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Kolkata’s Letter Boxes: An Enduring Love Story

10 November, 2021 12:06:28
Kolkata’s Letter Boxes: An Enduring Love Story

In the good old days, not so long ago, a number of letter boxes painted in red or otherwise made their presence felt by hanging on a tree or on a pole or on old doors of Kolkata to be filled with letters. But in this fast-paced 21st century digital world, the sight of a letter box has become a rarity. Most people insist that the existence of latest technology makes communication faster and easier. Very true indeed but there are those who still feel ordinary utilitarian stuff look more pleasing than the newer ones ... like the mailbox!

The sight of a post box brings back memories of an era of pen and paper, ink and warmth, and the excitement of receiving a little package, an envelope with a beautiful stamp or two – a collector’s item for the enthusiastic philatelist – and evoke golden days of yore. It was such a welcome sight for the elderly and the ladies of the house to spot the familiar postman in khaki mufti carrying a bag full of letters and parcels and pedaling his way at a slow and steady pace during those lazy afternoons. He was the harbinger of news, mostly good and sometimes not so good, but none the less, he was the quintessential magician who could dispel fear and anxiety from the expectant faces. 

He was respected as a man of much importance and eager eyes followed his entry in the narrow lanes and by-lanes of residential areas. Sometimes little children playing ‘gully cricket’ or hide and seek in the lanes would pause their game mid-way and run after the postman’s bicycle waiting for him to halt the bicycle in front of a house, rummage his bag for the letter to drop at that particular letter box. He would have his audience gaping in wonder as he moved his hand deftly to fish out the letter and hand it over to the receiver. The postman who did his rounds during afternoons was a familiar face in the locality and people often stopped him on his track and after exchanging pleasantries, asked if there was any letter for them. For most kids, the excitement of collecting a letter from the postbox just after the postman dropped it and then sprinting indoors with the envelope, swelled their ego with a strange sense of achievement.

A letter was the only mode of communication for the hoi polloi – one that connected near and dear ones spread across the entire universe. Sometimes, the postman would be treated to home-made savories by the ladies of the house if the letter delivered carried good news for the family like the finalization of a son or a daughter’s wedding, a birth in the family, speedy recovery of a member of a family residing in another city, letter of acceptance from an educational institution, interview letter for the expectant member of a family, letter specifying the joining date from an employer et al. 

Alas! No one writes letters these days. The neglected, rusted letterbox seems to cool its heels   patiently, infinitely in one corner, waiting for that letter filled with charming words that hum the truth of wooing and swooning, to be dropped inside. Its cavernous belly yearns for a few fragrant verses that would bring two lovers closer or get a newly-wed couple staying apart within reach… but  woe betide! The shadows grow longer and the autumn leaves sail past the mailbox, patting gently on its dull brown head, comforting it, and perhaps teaching it the impermanence of existence, providing it with the solace that this wait too, shall be over one day.

The letter boxes stand fixed at the door or hanging on the facades by the side of the gates, doors and staircase landing of houses and buildings -- a remnant of a bygone era. The faded name and address of the ‘Man of the house’ looks worn-out and hazy like a whiff from the past.  The boxes no longer evoke the sensation of wonder and expectations for us. Letters have ceased to become the source of sharing love and longing, joy and sadness, and of all those little-known exploits and setbacks of life. The letter box no longer houses happiness, regrets, confessions and sorrow.

We now live in an era of Internet, SMS, WhatsApp, Instagram and other social media platforms and the letter box has lost its sheen. Handwritten letters are no longer in vogue. The emotion that was an intrinsic part of sending and receiving letters has been replaced by a plethora of easy and instant options available.

The history of postal services in India dates back to the 18th century when Warren Hastings, the then Governor-General of British India established the first postal service for the public in March 1774 in Kolkata. In 1854, India became the first country in Asia to issue postage stamps from its post office in Sindh (now in Pakistan). Currently managing more than one lakh post offices in the country, India Post has become the world’s largest postal network. Last year, when most businesses switched their operations online (after the government-imposed lockdown to combat COVID-19 infection), the red postal vans maximised their road services and began delivering medical equipment – COVID-19 tests, ventilators, medicines, and N95 masks — across states as part of their ‘essential services’. 

In Kolkata stands the First Post Office, designed by Walter B Granville, the General Post Office (GPO), adorned with a high white domed roof, 220 feet tall Ionic-Corinthian pillars, and an in-house museum that celebrates a rich collection of old artefacts and stamps. It is also the place that introduced the hand stamp postmarks called ‘Indian Bishop Marks’ (named after C. H. Bishop of UK). But the letter boxes on the doors of houses are mostly dilapidated, broken or buried under dust and cobwebs. 

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