Pen Pal Initiative Brings People Together During the Pandemic

Rohini Kejriwal revives the art of letter writing through Chitthi Exchange that has helped connect hundreds of people across the globe 

Most of us are used to a daily dose of digital communication that we receive through video calls, emails or text messages. But during the lockdown, forced isolation made us crave for human interaction. And that’s how Rohini Kejriwal, a 29-year-old from Bengaluru, India, came up with the idea of ‘Chitthi Exchange’ (letter exchange).

Chitthi Exchange is a pen pal initiative aimed to bring back the charm of hand-written letters. “I wanted to bring back the feeling of comfort and the essence of nostalgia that comes with hand-written notes, post-cards or letters,” said Kejriwal.

The project, initially, started as a quarantine initiative where people from red-zones (containment zones where Covid numbers were very high) could send out emails to strangers. In the first month (July), Kejriwal received about 1100 entries. However, when the red-zone restrictions were lifted, people started sending out hand-written notes, and the initiative gave birth to a larger pen pal community across the globe.

Thirupurasundari Sevvel, 30, from Chennai, is a member of this pen pal initiative who joined the community in August. Sevvel believes that coming across Chitthi Exchange was a blessing since she didn’t realize that an entire world of pen pals exists even today.

“It is a very giving community. Once you write to someone, you don’t know when they will reply,” said Sevvel. “Yet it is this slow process, the wait, and the anticipation that one looks forward to.”

A lot of work goes behind maintaining the growing community. To become a part of it, one has to fill out a form, divulge some personal details, and talk about some life lessons learnt during the lockdown period

Every month when Kejriwal receives responses, she makes pairs based on interests, profession, age and location. Most of her pairings include professionals from the banking, law and architecture sector.

“We pair the international entries first because it takes a lot of time to send and receive international letters.”

Earlier, when Kejriwal started the matchmaking process, she was a tad intimidated by the whole thing and the work she was taking on.

Chitthi Exchange is not just limited to adults; it has received a lot of entries from kids below the age of 16.

“I paired a 7-year-old with a 48-year-old lady who is in the field of education. Both of them got to see the world through each other’s perception.”

Kejriwal is a writer by profession and the founder of The Alipore Post,which is an online community that celebrates arts, poetry and music from lesser known artists and writers. The idea of hand-written letters is very close to her heart since she grew up studying in a boarding school where writing letters to her family and friends was a very meaningful activity.

Once the pairs are made, Chitthi Exchange sends out an email with the name and details of with a few steps to follow. After receiving the email, the paired pen pals move on to a one-on-one correspondence.

Sevvel has sent out 25 letters to date and has received 22 letters. For her the entire process has been a means to rediscover the parts of herself that she lost growing up.

“You speak to a person without a pre-determined mindset, so the conversation is different from the kind you have with your friends. I am tapping into a part of myself that takes me back to how I felt as a kid.”

Sevvel now receives a letter or a post card every third day. She has dedicated her desk to stationery for the letters like post cards, stickers and stamps.

Letters received through ‘Chitthi Exchange’. (Courtesy of Rohini Kejriwal)

One of the reasons why this initiative found growth during the lockdown was because it gave people a sense of belonging and something to look forward to during the bleak times. A study by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention states that substance abuse, suicidal ideation, depression and anxiety has considerably increased in people owing to the hopeless environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Putting effort into a hand-written letter, reaching out to a stranger, waiting for your own letter to arrive – this gave purpose to many people, who were otherwise very stressed and depressed because of the lockdown,” said Kejriwal.

Dr. Vishwakirti Bhan Chhabra, psychologist and co-Founder at The Mind Research Foundation says that the pandemic left people within the comfort of their homes feeling lonely.

“Human beings are social animals, and when you take the social aspect out of it, a complete re-wiring of the brain happens. When you can’t find a place of comfort or solace, you tend to look inwards or depend on other means of comfort, which includes social media or, in this, the initiative of a pen pal community.”

“There is no judgement when you talk to a complete stranger; you derive comfort and solace from talking to them, which in-turn promotes a good mental health” says doctor Chabbra.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Anindita Ghosh)