Janey Lee, a student from the University of Chicago, was in Mumbai two years ago on a fellowship, working on sanitation and waste management projects. Around the same time, architect and illustrator Sumedha Sah had also left her hilly hometown, Nainital, for the metropolis.
As they navigated their way through the big city, both longed for connections that would help make sense of the chaos. Sah shared a post on her Tumblr asking strangers to write letters to her, in what would become The Snail Mail Project. Sah was seeking inspiration – she would sketch illustrations in response to the letters, and send them back to the letter writer.
Lee was one of the first few to respond – on a postcard, she detailed the comfort she sought in a hot cup of street chai after a long day in the city’s slums. “It’s funny because even if I’m drenched in sweat, I still feel like a cup of chai will fix everything,” she wrote. In response, Sah sketched a teapot for Lee, so it would always remind her of her days in the city.
“Having someone from another country realise the value, and the love we have for chai as Indians was fascinating,” Sah said, recalling what would become her favourite exchange through the project. The gesture forged a special connection between two strangers, one that cut across geographical and cultural boundaries.
Since then, Sah has received and exchanged at least a hundred letters across the world from India, Japan, Singapore, United Kingdom, Malaysia, Turkey and Scotland.
You’ve got mail
Sah has been passionate about art and letter writing since the age of 10. “As a bank officer, my father frequently travelled across the country, and while we had phone calls, exchanging letters was a more intimate way of keeping in touch,” she said. Like others from her generation, Sah witnessed technology taking over all forms of communication, and finally gave in herself – preferring the ease of email to the habit of putting pen to paper.
In 2015, soon after she had shared the request on Tumblr, the 30-year-old realised that she wasn’t the only one yearning for connections stripped of the frigidity of screen-to-screen communication. Her inbox was flooded with enquiries from across the world.
“The response has been incredible,” said the self-taught artist. “The letters are all so different. Some are very personal – people describe their lives and their families, what they’re going through and how they feel. Others are descriptive – about books they’ve read, a life experience or tales from their travels. Many people tell me their deepest, darkest secrets.”
While Sah’s project called for people to post letters only, many go a step further and send objects that capture snippets of their lives. One of her first letters was from an architect in Poland, who sent her three postcard-sized sketches of a café he frequented in his neighbourhood.
“They were like his on-site sketches, where he drew whatever was in front of him,” she said. “A traveller from Japan sent me dried flowers from her father’s garden, a woman from Scotland sent me an old brownie recipe while another from Bosnia sent me a CD to introduce her country to me. It feels great to know that they actually put so much thought into what they want to send.”
Sah said she reads every letter four to five times to grab its essence, before working on the colours and composition of the illustrations she makes based on the letters.
Dinah, an artist from Pasadena, Texas, wrote to her about her dream of visiting the Taj Mahal. She had been struck with a medical condition and her family had lost their home and other possessions last year. For her, Sah drew an image of a girl cradling the Taj Mahal in the backdrop of a poem Dinah had sent her, To An Athlete Dying Young, by AE Housman.
For an Italian expatriate from Delhi, who sent her a postcard with a picture of an elephant’s back walking in a narrow lane, Sah made a collage of colour “signifying how different she may feel from all of us yet she too has been coloured the same colour we are”.
“We’re all living in similar situations, and going through a technological shift,” Sah said. “There are common elements no matter where you’re from, and you find these moments that run parallel in everybody’s lives.”
In the age of instant communication, the fact that snail mail hinges on the uncertainty of time makes it extra special. Sah said that most senders never ask her if she’s received their mail or even when she’ll write back to them. “They know that it’s not about the letter reaching you quickly or in perfect condition,” she said. “It could reach you all weathered or wet because of the rains. A letter has its own life and should take its own time.”
Her project finds resonance in a greater snail mail movement that’s occurring around the world, one that involves social media platforms in scouring for pen pals or exchanging art the old-fashioned way. Hashtags like #snailmailrevolution, #snailmailrevival and #snailmailwanted make up over a million posts on Instagram. In India, artist Tawfik Manham’s #postcardperday and consultant Neha Garg’s Bringing Letters Back are initiatives that hark back to now obsolete ways of establishing connections with strangers.
Sah hopes to expand The Snail Mail Project into an exhibition, displaying her artworks alongside the original letters. “The world is moving so fast, which is great, but as human beings we’re always looking to add more meaning to our lives,” she said. “People don’t know their handwriting anymore. To actually sit down and pen your thoughts is becoming a lost art, and that’s something technology can’t make up for.”