Calligraphy in the time of Corona.
I write. I write for a living. And I write the old-fashioned way – filling my fountain pen with ink and seeing my thoughts dry on the paper for posterity. I am fifty plus – that is to say, I did most of my formal learning at a time when the personal computers were yet to become a necessity, leave alone being the prime driver of communication. For the record, the smart phones were not even a glint in the eyes of the makers – Apple was still toying with the Macintosh and Samsung, founded as a grocery store in Korea, was a name that we in India hadn’t even heard of. Yes, I am talking about a time when the first laptop was released in 1985 by Toshiba (T1100).
My son is all of fourteen, is in school and abhors writing. He is a digital junkie, mostly multi-tasking across multiple personal devices and believes that the power of technology should be harnessed, not shunned – “the digital waves are for the riding, Dad” he says. “Ride the crest of tech, or run the risk of being devoured by a fate worse than what has befallen on your Calligraphy and your fountain pens”.
Locked in as we have been – father and son, the past and the present – by a raging pandemic outside, we debate about the future. Me, listing out the pleasures of the pen, of calligraphy, to someone who keys in as opposed to writing; and he, demolishing cursive excellence perfected over centuries with the curse of the fast and the furious. “Interesting”, nods his mother, my wife, a psychologist, who, the Holy Ghost in our Trinity, claims to understand why we, father and son, say what we say to each other as we desperately try to defend our respective corners.
“When you write things down”, I begin with the lofty air of someone who has been there and studied it all, “you tend to remember things better. Writing aids in the process of knowledge retention”. And then, to underscore the point made, I break into reciting Wordsworth, at which point I am rudely stopped with my son interjecting that remembering poems by heart, just like calligraphy, does not qualify as an essential skill for survival no more. “Besides”, he points out with a smirk, “the poem, like everything else, is just a Google search away” in the handheld. “But you will still need to know what to search for” me says. The impasse continues.
Like all young people, especially those in these digitised days, he has a terribly short attention span and is always in a hurry to deliver the knockout punch. “Your handwritten stuff cannot match the sheer customisability of digital formats. The fonts, the graphs, the ability to incorporate images, the ease of formatting things, the comfort of having your language corrected even as you write, is legion”.
But, isn’t it exactly what I am trying to avoid – the fear of becoming another brick in the wall? “I agree”, I say, “that with auto-correct most written matter will be grammatically correct, but how will it ensure that the flavour of a Shakespeare is retained? Won’t it achieve the mere good by sacrificing the great on the altar of mediocrity? Will a template generated, clip-art illustrated, photoshop induced card have the same impact as a handwritten note, ever? Ask your Mom, it was a hand written poem, my calligraphy that had her won her heart in the first place!”
Realising that he is on slippery ground, my son decides to open another flank, “you are the cause of global warming” he accuses menacingly, “the paper you write on has the blood of the Amazon rain forest on it and is directly responsible for the denudation of the forest cover, the destruction of the fragile ecological balance. Get a life, Dad, embrace sustainability” he hissed. I proudly point at the fountain pen that I had inherited from my father, one that I am still using to drive home the fact that it is the most sustainable among all writing implements. And then, taking his argument further, explain how the power that his devices run on, is actually generated by burning fossil fuels which leaves a much bigger carbon footprint, making them a far worse alternative. Besides, I point out, he still has to contend with e-waste, gently stressing on the fact that recycling of batteries is a problem that is yet to be solved sustainably.
The argument becomes even more heated when we broach the topic of handwriting, of writing skills, of calligraphy. Methinks that good handwriting is next to Godliness. He phoo-phoos it with abject derision. I take up the topic of taking notes in a class and he talks about PDF and screen-shots, pointing out that it is the digital that has helped the world cope, cooped in as we are by the pandemic. I counter his argument the cathartic effect – waxing eloquent about handwriting as a stress buster, hailing it as the real balm to calm and soothe the depressed mind. But the wife, who is by now roped in as the referee – besides she is really good in passing judgements – thinks it is still a tie and that our arguments are evenly balanced.
I am forced to stoop to conquer, to lower myself into a diatribe about how prolonged staring into the screen can lead to macular degeneration, leading to a variety of ailments that attack the ability to see clearly. Besides, I point out how the digital medium is rife with innumerable distractions that wean the student’s concentration away from the lessons at hand, especially with the social media playing truant. “Digital Detox” I say to rub it just gently in. But I know that I have already conceded an own goal and it is status-quo ante.
He calls me antediluvian. An anachronism and has moves back into his world wide web. If only I could wean him away just long enough to make him experience the dance of the pen on paper….