Among the numerous childhood memories that I hold dear to my heart, from time to time, I fondly recall my family's annual letter-writing sessions. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, pre-dating easy access to mobile phones and the internet, it was common for us to write letters at home to our relatives, particularly because my mamas (maternal uncles) were living abroad at the time.
The letter-writing session was an occasion in itself. Twenty days prior to every Eid, my mother used to give us paper and pen (or pencil depending on who was writing) to wish my uncles and cousins Eid Mubarak since international phone calls were exorbitantly expensive back then.
I never took part in any handwriting competition, but I remember that writing those letters felt like partaking in one as my mother was not ready to accept subpar handwriting or that I fared worse than my cousins in the United States.
My mother used to dictate. I used to be scared to make any spelling mistakes or even write in a crooked line. Thus writing letters bi-annually already felt like a nightmare, let alone thinking of writing to strangers.
Turns out, there are people who write letters to strangers to make new friends, and they are commonly known as 'pen friends' (I wonder why it never got the name 'paper friends').
But in this era of social media platforms, messaging apps and electronic mail, do people still write letters to strangers? And what about those who had pen friends? With all these questions on my mind, I went to Facebook and met a handful of people with interesting stories about their pen friendship.
A rendezvous in Old Dhaka
In 1997, Shahan Ali Sarkar, Johnny and Faruque Hossein became friends in sixth grade in a school in the capital's Old Dhaka area. Five years later, one day during recess, these three musketeers were buying snacks from the school's canteen. The samosa seller gave them a Tk2 note as a change.
That dirty peach-coloured note came with a Old Dhaka home address (the same area they lived in) inked in blue. That day the three friends decided to write a letter to that address.
In the following week Faruque sent a letter. With pumped-up adventurous hearts, they waited and finally a reply came after a week. It was a boy named Jamal Uddin, who was about their age. And they all became friends.
"Normal letters took a lot of time to reach. So we used to buy register stamps to expedite the delivery time. At that time register stamps cost Tk4 or Tk6, which we used to save up from our pocket money," said Shahan. He also mentioned that although the letters were sent from Faruque's address, all three of them used to write to Jamal.
The four pen pals met in 2005 for the first time after three years of writing letters. And since then, they have become inseparable. And more remarkable is that in 2018, Johnny married Jamal's sister and now their friendship has transcended into a life-long bond.
"That TK2 note brought us a valuable friend and a lot of happiness," said Shahan, who was delighted to recall his fond memories as he spoke about their pen friendship with Jamal.
A connoisseur of pen friendship
Faisal Khan Jisson, a Dhaka-based trade manager, has a different story. He was in the 8th grade when he first wrote to an English girl named Tina.
"Starting from fifth grade, I used to write in different programmes of Bangladesh Betar. I had the knack to write letters. In 1997, I went to Hotel Sheraton with my father where I met 18-year-old Tina. We exchanged addresses and since then I used to communicate with her. That's when I was inspired to meet more foreign friends," said Faisal.
Faisal wrote letters to friends living in Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam, Australia, London and Japan. And starting in 1997, he has had more than 17 pen pals. At the moment, five pen friendships are still active.
Sending international letters was expensive, every document folder would cost between Tk30 and Tk50; and for young Faisal, it was his parents who paid the price.
In 2002, Heena from Nepal came to meet Faisal. "Out of 17, nine of my pen friends came to meet me and I can't tell you how much joy it gave me to see friends from all around the world," said a beaming Faisal.
Even today, Faisal receives GPO letters, something he always cherishes. "Hand-written letters have an indescribable charm. And postmen knocking on my door still gives me butterflies. This is something I don't want to lose," he said.
Downside? The abrupt endings
But not every story is as beautiful and happy as these. Mansura Siddiki Mukta met Jisan (pseudonym) online in 2004. Both of them belonged to the digital era but still, they decided to write letters. Mukta lived in Dhaka and Jisan in Sylhet. They wrote for 3 years.
"We never mentioned in our letters what we have discussed online and we never mentioned online what we had talked about in our letters," said Mukta.
"And one day, just like that, their friendship ended. I no longer got any letters from him. I don't even know if he is alive or not," said Mukta, who didn't want to tell more about her short-lived pen friendship.
Or take Emranul Haque for instance. A Chittagonian Emran used to write to Anik from Narayanganj. "We wrote letters for years. Receiving yolk-yellow envelopes from Anik was a beautiful experience that I cherished," said Emranul.
But his tone and enthusiasm altered in telling his story because one day the letters stopped arriving. It had already been more than a year that he hadn't received a letter and neither got any explanation.
"One day, I opened the newspaper and saw a piece of small news on the lost and found section- it said, Anik was missing. I don't know if he is alive or not," said a dejected Emran.