Started as a quarantine project, Chitthi Exchange, the letter exchange arm of The Alipore Post, has evolved into a community of thousands of penpals today. It is an attempt to bring people closer, by introducing them to like-minded letter writers, or ‘compatible friends’ as Rohini Kejriwal, the brain and muscle behind the initiative calls them. Besides re-creating space for letter-writing in a world crowded with instant communication, the exchange has also revived conversations about the postal system. We talked to Rohini about the project’s journey so far and where it’s heading next.
What was the inspiration behind starting Chitthi Exchange?
The idea started during quarantine. There were a lot of conversations on the internet about how people felt disconnected from each other. The pandemic brought a lot of isolation and loneliness. I thought that during this time of uncertainty, it would be good to have a project where people get to experience what it’s like to have a penpal. This also came about because I got an intern for the first time, Tanishka Pandey, and it was one of her ideas to start something centred around community engagement. I think it just clicked and naturally fell into place. It has been a project I’ve always wanted to do but never had the bandwidth to execute on my own. I came up with the name and made a logo, and we began with that.
Rohini Kejriwal, photo by Jai Ranjit
I went to boarding school at Rishi Valley in Andhra Pradesh, and letters were the main form of communication back then. So for four years, I got to experience the joy of letter-writing and the anticipation that comes with it. I’ve also had penpals in the past, one from Sri Lanka and one from Delhi, who are still in touch with me. It’s a very special bond because letter-writing isn’t the easiest thing to do, which makes it all the more valuable when someone actually bothers to write you a handwritten letter. We had done surveys with people who are part of Chitthi Exchange, and most of them had never written or received a letter, nor had they been to a post office. This was a way of exposing people to the goodness of letter-writing. We’ve all seen the demise of the telegram and I don’t want the postal service to follow.
What is your fondest memory of writing or receiving a letter?
I think it would have to be getting my grandparents’ letters, which would come to me in Rishi Valley. Usually, the letters were in Hindi, and very often it was the same letter being written again and again. But it was always the most endearing thing to receive. I was still a child then and it did feel like home every time. In boarding school, letters are treated like common property and if you received a letter from someone special or a boyfriend, everyone would be in on it. Apart from that memory, it is always exciting when people send you really long letters or when there’s a really nice collection of stamps on it. The ones which I’ve received from people outstation feel extra exciting because there is usually something extra in it — some goodies from another land! I am always waiting for those.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of participating in the revival of an endangered art form?
I found people just know of penpals as a concept, but actually introducing it into their everyday lives, in the form of a stranger who slowly becomes your friend, has been the most amazing part for me. Even in terms of pairing, a lot of thought goes into matching their interests and demographics to see what a person can bring into another’s life. I also found that a lot of the pairs we made actually knew each other from before. I think that’s pretty amazing because it means something in the pairing process is working.
For me, the human element is what makes it a peer project — it’s not a quick fix. The idea that I have enabled almost 2500 people from India and across the world, to write to each other feels wonderful, because that’s 1200 pairs of people in conversation. Amidst the pandemic, a lot of people have found hope through this project. It has given them something to look forward to. When you’re just sitting at home, alone, for days at a stretch, without any kind of interaction with the outside world, the arrival of the letter really does change something. I am very happy to have been able to help make this happen.
How has managing Chitthi Exchange been different, or similar, to running The Alipore Post?
With Alipore Post, there’s a revival force in place, where it is poetry that is being brought back to people in a certain format. With Chitthi, we are talking about the postal system and letters, snail mail projects, post crossing. In terms of the content, I’ve been discovering and curating a lot of specific things in the same way as with Alipore Post. I do have a keener interest now in stamps of the world. I’ve even gone through my father’s stamp collection, taken photos of it and shared them with the community. So, it’s in the same space of curation, but the focus is on letter-writing and trying to amplify the penpal experience, by showing people something new.
In this digital age, how important is it to take art beyond social media, and into the real world?
It should be a priority. With social media, you start factoring in things like other people’s opinions, which don’t really matter at the end of the day. I feel like the idea of a gallery is being rethought now, because it is a very elitist concept. There are many other ways of making and showcasing art that go beyond a virtual screen. I can definitely say it’s already happening, even with Chitthi Exchange. Street art is having a moment in India for sure. It has made art so much more accessible. Because of the pandemic, I think we all had to rethink offline projects, so unfortunately, a lot is going on online. But it’s not a bad space to experience art. The internet has its virtues too. I think people forget we see art in our everyday experience, but I have found a lot more people are expressing themselves now. Whether or not it makes it to social media, is secondary.
Where do you see Chitthi Exchange going from here?
I started this as a quarantine project, but there seems to be a real community who wants to experience it. One thing I envision happening is that it becomes more crowdsourced as a page and community, rather than the entire onus falling on me. I want this to be a space where people can submit their own work or things they find. I do have a lot of love for everything related to Indian Post. I have my own postbox at home. I think going forward, this is something I want to continue doing because I see the direct impact it has on people, and I certainly want to keep enabling that.
Text Nikita Biswal