Yesterday I was reminded that we live in times of the plague and I was also reminded of times before the plague. And even of times to come, after the plague.
It was Ram’s day to go “out”, by alphabet. That one phrase already shows what times we live in.
Anyway, he went to post a letter – Rs13 now for a simple local letter, and I remember when it cost 25 cents, or 15 cents if you didn’t lick the envelope closed, and it then took a day or two to be delivered anywhere on Mauritius Island, though Rodrigues took a while. The Post Office workers, recognizing Ram, gave him two letters for the two of us that were about to be delivered. So Ram had human contact with postal workers. And we would get letters, physical objects, signifying more human contact but from afar, via the very paper, envelope and stamps.
One envelope had a stamp with the picture of the Queen, just like one I might have collected as a child. Unchanged British monarch, symbolized by the stamp, for nearly 70 years, reminding us that the monarchy, in power before capitalism, is still not totally “out of power”. She still issues “Orders in Council” via the Royal Prerogative, to banish Chagossians, for example, in the third millennium.
Anyway, I knew there was something strange, something of concern, because one envelope was addressed, as if from a print-out, but all wrong, as follows:
“Lindsey and Ram Collen
“Raguo Lane Curpepe
By hand, a postman in London, perhaps, seems to have added a comma after the “Bambous” and before the “Mauritius” and then re-written “Mauritius” in hand-writing for good measure. I guessed at once that some person had first tried to understand someone else’s address book, and then a postal officer somewhere had re-interpreted this attempt. The important letter, and as it turned out a sad one, arrived safely in Ram’s hands.
It brought news of the death in January of an old and beloved friend and colleague of mine, aged 98, a friend to both of us called Brenda Bailey, author of “A Quaker Couple in Nazi Germany” and befriender of the wretched of the earth. There will be a service in about a year’s time to celebrate her life, the card sent by her son and daughter and their families, announced. I learnt about this “system” of a service a year later because once I was, by chance, in London for a reading tour or something and such a ceremony was held for her husband, Sydney Bailey. He was world-renowned in the domain of peace-making and peace-keeping and war-ending. I have been thinking about her life and her death since the arrival of the card.
Anyway, the card announcing her death, duly inside its envelope, was posted on 2 February and got here on 14 April. This, in itself, shows we live in times of the plague – that a letter could take 10 weeks to get here – and, at the same time, we live at a time when the plague is perhaps reaching an end – that the card arrived at all.
The other letter, a happy one, was from one of Ram’s friends from University. It was posted on 8 December last year with Christmas and New Year’s greetings and with a stamp of “Mary and Baby Jesus.” The stamp reminding us of even older links than the Queen to the present British State, religious ones. There is an outline of the Queen on this stamp, too, behind the bright Virgin. This letter also arrived yesterday, having taken over four months, as it might have in times of steam ships going around the Cape of Good Hope, before the Suez Canal was opened to international trade in 1869, to Mauritius. A letter, before e-mail, was a social event, in itself.
You had to buy the stationery, for a start, at a little shop – which we don’t do to send an email or WhatsApp message – and while there, you get to talk to the people in the shop, and then you go and stand in a short queue, chatting to those around you in it, at the Post Office, meet the postal workers behind the counter, and then get to buy a brightly coloured stamp, which you lick and paste on and then get to post the letter in a red pillar-box, maybe. Usually the person who gets the letter at the other end can also get to meet the postman, who rings his bicycle bell or hoots his motorbike hooter, just to show human contact, although he could have just slipped it into the letterbox. He might call other neighbours out at the same time. More human contact. Kurt Vonnegut describes an outing to post one of his manuscripts to his typist brilliantly in one of his “novels”, I don’t remember which.
And you get to touch the very letter the sender sent. Its envelope, its stamp, too. And to keep it on the table for everyone in the family to touch, to hold and to read.
Now, it is not just paper-free delivery. It is also human-contact “free” delivery. Press a button, the message is off, looking much like any other message. Yet we all know, we learn it now under lockdown: we need human contact. We are each other. Our happiness is the happiness of others. As the Xhosa and Zulu word “ubuntu” signifies: we are human because we are amongst humans, we are human when humane.