View: Letter(s) and spirit of postboxed India

One of the things I most miss from my early years of literary apprenticeship in Gurugram is the reassuring sight of a red post office drop box. The postbox was the repository of my dreams. Into it, I would drop handwritten, and later badly typed, short stories for editorial offices in far-off metropolises.

Sometimes, about a month later, there would be a one-line rejection letter in the self-addressed stamped envelope one had submitted with the story. One shrugged one’s shoulders, put the manuscript in a new envelope, wrote a different editorial address, walked to the neighbourhood postbox, and dropped the envelope. One tapped the top of the postbox for luck.

Later, emails made everything faster. While accepting a story or a poem still took time, the rejection was much quicker. The post-submission waiting period made me feel more like a professional writer than the actual act of writing the story or essay. It was during the waiting period that I was the equal of a VS Naipaul or a Kiran Nagarkar. I knew they, too, once had patted the top of a postbox before settling down to wait for publication and fame.

When one wrote a love letter by hand, filling at least two sides of a foolscap paper and then sending it via India Post to one’s Intended, one probably had a better chance of acceptance than when sending a WhatsApp message. For one, you can’t outrightly reject a handwritten letter. You can’t delete it. You can’t block it. You can tear it, but that act betrays deep emotion.

The Intended can sometimes put the torn pages together, sit down at her desk and write a befitting reply on a light blue inland letter with a Wing Sung fountain pen, lick it close, walk to the postbox outside her hostel back gate, drop it in like a feather, and tap the top of the postbox for benediction.

In Gurugram, one rarely meets one’s postman. Occasionally, when a letter does come by, it is usually left at the main gate. The postman would call and inform you that he had delivered the package. In one of those conversations, the postman told me that since there were few postmen in Gurugram, it had been decided that they would drop off letters only at the gate, as walking through vast housing estates would be time-consuming. But I feel postboxes and post offices are going the way of all those small kasba stations where express trains do not stop because it is not profitable anymore. One forgets that it is those small stations where one waits for the solitary sojourner, which makes India connected and united. But one misses the old days when one intimately knew these messengers of joy and doom. They were an integral part of daily life, and so popular that we even had a brand of edible oil named after them. This lack of postboxes in Gurugram makes me sometimes suspicious that the city has seceded from India. That it is so affluent, so self-contained, so gated, that it does not wish to have any truck, any communication from the rest of India.

During my Delhi University days, my postman at Hakikat Nagar would visit me at least once a week, sometimes twice — conveying back rejected manuscripts. He knew they were emblems of my failure, and it pained him more than it did me.

I would tell him, ‘It is the writer’s lot to get rejected. It happened to Hemingway, Bharti, Cheever, and even to Snoopy atop his doghouse. It is happening to me.’

‘But so many times?’ He would go away shaking his head.

Occasionally, he also brought me cheques. He would stand at my door and put the envelope against the sun so that the outline of the cheque would be visible. His smile while he handed the cheque would be wider than mine. I would pull out the last Rs 20 and give it to him for benediction. It was the dastoor.

(The writer is author of ‘The Time of the Peacock’)


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