But now the professional letter writer is confronting the fate of middlemen everywhere: to be cut out. In India, the world’s fastest-growing market for cellphones, calling the village or sending a text message has all but supplanted the practice of dictating intimacies to someone else.
And so Mr. Sawant, 61, and by his own guess the author of more than 10,000 letters of others, was sitting idly at his stall on a recent Monday, having earned just 12 cents from an afternoon spent filling out forms, submitting money orders, wrapping parcels — the postal trivialities that have survived the evaporation of his letter-writing trade.
But this is not the familiar story of the artisan flattened by the new economy, because, it turns out, his family has gained more from that economy than it has lost.
Three of Mr. Sawant’s four children are riding the Indian economic boom, including a daughter, Suchitra, who works at Infosys, the Indian technology giant. In the very years that a telecommunications revolution was squashing her father’s business, it was plugging India into the global networks that would allow her industry to explode. Suchitra now earns $9,000 a year, three times as much as her father did at his peak...
There were some letters Mr. Sawant would not write. He refused, for example, to trade in romantic love. Love is fickle and dangerous, he said. Lovers lie; they cheat; they offer their love and rescind it. He refused to engage in chicanery on other people’s behalf....
But Mr. Sawant is not bitter. He said he was happy to stay behind if his country advanced. “With mobiles, India wins,” he said. “For other people, it may be difficult. But I’m happy.”
He is happy, of course, because his four children, all of whom he sent to private school using the proceeds from letter writing, have pulled the family into the upper middle class. His son works at a bank; one daughter works as a civil engineer in Denmark; another daughter is studying computers in college; and there is Suchitra, who is currently in New Jersey on assignment for Infosys.
-The Ink Fades on a Profession as India Modernizes