no spaces in between. Perhaps the feeling of meeting a friend for the first time after 40 years is something that words would fail in describing. It is a feeling perhaps the youth today will find hard to comprehend — a joy they will not experience.