I remember getting three-page letters from my German penpals more than a decade ago, when I was all of 12. Evocative in the distance that they were trying to cover, the words were poetic in their images and vocal in their language. There wasn’t anything personal in those pages, yet I guarded them with all the might of a teenager, saving them in pretty, hand carved wooden jewelery boxes so common in India.
And that was all it took to let the others in my house know that these letters were no-bars to them. Not my parents nor my brother could have access to them. Putting something in a special box was tantamount to staking your territory and every member in the family understood that concept because they had their ‘special boxes’ too. Mom had her heavy Godrej cupboard – where everything inside was off-limits to us; dad had his study cabinets and brother had his book shelves and drawers. I had other special crevices – pillow cases, a loose tile in the balcony floor, a disused kitchen shelf right on the top and old shoe boxes relegated to the paper scrap section.
It’s 2010 now and we have all witnessed the revolution that a computer and the Internet have brought to our lives. I no longer get letters from penpals, partly because I found it too boring to write a tomb, and mostly because the Net made it allright for me to NOT write and join the scores of virtual citizens adoptiong electronic mail.
I love checking my emails every minute. Conveniently, I now have passwords to safeguard even my everyday, trivial mails. A love letter from my husband is treated with the same ferociously protective system as my bank statements, daily updates from friends, irritatingly frequent pings from online groups, requests from strangers on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, job hunts, and spams from 100s of spurious sites.
But the system isn’t foolproof is it? I have discovered that some hacker sitting in a remote corner of Netherlands (just a random example, considering its distance from India), who doesn’t even know what I stand for or my history or for that matter, my gender, can randomly break and enter my online accounts and pilfer information useful to him-her. The hacker and fraudsters of the online world don’t care whose private world they are peeping into – they don’t understand the concept of ‘special boxes’.
Now, how about a thief who breaks into my house, looking for some heavy-duty stealable stuff? Would he really bother about letter or papers kept inside a decorated jewellery box? My guess? No! What’s kept in plain open sight wouldn’t be given that much of importance, as what’s kept under lock and key. But the very idea of a password for your email account ensures that whatever contents there in, be treated as sacred, as therefore, attractive to prying hands.
This does not mean that I am in any ways, promoting the idea of a password-less world or espousing the pros and cons of getting back to letter writing! What I am trying to understand is the seeming power that a password has brought to our lives now. We are mentally and emotionally more secure now, as far as our financial, school, marriage or house records are concerned, because we have more faith in the protection of an alpha-numeric code than our own safes.
The system of online security – secrecy in a way – has also led to a seismic shift in relationships. Today, without any guilt or excuse, we can hide documents and letters from our ever curious parents and spouses, and not worry about keeping important papers at home, away from children. A decade or two ago, a wife wouldn’t have thought twice about sharing her college day letters with her husband, but today I think twice before letting my husband access to what’s been defined by society as my ‘private, virtual world’. It’s off limits to anyone beyond me, and like that special box, it has given me power to stake territory on a space that no one else is privy to. This system has somehow fostered the rise of power equations within relations and the cemented the concept of a private world within a personal life, where emotional wars are fought over not letting one spouse, friend or child into the private world of the other.
We also convey selective histories to our partners – showing them only those mails that might not lead to any kind of judgement, comments or criticism from the other. Passwords have helped us project the image that we want to, even to those closest to us. Of course, this is not the norm. I know of many couples who have open access to each other’s mail accounts, bank statements and other important documents, both online and otherwise. However, such openess is looked upon as foolishness and I personally feel, that more often that not, spouses are emotionally compelled to give open access to their partners – I watch you, just as you watch me.
So, would I password protect my love letter? Sure, I would. Because I have been weened on the culture of privacy, security and personal space above all else. I wouldn’t want my family to read what my husband has written strictly for my eyes only. And knowing that papers can be constantly misplaced or worse, get bug infested, I would rather have a poetic electronic mail which I can re-read a million times a day – as well as a system that allows you to save the love mail across a multitude of spaces and mediums.
But do I also wish that we go back to our days of simple, letter writing? Yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Many would put this down to nostalgia. My first letter to Santa Claus was written when I was six, on pretty pink colored paper and crayon scribbles dotting the margins. My pen-pal letters were sent on crisp, blue-lined white papers or sometimes, multi-colored or fairy-tale like design sheets.
My first love letter to my husband was written on paper, with my endless proclaimation of undying love highlighted in shiny red ink pen. These instances and many more to come are milestones marking each phase of my life – they are a record of my shifting perspective of the world. Some of the letters that I have sent to my friends and family are saved in special, little boxes and I find it endearing that a piece of my personal history is safe somewhere, free to be shared with the families of my friends, and may be even passed down as their last remains – just as some of their letters are still safe with me. I am not so sure I would be doing that with ALL of my emails though. I have a sinking feeling that the Trash Can would be their final resting place.
By Nilofar Ansher