The era of old-fashioned penfriends

Kaniz Fatema | Tuesday, 21 September 2021

In a world where it is so easy to hop online to make friends by seeing their photos or profiles, it is almost impossible to resonate with an era where people used to make friends with strangers without ever seeing them and barely knowing their names.

Making a penfriend was a thrilling concept until the nineteenth century when the mystery of the unknown dragged people into writing to strangers.

Pen friends are people who regularly write to each other, mainly via postal mail, although the two of them may never have met. In some cases, they write letters using pseudonyms and don’t really even know their actual names.

The concept of penfriends proves that communicating with people aside from face-to-face contact, doesn’t make them any less meaningful. Pen friends demonstrate the powerful bond that the written word can create between two people, especially in the form of letters.

Catherine the great, the last Empress of Russia and the French philosopher Voltaire never met, but they were pen friends for 15 long years until Voltaire’s death in 1778. “I am older, madame, than the city where you reign,” he wrote a couple of years into their correspondence.

One of the most exciting and unexpected pair of famous pen friends is American writer and television star Groucho Marx and American poet Thomas Eliot. Their correspondence lasted three years, beginning in 1961 and ending 1964, not long before Eliot’s death. The two men started their exchange out of mutual respect for one another’s work.  Despite their contrasting personalities and some accusations of Eliot’s anti-semitism, the two men played well off each other.

Despite being a least developed country and having a poor communication system, the concept of pen friend was also very famous in Bangladesh, especially among the young youths.

People used to post small advertisements in newspaper columns mentioning their names and mailing addresses back in time. A captivating bio or caption was a must to grab attention.

“I was so fascinated about the whole thing when I was in college, in the year 1887. I used to walk to my University to save rickshaw fare.  I used the saved pocket money in buying stamps, envelopes, and fancy postcards,” says Mr. Zahid Chowdhury, a Dhaka-based businessman.

Mr Zahid had his way with words. His maneuver was writing a mesmerizing bio to command attention and customizing the letters. “I was a good writer, indeed. All of the girls I wrote, they have written me back.  I was even lucky to meet one of those girls practically,” he adds.

Letters are the most personal and precious gift ever. Through letters, people can express their emotions in the rawest and the most unsolicited form.

Mrs. Nahida Zobayer, an associate professor of a renowned private university in Dhaka, shares her bittersweet memories regarding writing to pen friends.

“Being a daughter of an orthodox Muslim family, I was not allowed to write to strangers and make new friends. So I had to do it maintaining secrecy. Now that I think of it, it feels like I was genuinely into the whole thing of interacting with strangers. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone overboard with my family,” she describes.

However, just like every other thing in the world, having penfriends also had some cons along with the pros. Not every time two strangers hit it off and befriended each other. Often there were unpleasant correspondence and cases of fraud.

The writer is a 4th-year student studying at the Department of Geography & Environment, University of Dhaka