14 September 2023

You've got mail?

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is the
222nd article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]     
‘You’ve got mail’ is the greeting that AOL users receive when they get a new email.  Today it would be called alert or notification. Time passes, technology changes and connectivity and conversation acquire new meanings. ‘You’ve got mail,’ back in the day was quite fascinating. This is perhaps one reason that the romantic comedy film by that name became very popular.

So yes, email was new then. Voice-mail and video calls were yet to arrive. Personal computers and laptops were rare. People still wrote letters to each other. People still used pens. One day all these things including mobile devices may go out of fashion and even out of circulation. And maybe there will be people who will think back on all of this with nostalgia. As some think of letters, letter writing and putting pen on paper today.

Nostalgia over hand written correspondence may explain the abiding popularity of Nick Bantock’s ‘Griffin and Sabine,’ an epistolary novel, i.e. a story written as a series of letters between fictional characters, which was first published in 1991. It was followed by ‘Sabine’s Notebook’ and ‘The Golden Mean’ in 1992 and 1993 respectively. These books came with letters in envelopes that could be taken out and read.

The correspondence is as fascinating as the unique design which included beautiful illustrations. It is a love story of sorts. And that’s one of the most charming uses of ‘written letters.’ Love letters, somehow, are warmer (or cooler) than text messages declaring absolute and everlasting love, one might say and others might wonder what on earth it’s all about. Time passes, things change, after all.

I remember a time of postcards. There were the ordinary, matter-of-fact and cheap postcards that were used to convey some bland information which anyone could see. There were picture postcards and it was a joy to receive them. My father, whenever he traveled overseas for conferences, would send postcards from places we had heard of but had never seen, not even in pictures. The cards would be addressed to one of his children, but the message was for everyone. And everyone read and delighted in reading, our mother included.

The legendary bibliographer Ian Goonetileka used to write to my father off and on. He sometimes wrote postcards but mostly he wrote letters. He recycled envelopes, turned them inside out and inserted the letters. Fascinating handwriting.

Handwriting. That’s part of the charm. It’s a signature of sorts that you really can’t wrap an email with. Voice messages are better in this regard.  

Letters were precious to me living far away from home in an era before announcements such as ‘You’ve got mail.’ It was something to look forward to. It was a delight to receive letters. It was also good to write letters. Not everyone likes to write. My parents never wrote to me when I was an undergraduate. They did send birthday cards. I didn’t write to them either. I sent them cards. I had other people to write to. Yes, that age! Those life and death things that are sometimes central to being young.

Writing is hard. I mean, writing by hand is hard. It’s hard when you have got used to running your fingers across a keyboard. So much faster. So much faster and also, editable. You can delete, copy-paste, highlight and do all kinds of fun stuff. Writing on paper using a pen, in contrast, is pretty straightforward with limited ‘options.’ If your handwriting is poor, it’s an added headache for both sender and receiver.

And yet, in these AI days when you can type a few key words, press ‘enter’ and obtain a well-written love letter, for example, or even a love poem that’s ‘original,’ there’s something to be said of the unpretentious hand-written love letter. Sure, you can transcribe the AI-generated ‘love’ letter and fool the recipient, but such deception can never last.  

One day, for example, the recipient of a poem could tell something like this to a ‘lover’ who deferred to AI: ‘you have sent me such beautiful poems, darling, you are so talented; so could you write me a poem right now, a poem where you mention sunrise and dew drops, a rainbow and a child’s smile — just mix it all and write on this piece of paper a poem unlike any that has been ever written.’ 

A good memory and a bit of creativity might get you out of jail, but you’ll be outlawed sooner or later. Far more honest, honourable and appealing would be to write what you can in your bad handwriting. It will have heart. It will be saved in the heart and not in some file in a hard drive.  

Someday, soft copies could be considered as tangible as hand-written letters were to a people of a different generation. Maybe that’s how it is even now for most young people.

Speaking strictly for myself, I still write. Handwrite. There’s me in the words and there’s me in the ink that moves in particular ways and takes residence upon a piece of paper. I just can’t email such things.   


Other articles in this series: 

Octavio Paz and Arthur C Clarke in the stratosphere 

Enduring solidarities 

Coco 'Quotes' Gauff!

9/11 and the calm metal instrument of Salvador Allende's voice 

What a memory-keeper foregoes 

Whitman, Neruda and things that wait in all things

Thilina Kaluthotage's eyes keep watch

Those made of love will fly

Profit: the peragamankaru of major wars

Helplessness and innocence

The parameters of entirety

In loving memory of Carrie Lee (1956-2020)

Mobsters on and off the screen

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road