Sunday, April 06, 2014

Following the Postman: In The Hindu Business Line's BLInk this Week

I grew up in the years when letters were written and read and sent. For us, the generation that saw that and now live through the email era, for us the postman is more than the man who delivers letters, I want to believe. The khaki-clad man with the odd shaped bag is our living past. Nostalgic for him and the letters I no longer get, I followed one around on his beat in Basavanagudi. The story is in this week's BL Ink, The Hindu Business Line's weekend section.

Read it here or see below. Photograph was not part of the published article.


Real mail, that is. We follow a Bangalore postman as he offers deliveries and counsel to all

The lumpy deep bags are of indescribable colour — not quite military green, and not yet completely grey, from years of use — and brimming with registered letters, magazine subscriptions, money orders, bills, notices, advertisements and the odd inland letter. If reality came with a soundtrack, like in the movies, I would hear the opening track of Malgudi Days every time a postman walked by dressed in all-khaki, a stack of letters in hand and many more in his bag.

The way he would holler out ‘Madam, post’ to catch mother’s attention; the tring of the bell on the handlebar of a sturdy cycle; the image of him by the doorstep — all seem sepia-toned now. He has time only for a line or two of small talk. In the movies, in books, he is the herald of all news, rarely, if ever, the main man, but crucial for that all-important twist in the tale. Secret-keeper of sorts, the postman is what the memories and mythologies of childhood look like for those of us belonging to a certain generation.

Postman Shankar (fondly called Shankarappa) is among the thousands of postmen in the country who walk miles every day to bring people their bills and letters. India Post lets me follow him around on his beat one day. He covers a few roads in Basavanagudi, one of Bangalore’s older parts where houses still have front yards, where jacaranda and tabebuia grow along wide roads and where the pace of life seems just a tad slower. By the end of nearly two hours, most of which I spend running to keep up with Shankarappa, I leave glad about some things that don’t change and some things that do.

Sixty-year-old Shankarappa is due to retire this May; he looks 15 years younger. The wise men are right when they say exercise keeps you younger and fitter. He gets plenty of that, from 7am onwards when he sets off on his bicycle from home , well over 10km away. Duty — that all-pervasive word for every work, the dharma you are born for — begins by 7.30am with sorting the mail in a large room filled with government-style metal tables and chairs. The other postmen in the office look up for a second at the flashing bulb when the photographer takes a photo, but quickly fall back into the rhythm of work. Any disarray in the stack will only mean more walking that day. The size of the stack of mail varies on a daily basis, taller at the start of the month when companies send bills, and closer to elections when politicians mail fat letters seeking voter support. He sorts them according to house numbers and street names, depending on the route he will take that day.

For the last 25 years, Shankarappa has been at this routine, six days a week. With a bag on either shoulder, he runs out, and I behind him. I get a running commentary of who lives in each house and what they do. “There lives Muniyappa, he loves the postal department, always asks me about our day. You see that big house, madam? It used to belong to two brothers, both are dead now, there is no one to claim the house now, it’s abandoned. That’s BJP leader Ananth Kumar’s office, this is a women’s hostel,” he reels off. A day of duty takes him through offices, residences, apartments, local fast food joints, printers, garages, travel agencies, tailors, fruit-sellers, tender coconut vendors and the sheds of security guards whom he reads out letters to.

He tells me that his beat, the roads that he has to cover, changes every two years. Given non-existent door numbers and haphazard hashtag streets that crisscross each other back and forth, how does he locate any address at all, I ask. “It takes a day at most. We get trained by the postman we are taking over the beat from. And then we draw our own maps,” Shankarappa says. Mentally, I presume.

He knows retirees Vanjamma and Ramakrishnappa well, they still get inland letters, Shankarappa says, as they belong to the pre-email, pre-mobile phone, analogue generation. The tender coconut vendor gets letters too. Apart from narrating his replies to Shankarappa to post, he sends money to temples, and our friendly postman even fills out all those money order forms. Shankarappa doesn’t give me names, but speaks of his friend the tailor who he insisted open a savings account. The owner of a house being torn down asks if he has had ‘tiffin’, a lady for whom he fills out money orders invites him in for a cup of coffee. Many passers-by ask for directions, who better to find houses than the neighbourhood postman?

Shankarappa insists I have a tender coconut, the March sun in Bangalore is cruel. He has been doing so all morning, insisting I have a fruit, some coffee, perhaps some juice. I relent for the coffee.

Along the way, Shankarappa tells me of the village in Channapatna that he left behind many years ago. He visits often though, to see his mother. Two sons are in college, a daughter now married has a child of her own. He helps the ‘missus’ in household chores once he reaches home at the end of his duty, around 4pm.

Two hours quickly pass by, today has been a short beat for Shankarappa. When a colleague is on leave, two beats must be taken on. He still has to give back the undelivered post, deposit money from Money Orders and Value Payable Post, fill files and forms for people. After tagging behind him, I have learnt this: for all the hoo-ha over emails and mobile phones, post is not yet endangered. There still exists a wide world where Shankarappa is relevant. Television did not kill the radio star. The world is big enough for them all.

The author is a Bangalore-based freelance writer

(This article was published on April 4, 2014)


sudhamarakini said...

nice one. in my school days i had a poem about postman.

sudhamarakini said...

nice one. in my school days i had a poem about postman.