An ode to the Indian village postman, who has receded into the far horizons of the rural landscape

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By Moin Qazi*

Wait Mr. Postman
Please Mr. Postman, look and see
Oh yeah
If there’s a letter in your bag for me….

These lyrics sung way back in the ’70s by the Carpenters immortalized the humble postman and his role in a lovesick teenager’s life. Closer to home, Rajesh Khanna did pretty much the same in “Palkon ki chhaon mein” (‘In the Shade of the Eyelids’), as he sang “Dakiya dak laya” (‘Come, the mailman has brought the mail’). These films and songs reflected a reality many middle-aged Indians were familiar with — the ineffectual man in khaki, his pants clipped firmly at the bottom to keep the well-starched fabric from getting smudged by the greased cycle chain, pedalling his bicycle and putting letters and postcards into the letterbox. Come rain or sun, the postman would trudge on foot with his bag full of letters or cover difficult terrains on his bicycle.

In an Indian village a postman was much more than just a letter deliverer. He 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.

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. 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.

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.”

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.

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.

The postman at the village where I was stationed was Vithal Batte, a demure man with a knack of striking up friendships with any stranger. With his grey hair and gentle demeanour, he cut a grandfatherly 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. Batte had a special calm ability for defusing tension; he was a natural mediator. He handled every visitor to the village with warmth and sobriety. 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.

After every short ride on his bicycle, he would waddle to a stop, lower his voluminous satchel, sending a few letters flying into the dust. Diligently he would brush off the dust and return them to his stockpile, don his satchel again and resume his daily rounds — a process which I watched with pleasure through the large window in my office. A dedicated postal carrier, he spent most of his day weighed down by letters as he navigated treacherous paths in order to ensure that the mail reached the remote villages in a timely fashion. He would sit using the seal to cancel blank postage stamps on letters, putting them into his old, worn out, discarded canvas bag that bulged with letters that had doomed addresses. It had also a seal, ’Returned Letters’.

For me, the postman was more than just a benign messenger who delivered a trove of daily mail. He was an informal but highly resourceful member of the local bank family. He relieved us of a number of cumbersome and mundane tasks, made simple by his knowledge of the local geography and the social arcana. He didn’t mind the long hours of work he had to put in despite his meagre salary.

I think the greatest incentive for him was that he enjoyed the job and was able to realize his self-actualization needs. He always cared about the respect he could command. “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 was a key person in the village as he helped me with innovative solutions to intractable problems. One such problem was the difficulty experienced by the infirm and old customers in visiting the bank. A majority of the villages in our block were cut off by a river which had to be crossed to reach Bina, the larger village where the bank branch was located. The paths from other directions were treacherous, impassable for most of the year. People needed to be ferried across by canoes in order to transact their business with the bank.

A large number of depositors were illiterate and could not sign their cheques. They had to be escorted by a family member who had to forego a day’s wage for the purpose. I felt that a solution must be found to mitigate the hardship of these people. I was also losing precious time as I had to keep bobbing across to villages on a fishing boat just for the sake of getting simple formalities completed by marginal farmers and agricultural labour.

On the suggestion of the postman, I worked out an innovative method for addressing this issue. I decided to use the postman’s services for delivering payment to those depositors. My staff compiled a list of such ailing or elderly customers and we decided to set apart a specified amount of cash to be delivered by the postman against cheques signed by the depositor. In case of illiterate customers, the postman would attest to the thumbprints.

There was no provision of drawing cash from 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 cheques were received and the accounts debited, my cash would get replenished. 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 labour laws, I decided to make the payment in his wife’s name.

It was Vithal again who inspired me to become a strong adherent and later a staunch champion of the experiments which reinforced that even a small loan to a woman tends to have far more beneficial ripple effects for the family compared to one made similarly to a man. Sociologists may debate endlessly about the reasons why men tend to spend the money on themselves while women tend to spend on their families, especially their children, but an assignment in a village can reveal this truth in its starkest colours.

Vithal’s voice was not the only voice raised in the village in the favour of women but his was surely the loudest and most persistent, and—cumulatively—the most persuasive. He was such a zealous believer in the theory that he tramped through almost all the villages with me to demonstrate the creative potential of poor rural women in money management.

Another area where his advice proved to be worthwhile was in dealing with defaulters of loans. Our normal practice was to print tersely worded standard letters in which we would fill the particulars of the borrowers and mail these letters to them. The postman had been observing me generating huge volumes of correspondence with unimpressive results. The mounting postal expenses for dispatching these letters were blowing holes in the balance sheet without yielding commensurate benefit. I happened to discuss my dilemma and anguish with the postman. He suggested I send postcards for small borrowers and telegrams for bigger ones.

What was so new about this strategy? The post card is not a sealed cover; its contents are always open for public reading. In villages, the postman normally drops the mail at the doorstep of the villager. If the person happens to be away, his neighbour or any visitor is quite likely to go through the contents. Similarly the villagers get alarmed and curious when there is a telegram. A telegram in a village normally triggers an instant alarm. The informal communications network of any village is so efficient that even the bowel movements of every man are known to his fellowmen.

Losing face is a devastating thing in a village context, and the villager will normally do anything to avoid it. The news of the bank’s notice catches immediate fire and the borrower becomes the butt of the village gossip mill. The villagers come up with wonderful theories about the likely fate of the poor borrower. This builds tremendous social pressure on the borrower’s family, forcing him to take immediate steps to regularize his loan. This strategy served me well for almost a decade during my professional career and would have continued to do so, had the internet not decimated these channels.

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 whose boys zip on sleek mobikes to deliver parcels of love and almost nobody has a pen pal when social networking sites work just as well or even better, for that matter.

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.

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”.

WH Auden’s tribute to the postman will continue s to resonate for generations 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?”

*moinqazi123@gmail.com


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