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Miscellanea/Manjula Padmanabhan

I am a fugitive from the chain gang

Achain-letter arrived for me. Craig Sherwood, a 17-year-old boy suffering from terminal cancer, hopes to enter the Guinness Book of Recordswith the largest business card collection, it said.

Ten years ago similar appeals went out, via articles in the press, for a young boy called Craig Shergold. Could this be the same boy? Shergold, too, had terminal cancer. He was collecting greeting cards towards an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. He succeeded. I recall a photograph of happy faces in a hospital, the ward festooned with cards. I was pleased that I bothered to mail a card.

This time, however, I found myself resisting the appeal. the problem is chain-letters. The first time I got one, I was 12. It came with a list of names and addresses. For the price of ten stamps from my collection, the letter promised, I stood to gain a potential 3,600 stamps. Wow! I air-mailed my duplicates at once, dreaming of becoming the local stamp champ.

Alas, I was disappointed. No stamps came my way. But I continued to think that chain-letters were a wonderful idea. It surprised me to hear otherwise. One of the nuns in my school even hinted that there was a darkly heathen quality to them. Then a friend received one of those sinister messages which threaten financial ruin and sudden death unless the recipient sends out ten carbon copies of the letter to friends and relatives.

I had to admit that was a sneaky trick. In the years since then, I too have received slithery warnings through the mail. I throw them away at once. I don't believe bad luck can arrive by parcel post and I certainly resent the claim made upon my time and money, just to keep some stranger's malice alive. When I try to imagine the kind of people who set these things in motion, they always look like extras from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Then last year I got an irresistible chain-letter. It was a wonderful scheme for circulating used books. I could see that other names on the list were of friends. I immediately set about following the instructions. I chose a book which I had enjoyed, which would reflect well on my library without causing me a serious loss.

I mailed it to the name at the head of the list. I printed out six copies of the letter, taking care to supplant my name and address with that of the friend from whom the letter had come. Hers was now in the receiver's position. And I sent my copies out feeling plump with accomplishment. It seemed such a sure thing!

A couple of days later, I had a call from one of my addressees. She was riven with guilt. She loved all her books too much to lose any of them. She wanted to send a new one, whereas I felt that was against the spirit of the chain. We discussed her address-list. I imagined the pleasure of receiving thirty-six books for the price of one. Fantasised about what kinds we'd get and from whom.

Two weeks later, I got one book. So weather-beaten that its pages no longer tore, they shattered. So scholarly that I barely understood its title, never mind the contents. Truly this was a book discarded, a book disgraced! And that was all. Other members of the chain had received between one and four books each.

So it's easy to understand why I am wary of chains. Besides, in this case of Craig Sherwood, the details are disturbingly vague. The address is: 'Make a Wish Foundation' Atlanta, GEORGIA 303246, USA. But that zip code has one digit too many. I don't want to photocopy ten sets of five page lists. I don't want to sent my visiting card off into the void. and forgive me, Craig, if you ever see this, but I can't feel that visiting cards for a record-breaking effort are the same as greetings to a sick child.

So yes, I'm breaking this chain. Even though it was sent to me by good friends. But by writing this column, I've told all of you who log into Rediff On The NeT about it, right? Not it's up to you to do your bit.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Manjula Padmanabhan

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