In current times, we face a serious overdose of digital communication. Whether it is e-mail, SMS, WhatsApp, or even the never-ending online meetings we all seem to be a part of.
It almost makes one yearn for the slow beauty of handwritten letters. Well, you need to look no further. Say hello to ‘Chitthi Exchange’ (Letter Exchange).
This is a project aimed at reviving the tradition of pen-pals and snail-mail, bringing back an all but forgotten world.
The brainchild of Rohini Kejriwal (29), it came into being in June 2020, amidst the pandemic and lockdown.
“Chitthi Exchange is the best thing to have happened to me in 2020,” is how Aparna Pai describes her experience with it. Sneha Tete, another one of the early members, says, “This came in at a time when people from across the country were stuck at home. Letter-writing during the quarantine really kindled the old school habit of pen pals and the patience to wait for each reply.”
Why snail mail and pen pals?
“I have a deeply personal connection with the entire idea of writing letters. I studied in a boarding school and I was able to keep in touch with family and friends only by writing to them,” says Rohini.
Rohini is a writer by profession and is the founder of The Alipore Post, an online community newsletter that shares daily art, poetry and music from hidden corners of the internet. The Alipore Post came into being in February 2015 and Chitthi Exchange is an extension of her love for letter writing.
She also mentions having signed up for an International Pen Pal Programme during her school days and speaks about two friends she has managed to stay in touch with thanks to that initiative.
“One of whom is in Sri Lanka and the other resides in Delhi now. In fact, the relationship I share with them is truly special, it’s one that we have all grown into over the years. We started writing at such a young age that we know each other’s vulnerabilities and strengths so well now. In writing to each other we created our own small world,” she says.
It was the desire to recreate this feeling that helped shape Chitthi Exchange as well.
How does it work?
One of the reasons Chitthi Exchange came into being during the lockdown period is because Rohini feels that this gave people a sense of belonging and a purpose. “Putting thought into writing the letter, reaching out to someone you know nothing about, waiting for your own letter to arrive – this we saw would give many people, who were otherwise bogged down by the lockdown, a purpose,” says Rohini.
To sign up and be paired with another person, one is required to fill out a form, answer a few questions – including personal details, your address and some of the life lessons learnt during the lockdown period.
Explaining the need to ask some questions, Rohini says, “This is to gauge the kind of person one is and understand their interests – once these details are in, it makes it easier for me to pair them. Do note that all of this is done manually by me, without the help of any software.”
She also says that if one were to ask her what the basis of the pairing is, then we would have to dive into my brains. “It’s all up there, but only when I get down to pairing does it all make sense to me,” she says.
Since June 2020 there have been 1500 sign-ups, not just India but also from across the borders, meaning almost 750 pairs of letters have been exchanged.
Once the pairs are made, Chitthi Exchange sends an e-mail with the name and address of the person you are paired with. The e-mail also has the steps that you need to follow. Thereafter it becomes a one-to-one correspondence between the pairs. “There have been instances when people have signed up and vanished and that becomes a problem because I have to follow up and re-pair them if the need arises,” says Rohini.
“Tedious but worth it”
Since the onus of pairing people up was taken upon by Rohini, she mentions that the process was a tedious one and some of the pairs knew each other and had to be re-paired as well.
“We had a few newbies who had never written a letter to anyone, so they needed a lot of hand-holding. Basic things from how to get the required stamps, how to post the letter etc. were things that I did through this initiative,” says Rohini.
Rohini also worked consciously to try and keep her audience well-engaged through this project.
“Exploring new ways of presenting content, getting a fresh perspective into the project are things that are helping,” she says.
She also speaks about how people have forgotten the art of waiting, she says, “We have people write to us in an utter panic saying it’s been a week and they have not yet received any letter – we have to tell them that snail-mail takes time and all one has to do in the meantime is wait, patiently. However, it’s all worth it. We have had people make such beautiful connections.”
Some connections via letter writing
Rohini says the youngest member who signed up to be a part of this project is a 7-year-old who was paired with a 45-year-old teacher. “We also have many teenagers who have signed up and therefore I also have to work doubly hard to ensure that this remains a safe place for them to express themselves,” she says.
While there are checks and a basic screening process in place, Rohini says that the hope is for people to sign up for the right reasons. “There have been some forms rejected only because the answers provided did not seem appropriate to what this project is all about. It is not a matchmaking platform, it’s one where you can build and nurture friendships,” she says in conclusion.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)