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Saturday July 2, 2022

Bagful of Memories

GPO Kolkata letters

Letters are things of the past. The past is enmeshed within letters. I belong to the generation which grew up in the latter half of the last century. All of us eagerly awaited the arrival of the postman on drowsy and somnolent afternoons. He was the harbinger of unexpected surprises – bright coloured envelopes, bearing letters from friends and relatives, inland letters, or better still aerogramme letters. The letters carried news from near and distant lands. Pen friendship between two friends, normally belonging to two different countries, was also common. Those were the days when foreign travel was not so frequent and few could afford them. 

The Red Letter Boxes

In those days, letters were usually written with the help of fountain pens. Ball point pens arrived much later. Chinese ink pens with their gold-tipped nibs provided smooth writing. These beautifully handwritten letters were lovingly kept aside to be read in solitude. The ubiquitously installed red letter boxes at every crossing are not found anymore. We wrote letters, sealed them into envelopes and dropped them in these boxes, with the hope that they’d reach the addressee in time. They, (the recipients) after having read these letters, sent replies of their own.

The jet set and racy lifestyle of modern times led to the death of letters and the art of letter writing. I still remember, letter writing had been an intrinsic part of our language and composition curricula in school. A well-written letter, with an impeccable handwriting – that being a bonus always –, was kept aside and guarded like a lovelorn pet.

letter boxes
The Red Letter Boxes were once to be found at every street corner

The GPO or the General Post Office still exists as do stamps. The letter, a memorable relic of the past, was a way of showing how humble or innovative we all were. The denominations of these stamps ranged from rupee one to rupees fifty or seventy. In our days, philately or stamp collection was a very popular and eclectic hobby. With the help of adhesive, we stuck stamps from different countries onto a stamp collecting album. Some of these were even three-dimensional. Coming back to inland letters, these were like pre-paid SIM cards of today. Once you buy them, you’d use them as you liked.

Letters in Literature

I am hugely reminded of Tagore’s play Dak Ghar (Post Office). Here, the small boy Amal waits for the arrival of the letter from the King. This sense of waiting – be it for letters or be it for anything else – is an existential crisis. Letters have played a great role in world literature. Tagore’s Streer Patra (Wife’s Letter) is in the epistolary form. It is believed that Jane Austen’s hugely popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, which was named First impressions earlier, may have been in this epistolary format. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is another such example. Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog, is largely written in the letter format. 

A Bit of History

During the British Raj, it had been Warren Hastings who, acting under the East India Company, had started the postal service in India in 1688. It had started off as “Company Mail” to be later modified into a regular service in 1854 by Lord Dalhousie. It was the latter who helped to pass the India Post Office Act in 1854. The postal service of today has its headquarters at Dak Bhavan in Sansad Marg, New Delhi.

The GPO in Dalhousie Square here had been designed in 1864 by Walter B. Grenville who acted as consulting architect to the then government of India. The site where the GPO now stands used to be the site of the first Fort William.  It is noted for its imposing high-domed roof and tall Corianthian pillars. Besides this, there are of course the various post offices located in and around the city proper. Telegrams, those harbingers of news (either good or bad), have also called it a day long since. The last official telegram, it is believed, had been sent to the then-young politician, Rahul Gandhi on July 15, 2013.

The Post Offices still exist in major cities where one can use their Speed Post services still. But the glory of these edifices has all but paled into the pages of history books.

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