Times of India Bombay
October 26, 2000


It's not always cool to chuck out the old


By Salil Tripathi


MUMBAI: Ever received a letter lately? I don't mean a mis-spelt
e-mail with emoticons giving monosyllabic responses, or a fax
confirming an order, or, for that matter, a bill or a circular
from your credit card company offering new benefits if you
continue to spend more. I mean a real letter, one written on
paper, sealed in an envelope, with a stamp on it.


I used to receive such letters at my former home in Singapore
from friends and relatives in India. But now, with as many
dotcom companies in India as there are billboards in this city,
everyone, it seems, has an e-mail address and all communication
is effective, seamless, efficient, prompt and reliable. At my
new home in London, I scarcely get any real letters now.
This, of course, is wonderful. I'm not a Luddite. I write this
piece on a notebook computer and will be e-mailing it to this
newspaper. To be sure, that's an exceptional advance from the
time in the early 1980s when I began to write, and when I had
to carry typewritten text, double-spaced, to editors.


Yet, the internet revolution has created this charming illusion
of greater literacy (people are writing again!) when what it
has really provided is greater efficiency. Coming to Mumbai on
this visit, I was able to arrange several meetings and
appointments, including with old friends, by e-mailing them in
advance. But was I able to have a meaningful conversation with
them on the internet? Can any chat site ever replace two hours
of conversation over cona coffee at the Sea Lounge? Can a
series of e-mails take the place of correspondence between
writers?


Sometimes I wonder what The Discovery of India would have been
like had Jawaharlal Nehru sent his daughter Indira e-mails from
jail. ``Go to www.itihas.com, click on ancient India, check out
the Aryans. Download the PDF file. Turn on the sound if you
have RealAudio. It's a cool site! Writesoon, miss you, dad.''
Virtual reality is all very well, but there are real virtues in
reality. I remember the Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunesekera
telling me once, ``The ultimate virtual reality is the book.
You don't need any gadgets, and you can lose yourself
completely in an imaginary world.'' As my sons are doing right
now, engrossed in the latest adventures of Harry Potter.
Writing a thoughtful, meaningful, interesting epistle is an
art. Jane Austen perfected it, and the art, fortunately,
survives. Look at the correspondence between V.S. Naipaul and
his father, published recently. Naipaul, as a young student and
aspiring writer in Britain, writes to his father about his life
and thoughts, and the father responds, partly happy, partly
underscoring his own sense of lost opportunities.


There is an aspect of bitersweet nostalgia around it, which
e-mails simply cannot capture. I'm glad Gillon Aitken put
together the volume, but my worry is that such correspondence
in future -- between fathers and children, between writers and
editors, between revolutionaries and their counterparts -- will
disappear, if it is all done on e-mail.


Like ethereal clouds, messages may float in the deep recesses
of some computer's hard disk. But the pace at which technology
changes will quite likely make that correspondence inaccessible
to everyone except nerds, and nerds don't seem to have an
interest in anything other than bits and bytes and scuzzy
cables and pizza.


There is another, related danger. What happens to the first
drafts of novels and poems these days? I know American
universities will pay a fortune to acquire the collected papers
of an author. But when books are written straight on the
computer, the earlier version vanishes, accessible again only
to the nerds. The absence of those drafts is a loss we are not
yet in a position to quantify.


All first drafts may not be interesting to read. Hemingway
would have preferred if his son had not found the manuscript of
his ``last novel'', True At First Light, published last year to
mark his birth centenary. Only diehard Fitzgerald fans would
want to read the earlier version of The Great Gatsby, which was
published recently. But do the first drafts of novels written
straight on the computer -- A Suitable Boy and The Moor's Last
Sigh are two such -- survive? I don't know.


It isn't always cool to chuck out the old.


A few years ago, I had occasion to write to a distinguished
Indian author about a project I am researching. I sent an
e-mail to someone who knew him, asking for his e-mail address.
The author replied through the contact, saying he'd prefer a
letter instead, as he was not on the net. I wrote one, and
immediately, a detailed, thoughtful letter arrived, challenging
my thinking, provoking me, taking me to new directions in my
research. His subtext -- a serious exchange of ideas is
virtually impossible in the virtual world. (In the virtual
world, we remain in touch by forwarding jokes, sending chain
letters, virus warnings, and creating new urban legends.)


Having said that, I'm not about to write a letter on thin
butter paper and place it in an airmail envelope, then get it
weighed and post it. But while embracing the new
wholeheartedly, to the extent of being addicted to it, I wish
we'd delete less of the old.