How The Snail Mail Project Brought Back Hand Written Letters In The Coolest Way Possible
It began, for Sah, during the monsoon in 2015, when she received a postcard from a Polish man named Piotr. “He sent postcards illustrated with former factory facades, and drawings of a cafe he often visited, wondering how life in Mumbai would be at the moment,” writes Sah, 32, on her blog. Outside her window, the city was soaked in rain. In response, she drew for him “the meaning of rain for a hardworking Mumbaikar.” Her response was a part of The Snail Mail Project, which is trying to revive the rapidly disappearing act of letter writing.
In 2015, Sah, newly married, shifted to Mumbai from the hills of Nainital, her hometown. Naturally, she found herself lost in the meteoric pace and chaos of the city. Longing to make new connections, Sah, through her Tumblr blog, invited strangers to write to her; she would respond with a hand-painted illustration. Says Sah, “I have always loved the act of letter writing, since childhood. So the project became a mix of my passion, my illustration, my art and my need to connect.” With this exchange of letters and art, she embarked on her snail mail journey.
In the next few months, a person called Swarupa Paleja wrote her a detailed letter, describing “the smell of the food, the colour of the skies and the sound of the sea,” during an unplanned trip to Kerala. Sah created what she calls “the undiscovered” for Paleja. “The wilderness within each one of us that is waiting to be explored, and to be stumbled upon unexpectedly. Those who go looking may find themselves curled up and dreaming beside an outcrop, or perhaps perched upon a tree,” is how she explained her artwork.
Sah — who went to school in Nainital, spent five years in Manipal studying architecture and another two years in Ahmedabad studying sustainable architecture — explains the process she follows.
“I open the letter as soon as I receive it. The act of drawing comes much later. I mull over it because it is an important artwork I am going to be sending them. I just don’t draw a beautiful picture. It has to mean something. Some are easy to grasp, and it takes a week. Some are difficult, so I keep them for months and respond when I’m ready. Sometimes it takes time in order for me to arrive at what I want to draw.” The letters she receives range from the personal to the experiential, she says.
Currently residing in Mysuru, Sah divides her time between working on the redevelopment of the city’s Railway Museum as an architect, and a children’s book as an illustrator. She has also collaborated with prominent magazines (such as National Geographic and Harper’s Bazaar), and spoken at TEDx Talks. Talking about the heartwarming response to her art, she says, “Some people have saved it, while others say they intend to give it to their children as a keepsake.”
Now over a 100 letters old, The Snail Mail Project is really all about establishing connections with strangers.
The one letter that resonated with Sah, during her times of loneliness in a strange city, was sent by Janey Lee in 2015 – she was a student from the University of Chicago, working on sanitation and waste management in Mumbai. “She wrote to me saying she gets tired after a hard day’s work, and all she looks forward to is a cup of chai.” So Sah drew a “teapot full of hot, steaming memories, which she will take back home. No matter how far she is, the thought of the sweet tea will always bring her back to India.”
Besides trying to inspire a love for old-school letter writing, Sah loves to travel and bake (“bread, not cake”) and shares a studio with a German baker in Mysuru. Her future plans include sharing a studio with other interesting people and forming a “creative community”. She has also translated her love for dogs into My City, My Dogs, a children’s illustrated book.
Reflecting on her learning from the Snail Mail Project, she believes a hurried pace of life has little to do with success. “I think the biggest learning is that everything takes its own time. When I started it, I had no idea that it would grow so big. It started as a small personal project. Now, it has been covered in multiple magazines and portals. I’ve also been a part of a TEDx talk. So I think if you really want to do something, you have to give it the time and not think of what it is going to be like. I didn’t do it for the coverage. I did it for myself. And it grew into something else,” she says.