Sunday, July 25, 2010

Video biographies: Letters from the past

My first experience writing letters was in 1990. I must have been 9 and though that may sound like I was old enough to have been in a mature place at the time, I really wasn't. I was still very much a child and my family had just moved from India to a different country. Those were exciting times. For the first time we had a big house, new furniture, a nice car and a whole new world to explore. But it also meant that we had left behind all our friends and relatives whose presence I had hitherto taken for granted. My mother, determined to make sure that those ties remained unbroken, suggested that my sister and I write letters to our cousins back 'home'.

So we went to a store to pick out some writing paper and eventually settled on powder blue onion skin paper (that would weigh less) and white envelopes. The onion skin was so thin and translucent that a separate white sheet with black lines across the width of it was placed underneath - so as to facilitate sentences that flowed in a straight line. This was exciting stuff! A table was cleared, chairs were pulled up (one for my sister and one for me), pens furnished and the whistle was sounded... let the games begin!

That's when I realized I had no idea what should be written in a letter. I certainly hadn't written one before. More pressing was the need to impress my cousins - with what I'm not sure but they needed to be impressed. But what does one write!! Whilst I deliberated on these musings, my sister (older and wiser than me by 7 whole years) not only finished writing her letter but proceeded to read it out aloud to my mother, who nodded fondly at her first child's wonderful accomplishment.

It sounded like a really silly letter, I thought. Something about us going to school on camels (which despite us now living in a desert city we most certainly did not do in reality), and other such untrue statements but my mother laughed and pronounced it perfect. Interesting. This should have prompted me to churn out some original thoughts on paper about my own experience but what did I do instead? I chose to copy those exact lines on to my letter and eventually reproduced the entire contents of my sister's letter in my handwriting onto my sheet of paper. So that my cousins would receive two identical letters... as well as a sense of deja vu.

All this changed of course as I grew up and went to boarding school. By that time, letters were my passion. Small wonder that since they became the only connection we had with our parents, friends, crushes, penpals and the outside world in general! The postman was the most popular male in school and the biggest thrill was to find a letter on your study table or on your bed or handed to you in person by the matron-in-residence.

Then in 1995, when I was home for the holidays, something happened to turn everything I had known on its head. I was writing a letter to my best friend who lived in a different city, and handed it to my father to send out by post on his way to work the following morning. And he muttered something about the worldwide web. That was when I got my first introduction to the internet and the possibility of letters now being able to reach recipients within minutes... and not days or weeks as I had been accustomed to. Well, that seems excessive, I remember thinking! It was too foreign a concept to appreciate just yet.

Then of course, came chat rooms, instant messaging, Skype, Orkut, Facebook, blogs, mobile phones, Iphones, laptops, ebay... yes, life had changed. But it happened so slowly that I hardly noticed. I marveled at each new invention and the change it brought to my personal life, but the process was so gradual, that life without these things now seems incongruous. Primitive even.

And it took a letter to make me pause and take stock of the situation. A letter written by a cousin brother, so philosophical and poetic in his personality that the internet seemed too impersonal for him to use to write about his first trip abroad... about the wonders of the world that he discovered on his journey. A letter that I could hold in my hand, anticipate the length of it by how heavy it seemed in my palm, the stamps on the envelope that reminded me of the country I was born in... the smells of all the places it had traveled on its way to reaching my mailbox in Austin. A letter in the handwriting of someone close to me... I could see how the words started out big and then grew smaller and smaller as if my cousin brother suddenly realized he had a lot more to say than the paper allowed him. A letter that was peppered with dotted i's and marked t's... and scratched out lines... an actual letter! How old fashioned. How personal. How much like my childhood.

One day, when I sit down to document my own life story, letters will be one thing I mourn the loss of.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Video Biography: "You're running out of time!"

I was invited to make a presentation on preserving family history through video biographies at the Lakeway Lions Club recently, and was very impressed by the keen interest exhibited by the members about the need to do so sooner rather than later. During the question-answer session, someone raised an interesting point.

"What if I want to get my parents' video biography created? Won't they take it as a sign that I think their time is running out... as if I were implying that they aren't going to be around much longer?"

A very pertinent observation - and it's definitely one way of looking at it. But it can also be very flattering. In my experience, whenever people have commissioned a video biography for their parents, the usual reaction is of happiness. It's nice to feel acknowledged... to realize that your life experiences were not in vain. That you're important enough to someone that they wish to immortalize you forever in the best way they know how. So that one day their children, and their children's children after them, will know you for who you are. And hear you tell your story in your own voice, in the way you wish to be remembered.