My Romance With A Village Postman


daak laaya 

kushi ka payaam kaheen dardanaak laaya

daakiya daak laaya …”

—From the film  Palkon Ki Chhaon Mein (1977)


 The Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini starrer 1977 film was a flop in the Box Office, but the song, penned by Gulzar and sung by Kishore Kumar remains a strong favourite for that generation.

The lyric  reflects a reality all elder  Indians are  familiar with – the ineffectual man in khaki, his pants clipped firmly at the bottom to keep the well starched dress from getting smudged by the greased cycle chain, pedaling his bicycle and putting letters and postcards into eager hands. Normally, the postman had a set pattern for his visits. Come rain or sun, he would trudge on foot with his bag full of letters or cover difficult terrains on his bicycle. There would be ordinary letters, registered letters, money orders and parcels. Once in a while, he carried telegrams which had good news as well as the bad ones.

In a village the postman enjoyed a unique status unrivalled by his urban colleagues. His social perimeter straggled the constellation of villages he covered in his official errands which could be anywhere between 4-5 villages depending on the size of each village. No one could dare challenge his credentials about knowing so much of the realities of rural social life. He had access to even the most intimate and private affairs of families. In case the entire household was unlettered, he was the only channel of communication for it with their cousins.  He would read aloud the letters to them and would also write out replies on their behalf.

When he brought good news, the recipient would reward him with whatever sweets there were in the house. During festivities, he would be an important guest and be treated to goodies that the family had prepared. And, when he delivered the money orders, he would get some monetary tips. It was not mandatory but usually the giver gave and the postman did not have the heart to refuse.

All that has changed. The postal departments have revamped their images to get a sleek new age look. The postman too has got a makeover. Gone are the days when he used to deliver picture postcards, letters to lovers and money orders from newly-employed sons and goodies from doting grandparents. Gone too is the time he was a window to the world, a tenuous link with loved ones, and was almost a family member. Communication is now via e-mail or SMS or mobile phones. People are gradually forgetting the art of letter writing – in another decade, there will not be any letters on display penned by celebrities of today. The postman now visits the houses to drop the official statements of the bank or the insurance company or the telephone or electricity bills or printed pamphlets for promotion of products. In these high-tech times, lovers no longer write letters, instant banking has replaced money orders, grandparents rely on courier companies to send parcels of love and almost nobody has a pen pal when social networking sites work just as well or even better, for that matter.

When I write this diary I feel extremely dismayed with the way the Indian village postman has receded into the far horizons of the rural landscape .The traditional postman has been slowly consigned to grandma’s folklores and lullaby tales  . But it is an image that just won’t get washed away by the driftwood of history. The image will keep revisiting us.  The postman remains a   hero for those of my generation .Everyone knows for sure that the new digital show kids can’t provide the warmth and intimacy that has gone along with the figure of the traditional postman.

A rural postman was not just a mail carrier; he was the social glue that bonded disparate communities. I remember the times when his sight would flood my mind with the excitement of the possibility of getting the news I had been long awaiting. I remember how eagerly our landlady listened for his knock –how tremulously she asked for whom the letters were directed—and the painfully repressed sigh and darkened countenance with which she turned away when there was none for her.

The new boys are savvy, attired in modern executive apparel, zipping on mobikes in a professional businesslike manner. They now offer many new services – filling out traffic challans and submitting them and also carry electronic devices that capture and transmit the signatures of the addressees digitally in case of registered letters or speed posts. In villages, they are data collectors and stock groceries and extend essential healthcare services. But despite all these add-ons the new boys can’t be a substitute for the romantic postman.

In an Indian village a postman was much more than just a letter deliverer. He was the heart of the local social planet who commiserated with people and shared their common concerns. In return the people also loved him and lavished benedictions and eulogies on him. For me the postman was more than just a benign messenger who delivered a trove of daily mail .He was a highly resourceful support to the local community. I always felt a strange kinship with him.  He relieved us of a number of cumbersome tasks that were made simple by him on account of his knowledge of the local geography and the social arcana.  “Those who have known us, continue to respect us. In fact, people trust us more than the courier guys.” he would chuckle. “There have been many a time when I have picked up letters dropped carelessly by the courierwallah and delivered them to the right address.”

The postman at the village where I worked was Vithal Batte, a demure man with a knack for striking friendship with any stranger. I was manager of a village bank .With his gray hair and gentle demeanor, he cut a uncle like figure, but, as I quickly learned, he was a postal employee with a workaholic edge. Money was not a high priority for him. His wife was employed as a peon in a local school. The Battes didn’t have children. For them the entire village was their family. On account of his affable nature and his charming manners, Vithal   was a much adored man. He was everybody’s family friend, the fond uncle for the kids, affectionate brother for others and a loving son for the venerable class .

in his  Malgudi Days  RK Narayan   immortalized the tiny  post office in Malgudi, where Thanappa the local postman delivers letters, on his bicycle, pedalling across the town. Thanappa is not just the postman of Malgudi, he is one of the most loved characters who is a link for so many families.

Vithal’s linguistic fluency came in handy as he was the scribe and reader for the folks in the village.  In essence, he was the gossip bearer. Often he would take breaks in the verandahs of the houses. Steaming coffee or cold buttermilk used to be offered. The happenings of the village would be passed around.

Back then, communication was synonymous with the postal services. Every single type of postal stationery communicated a message in itself. A telegram was often associated with bad news. To convey a short, crisp message, a postcard was sent. An envelope with a fancy stamp conveyed opulence. For regular correspondence, the inland letter card was popular.

The tinkling of Vitha;l’s cycle bell was a tell-tale sign of my arrival. Eager heads would pop out of the doors in anticipation of news.

For me the postman was a key person   as he helped me with some really innovative solutions to complex problems. A majority of our clients   were cut off  by a river which had to be crossed to   bank branch.People needed to be ferried by canoes in order to enable them to transact their business with the bank. There old and women had to face great hardship travelling from their hamlets. Most of them were illiterate and could not even sign their payment slips. They had to be escorted by a family member who had to forego a day’s wage for the purpose. Moreover the discomfort only added to their pain –both in terms of physical suffering and the monetary loss. I felt that a solution must be found to mitigate the hardship of these people.

I decided to use the postman’s services for delivering payment to those depositors. My staff compiled a list of such ailing and old customers in the bank books and we decided to set apart some amount of cash to be delivered by the postman payment slips signed by the depositor. In case of illiterate customers the postman would attest the thumbprints. There was no provision of drawing cash from a suspense account — an account which is normally debited in case of emergency expenses for the bank. So I decided to draw from my own account .   Once the slips were received and the accounts debited my cash would get replenished. The reason why I chose the postman was that he knew almost every household in the villages and also had a reputation for honesty and trust. Since the postman was a contractual employee of the post department, I had absolutely no qualms about engaging him for this work. However, as a matter of caution and to circumvent the possible complications of account of labour laws, I decided to make the payment in his wife’s name.

A village democracy is a microcosm of the national democracy. The villagers themselves are quaint heroes and most bewildering windows with which to view their world. The postman became my lens for gazing the rural horizon. He was an informal rural sociologist and demographer for all visiting government officials .We could clarify from him several complex issues which even a lifetime’s reading of Mead, Metcalfe, Shrinivas, Ghurye, Madan, Mandelbaum, Dumont and  Lewis  and scores of their celebrated ilk  of anthropologists could not enlighten us.

For my understanding of the social and cultural patterns in the village, I always placed him in the august company of these intellectual priests. Even my primary reading of scholarly books on rural sociology couldn’t help me in peeling the so many layers of the village society… Vithal would lay bare each quaint color of the village culture in its subtlest shades. His observation was incandescent and unvarnished, and had clarity of a shepherd’s flute. Every little nuance would prompt Vithal to weave a new tale with a new twist. There was hardly a stone from which he could not extract a romance of history. He was a marvelous companion and would regale me with snippets of local history.  During my posting In Bina village near Nagpur, he was my   all season aide. He was my window to the hamlets which were served by my bank.

I remember my school lessons where we were told of the time when the mail was delivered by runners who carried a spear with two little bells attached to the shaft near the head. The spear was meant to protect them from robbers and wild animals and the bells just kept up their courage as they jogged along jungle trails.

There is  an inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York City:

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”

This   tribute is derived from a quote from Herodotus’ Histories (8.98), referring to the ancient courier service of the Persian Empire:

“It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed. “(trans. A.D. Godley 1924)

The commercial, which ran after the September 11, 2001  attacks and the anthrax mailings, featured no voiceover, only the following text interspersed on title cards:

“We are mothers and fathers. And sons and daughters. Who every day go about our lives with duty, honor and pride. And neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor the winds of change, nor a nation challenged, will stay us from the swift completion of our appointed rounds.”

“THE post office is a wonderful establishment!” exclaims Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen’s “Emma”. “The regularity and dispatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing! The possibilities are endless. ”

W.H. Auden’s tribute to the postman will continue s to resonate for generatins to come:

“They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at [email protected]


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