By: Ganesh Saili

‘Letters will work like charms or talismans for the invalids of the Convalescent Depot,’ wrote Capt. Young, cajoled the Directors of the East India Company to set up of a post office in Landour, way back in 1827. Almost two hundred years later, I hear the death knell of five of our Sub Post offices. Heartening that our local legislator registers a protest. It will directly impact rural communities around the hill station, especially the remoter villages of Jaunpur.

Do you wonder why am I getting so worked up? Or why am I so hot under the collar?

Well! It’s about our history. Or what little there is left of it. On 1 October, 1837, as Queen Victoria ascended the British throne, the Post Office Act XVII came into force and Landour’s first post office began operating from the Chowk. From 1850 to 1862, Jim Corbett’s father, Christopher William Corbett, was its postmaster. Afterwards, in 1909 the General Post Office shifted to Rorleston House on the Mall in Kulri, while Landour became a Sub Post Office.

Though none of the buildings, housing these post offices are dilapidated or falling apart, and their rentals are nothing to write home about. Aye! There’s the catch. Money has to change hands, regardless of the fact that one stroke of a pen will wipe out our entire postal history, tradition and heritage in the hill station.

Add to this the fact that life up here grew around its the post offices: in Landour, Library, Charleville, Barlowganj and Jharipani. Initially, the mail totalled less than a hundred articles a week, which by June 1935 peaked to 1,31,562 articles, all wonderfully managed by one post master and his two able assistants.

From those old days, a story survives. An aging Colonel gets a new orderly, whom he instructs to drop the mail ‘into the hole in the red box’ at the GPO. This the orderly does with regularity. Six weeks go by and urgent official letters remained unanswered. The colonel grows anxious. He drags the servant by the ear (I believe one could do that in those days!) and that is how the twain arrive at the Post Office.

Next to the office was the Post Master’s drawing room, neat, clean, and with a fireplace three quarters draped in the summer months with a plush red curtain. Of course the letters had been posted, there. They lay – behind the curtains – all seventeen of them behind ‘the hole’!

How we take our postman for granted, who without fuss, delivers mail to ninety percent of the countryside, much like he did a hundred years ago, when mail running was, at best, a risky occupation. Hikaras ventured out with armed with a spear or sword and after dark, and would occasionally be assisted by torchbearers, or dug-dugiwallahs to scare away wild animals. Sometimes the countryside was infested with man-eating leopards and tigers: ‘Day after day, for a long time, some of the dak people were carried off,’ says an old Gazetteer.

“Sir! I have started this public library in Pungro, but the empty shelves must be filled with books!’ urges Abhinav Shivam, an earnest, hard-working and well-intentioned student of mine posted in Nagaland. “But no courier company will deliver packages. Only the Indian Postal Services works.” Small wonder then that we have the largest postal network in the world with some 1,55105, post offices.

‘What are our children going to inherit?’ frets my friend Aaloke Malhotra, Senior Advocate. The time for action is now. There are no second chances. No comebacks. You cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater, when an out-of-the-box approach will ensure commerce does not replace social responsibility. Sure ‘Make profits!’ But you do not have to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. We ought to remember that anything which benefits the people can be tweaked, worked on, improved or given a second chance. Only fools cut their noses to spite their face.

As my grandfather would have said: ‘ Plant a stinging nettle and it will sting you one day!’

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.