“Send fifteen copies within five days or evil will befall you.” a blue inland letter in a strange writing warned. As a kid it terrified me. The biggest evil in an innocent world meant failing exams. I never forgave the postman for delivering chain mail. It wasn’t his fault – I now know – but then I would’ve gladly fixed a stamp on him and marked it to China. Most days though I would’ve willingly given him my pocket money as baksheesh.
He delivered joy to our doorstep. The early birthday card that reminded the whole neighbourhood and built up the noise to my birthday, love letters I read long after they were tattered at the folds and boyfriends had disappeared over the horizon. ‘Phoren’ mail with miniature works of art for stamps. The ‘Wish you were here’ post card of the Manhattan skyline that, for a tiny moment lifted you out of your cubicle and into holidayland. The bundle of Christmas cards that later festooned the walls and made Christmas joy what it is. And of course the New Year card that surprised itself and us by landing on the doormat three months into the year, long after we’d broken every resolution we’d made.
As kids we badgered him more than any dog could. Chasing on his heels, tugging on his khaki uniform begging to know if he carried our report cards. He was our hero who trudged enough kms. to win Olympic walkathons. Who braved the 35 degree C sun in just a khaki topi – “Ma shouldn’t he wear sunblock? Sunglasses?” – with his worn khaki satchel lined with stories of people’s lives.
Now with email supremacy he mostly delivers credit card bills and tons of other junk mail: several cheery requests to ‘Save the whales’, buy an encyclopaedia, open a new bank account. Never once warning me ‘Your mail box quota is nearing its limit”, then soliciting larger storage for a few dollars, like my ISP does. Never grumpy as the old corner post-office, now extinct.
Like most government institutions, it was located where you’d find it easily. Almost in the fish market. Going by Murphy’s Law for Cities, the line would be the longest when you had two minutes to spare. Which explains why everyone in the straggling queue looked visibly chuffed, as if they’d just been abducted from another planet and planted there.
It was quite an exciting place really. Sacks of mail placed just where they could trip someone stupid enough to be in a hurry. Someone or the other became aware to the presence of gum, as they rested their starched shirt against a wall, quickly deducing that a gum applicator had been cleaned on it. The nicest thing about the place was the smell of schoolboy ink. The worst : the woman who’d found a smart way to conserve energy with monosyllables. “Can I have twenty of the rupee stamps?” “No.” Before you asked ‘Why not?’ she’d hand you forty 50p squares, enough to disguise the envelope, turn your tongue into a miniature gum mop and miss your appointment.
It was from there that he came. The shining link in an invisible chain, connecting somebody who dropped mail into a box in a far off land, to another somebody who waited eagerly by a gate. He brought a real letter. Made of rustling pages that rambled on, rarely sticking to the point, with outpourings of the heart and the mind written in somebody’s handwriting, precious with its ink spills, doodles, tear stains n all. A letter that let you say all the things you can’t over long distance phone, all the things you’d hold in your throat, hesitant, in the impersonal blue light of a monitor. A letter with a real address that belonged to a street and a house.
We often wondered how he remembered so many addresses. Bombay, as many miserably lost people know, is a maze of deranged streets. House no. 87/A could sit quite comfortably next to 302/C. What happened to the numbers in between is still a whispered mystery. Yet he knew where every house was.
Sometimes I’m afraid that children of the future will ask “Ma what’s a postman? Then it hits me. As long as some people – bless them – send out contest post cards in the hope of winning a TV or a Mercedes for nothing, he’ll come by. As long as email can’t deliver my dad’s ‘Reader’s Digest’, as long credit cards companies remember to bill me, as long as people have birthdays, not a chance.
(Published in Snapshot. A column on Mumbai city, in the Times of India)
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