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Sunday, October 8, 2017

World Post Day: The postman's still knocking on the door

Tomorrow is World Post Day. Yogesh Pawar pays tribute to the foot soldier of this timeless institution — the postman, whose underpaid and overworked life is rarely acknowledged

     "The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters."
—Lewis Carroll

Little might mathematician, logician, Anglican deacon, photographer and one of the finest nonsense litterateurs of the world who has given us the all-time classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, have known how despite her digital strides India still lives a lot by what he said in the late 1800s. Although volumes of regular mail in the form of inland letters and postcards has reduced by 50 per cent in India, it is still among the highest and most widely distributed postal systems in the world. The Indian Posts and Telegraph Department (IPTD) continues to have a network of 1,55,021 post offices across the country. As many as 92.16 per cent of these (1,42,785) are located in rural areas while 7.84 per cent (12,236) in urban ones, according to the IPTD.

Keeping India connected

Abha Singh, former Postal Services director for Maharashtra & Goa circle says the Department has been India's backbone for years. "The IPTD has played a crucial role in the country's socio-economic development for 160 years. While the good, old telegram has been consigned to history, the post office not only delivers mail, passports and Aadhar cards but also touches lives by providing life insurance cover under Postal Life Insurance (PLI) and Rural Postal Life Insurance (RPLI) and accepts deposits under Small Savings Scheme. It also provides retail services such as bill collection, sale of postal stationery, stamps, forms, etc. The Department of Post (DoP) also serves as intermediaries for benefit schemes such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), wage disbursement and old age pension payments," says Singh, underlining how no such service across the world, except in parts of China, compares with India's postal service.

Meet the foot soldiers

Given the scope, magnitude and gamut of services of the postal network, even those among  the 1.34 billion Indians living over its 3.287 million sqkm land mass divided into 22 postal circles, who have never visited a post office, surely have interacted with the IPTD's foot soldiers, its postmen.

Navrang Singh Meena should know. A door-to-door postman since 1989, every visit of his is eagerly looked forward to by the residents of 129 homes in Rajasthan's Pali village. Most men in this village of 643 people are away in Jaipur, Ahmedabad or Mumbai working as masons and carpenters. "While they get their money sent home through informal networks since the postal money order proves expensive, they still like to send and receive letters as the cellphone network in the village is poor," says 44-year-old Meena. "Most locals can't read or write. I not only read out letters, to them but also write them for the elderly and the women. It is a good thing some school-going children are taking up this responsibility, as I end up spending too much time in each village."

Meena laughingly recounts how this occasionally puts him in a spot. "A newly married young woman in the village would draw the ghunghat (veil) over her face while I wrote to her husband in Ahmedabad. While wary of her in-laws who would rebuke her if she was caught corresponding directly with her husband, what was amusing was that even when I met her at a sympathetic neighbour's, she would be coy about saying what she wanted to convey to her husband and refused to utter his name," says this father of two. The college drop-out admits he finds the bicycle commute tedious, but likes the respect and love he receives from the villagers.

Over 900km away, in Mumbai's Goregaon suburb, postman Bal Gangadhar Gawde always carries a photograph of his family deity with him to ward off danger. After all, his work takes him through the thick forests of what is leopard country. Less than a month after the forest department trapped a leopard suspected of having attacked four children, killing one, in Aarey Milk Colony, two women were attacked by two leopards at the Chafyachapada tribal hamlet in the early hours of October 1st. "Last year, I was walking to the same village when I saw a leopard atop a tree branch barely 100metres away. Luckily for me, he snarled lazily and made no attempt to jump down. I ran in the other direction, clutching my bag of mail and took a circuitous route through the forest to deliver letters in Chafyachapada," recounts Gawde of the area he operates in delivering mail.

Given the terrain, there are lots of snakes and scorpions who take refuge inside post boxes. The one outside the remote New Zealand hostel is particularly notorious and Gawde never opens it without tapping it furiously. Despite hardships, this second generation postman has no regrets. "I'm glad I gave in to my late father's goading and became a postman like him. I love the rapport and trust I enjoy with the communities who've treated me like family for 37 years."

Abha Singh says stories like Meena's and Gawde's are the norm and not the exception. "There are complaints of delays and inefficiency, but given the challenges like inundated post offices, marooned and cut-off villages, difficult and hostile terrain, most agree postmen do a good job given their work circumstances," she says with pride and adds: "You'll notice that whether it is the heart of Naxal country in Gadchiroli or in the dacoit-infested ravines of Chambal, postmen have seldom been attacked or stopped from carrying out their duty."

All is not well

The National Federation of Postal Employees' (NFPE) union office bearers admit all is not well with the system given how understaffed and overworked it is. Delhi-based Secretary General RN Parashar took a swipe at the media.

"If a postman is caught for failing to deliver mails in Mumbai, like the errant Kurla postman who was dumping post in a watchman's cabin for more than four months, there is outrage and the media does well to articulate it. But the same media fails to highlight the abysmal conditions in which postal staff work, from old dilapidated structures, often without power, safe drinking water or toilet facilities," he says. "There have been no postman recruitments since 2014 after corruption charges in the recruitment process that year. Now people are retiring and we have a manpower shortage of over 40 per cent. The Department wants the remainder staff to take on extra work for which they get a measly Rs94 per day. Instead of moving older postmen into mail-sorting jobs at the desk as used to be the norm, some on the verge of retirement are now doing both, sorting and delivering mail. They often work 12-14 hours a day." Underlining this as the main cause of mail pendency, Parashar says many senior postmen are tired of facing the music from both bosses and the members of the public. "Fed up, they are seeking retirement in the hundreds and the government is not even paying attention to this crisis in the making." He laughs at the government's the idea of a solution to understaffing. He calls the outsourcing the work to temporary employees hired for as little as Rs 250 a day a bigger problem than solution. "Many of these temporary employees take this up with their college education and drop out the moment they find something less laborious and better paying. Nobody is grudging them that but getting to know the beat, area and people often takes a year or two. And it is such familiarity that can make or break the quality of postal services to an area. How can a collegian who comes to an area for a month or two do that?"

Postmen in culture

Given their inextricable link with communities, it is not surprising that postmen have been part of literature, poetry, art, television and cinema. Whether it is The Postmaster, by Rabindranath Tagore or the popular Hindi nursery rhyme, 'Dakiya aaya', the postman has been evoked in many works. However nowhere does this come across as strongly as in cinema. Film historian and researcher Nanda Vaishampayan reminisces how thespian Dilip Kumar played a postman with twin love interests, Nargis and Munnawar Sultana, in Babul (1950). Lavish in her praise for Palkon Ki Chhaon Mein (1977), Vaishampayan says there is a reason for its cult following. "Written by Gulzar,

Rajesh Khanna plays the protagonist postman in this film with songs composed by Lakshmikant Pyarelal," she points out. "The 'Daakiya daak laya' number ( is still hugely popular."

Pyarelal of the composer duo remembers how they had found the lyrics challenging. "Gulzar wrote the lyrics based on the postman's interactions. It had upbeat moments, longing and yearning for the beloved and also tidings of deaths. There is a moment where the song goes from talking about marriages and celebrations to news of death. You should see how Kishore Kumar shifts gears in an instant to go from upbeat to sorrowful."

In fact, the conversation between the shy bride (Aruna Irani) burning in passion for her husband who is away and the postman in the next verse really captured the essence of how the postman picks up the non-verbal nuances to convey the exact message in the letter.

But Pyarelal had some experience with that with Khat Likh De Sawariya Ke Naam Babu ( for Aaye Din Bahar Ke, 11 years before. "The essence of the rural woman and postman's interaction was really captured well by Anand Bakshi's words, the way Asha Bhosale has sung it and the way Asha Parekh has expressively rendered it on screen really makes this song stand out," says the septuagenarian Pyarelal.

Twenty one years later Bollywood would get its first negative postman in Ashutosh Rana's psychopath sexual predator Gokul Pandit in Dushman (1998). Vaishampayan says thoughts of Gokul Pandit delivering mail, while hungrily looking for his next target, give her the creeps  even now. The song 'Laaya Daak Babu Laya Re Sandeswa' ( by Shubha Mudgal for her album 'Pyaar Ke Geet' in 1999 had also topped the charts for long. Mudgal says her Allahabad upbringing made her comfortable with the language and context of this song. "The anticipation of the letter from the beloved, its arrival or not have been abiding themes in both semi-classical and folk genres. This song is an example of that," she says. It wasn't till 2014 that another postman came to the silver screen when Naseerudin Shah reprised an out-of-work postman in Finding Fanny where a letter he's written to his beloved remains undelivered for 46 years.

Vaishampayan underlines how postman portrayals in the West have witnessed all kinds of hues. "Agent K played by Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black II (in the MiB universe, most postal workers are aliens), Masood Ahmed (EastEnders), Henry Chinaski (Charles Bukowski's alter ego in the book Post Office), Gordon Krantz (The Postman), Willie Lumpkin  (mailman of the Fantastic Four in Marvel Comics) come to mind." Wonder if Meena or Gawde have watched any of these?
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