It wasn’t easy for Vivek Sood, then a Major in the Indian Army, to leave his home for a border posting. It was the 1980s, and his newly-wed wife was expecting. It was an era when mobile phones didn’t exist. One had to book a trunk call or hunt for an STD booth to contact one’s family.
Vivek remembers how he began writing letters to his wife instead. When he had to join his first posting after marriage, leaving behind his wife who was carrying their first child, he wanted to make his presence felt all around her. “Many a times, I would call but fail to express what I wanted to say. However, letters are a beautiful way to connect. The choice of words, the calligraphy, the colourful emotions, the pain of separation can all be poured into letters. That’s why I chose to make it the medium to introduce myself to my wife.”
Decades later, he published those letters in a book—Fleeting Moments: Excerpts from a Soldier’s Diary. He credits his wife, who treasured those sheets of paper. “My wife still cries when she reads them today,” he quips, adding that letters are the most wistfully warm objects that connect us humans.
In India, letters are synonymous with 20th century modernity, before the advent of hi-tech communication via cell phones, emails and messaging apps. When the penmanship and colours of ink told more stories than SMS can ever do. That ring of the bicycle bell, the expressionless call: “Postman, postman!” that broke the afternoon reverie, raised expectations and made the heart skip a beat! Can the SMS alert compare with the charm of the wait for the postman? Passion demanded literary imagination. Smileys and emojis wouldn’t make the cut. Can new-age apps compete with the yellow post card, blue inland letters and ochre envelopes—with stamps and denominations printed in one corner? A time when the Indian Post Office bridged everyone irrespective of caste, community or economic class.
Raj Kumar Gupta, who joined the Indian Postal Service as a postman in 1981, has been delivering letters for 40 years. For the last two years, he is delivering letters to the Prime Minister’s Office. He feels elated to be part of India’s originary postal code—110001—accorded to the President and Prime Minister’s residence since the inception of the Department of Posts.
Gupta says, “I have served public as well as VIPs. The routine remains the same. We land up at the post office at around 7am, and start work by sorting letters, arranging them by ‘beat’, scanning their entry into the computer and cell phone, making lists of letters to be delivered. Finally, between 11am and noon, we leave with the letters for their destinations.” He feels that while the volume of personal letters may have fallen over the years, the postman’s work hasn’t reduced a bit, and has evolved to match the new needs of the people and the nation.
According to several postmen in Delhi, there was a time when people used to treat them with great dignity and respect, offering them water, sometimes even sweets when they brought them good news. “Today, people treat us like delivery men,” says a postman who didn’t wish to be identified.
The last huge rush in post offices across India was on July 15, 2013, when the Government of India ended the domestic telegram service. There were snaking queues at post offices as people wanted to relieve the nostalgia of sending a telegram one last time before the 163-year-old service disappeared.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Bells of Letters")