Letters from Saigon..

I was sitting on a bench in the Saigon Central post office, looking a little lost, trying to look like a traveller and not a tourist, when an old man gently nudged my shoulder. “You are in my seat young man.’’ he said with a crisp tone. I was a little taken aback at first, because it was hard to find anyone who spoke English in Vietnam, even if they did, a lot often got lost in translation. I moved to the side with an instinctive half smile and watched him carefully lay his bag on the side. He then carefully took paper after paper out of the bag, and began to write. I did the tourist thing first and took his photo. Then I took out of my camera and took more photos. I adjusted the light and the angle and felt the focus of how a real photographer might feel. I felt like I was stumbling upon a big moment and it was time to capture it. I tried to talk to him, but as always the loud curious voice in my head shrivelled down to a murmur by the time it came to my lips. I finally asked him what he was writing. He smiled and told me “I write letters.’’ and then showed me a printed sheet which read ‘Public Writer’. It took a while for my next question to appear, but I managed after taking a few more of the exact same photos. I asked him “Letters to who?” He put his pen down and said “To everyone.’’ He then took his pen again, adjusted his glasses and went back to his letter. He had a lot of sheets on his side and I wondered if he was in a hurry. I was slightly amused for a moment that an 84 year old man would be in a hurry. I got up from the desk to take another shot from another angle. I really didn’t need another angle, but the old man made me nervous. I wanted to talk to him, wanted him to tell me stories, wanted him to tell me all about his letters and maybe even the Vietnam war, but I didn’t know how to start. I just stood there, smiling to myself. A fellow tourist came and started to see what the old man was doing. “Finally an Outlet!” I thought to myself and told him that this old man was writing letters for everyone. The tourist nodded and said “You from Vietnam?’’ Surprised I replied “No, India.”, to which he replied “Oh India, good.’’ and walked away. I jumped into dismay when that happened, yet my utter failure pushed me to just go for it. I sat back down next to the old man and asked “ When did you start writing sir?’’ He didn’t hear me the first time, so I asked again. Almost screaming through the mighty dome of the Saigon post office and startling a few people in the process. The old man put his pen down gently, turned to me and said “ I was trained by the American soldiers in 1974. They wanted me to reply to the letters of their families. You know, because the soldiers did not have time to write, and maybe they did not even read the letters sent to them.’’ He then sighed, smiled a little bit, picked up his pen and went back to writing. I wasn’t expecting that and I became all the more nervous. Usually when I met people on the road, they would say something immediately that catches my attention and I would contemplate on that. This time was different. Here was a man who was surely a treasure chest of stories and I didn’t even know where to begin. I mustered the courage and asked him “What are you writing now sir?’’ He gently put his pen down, an action for which I already associated suspensful music in my head. And then he said “ I’m translating a letter for a girl who was fathered by an American soldier in the 70s. Once the war was done, he left for home. She was left fatherless for over 40 years. Today, she has finally decided to forgive him and this is a letter of forgiveness.’’ He then took his pen and began to write again. I didn’t know what to say anymore. I instinctively got up and stood behind him. He seemed to have no idea that I was right behind me or he didn’t seem to mind at all. I don’t know why I began to read. I just couldn’t tell myself if this was for real. I stood there behind him expecting to see scribbles and touches of an exquisite foreign tongue, yet I stood there transfixed, reading the start of a beautiful letter, over and over again. His creaky old pen suddenly seemed like the most elegant instrument I had ever seen. He wrote “ Dear Dad, Please allow me call you by that affectionate word from my childhood, those years when I lost you …….’’ I took a step back right after that first line and knew that I couldn’t read this intimately personal letter. The voice in my head had reduced to little murmurs and I choked out a few words that said “Have a good day sir.’’ The old man didn’t hear me, he simply continued to write. I walked to the grand door of the Saigon post office, with a wide smile on my face, wondering about all the wonderful letters that has left from the midst of these ornate four walls.

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