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Stamped All Over

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By: Ganesh Saili

A vintage red letterbox outside the Charleville Souvenir shop says it all – telling the tale before it’s told. This story begins in March this year when our Prime Minister released a pictorial cancellation of the National Academy – a first for Uttarakhand; a first for any academy and a second time in independent India in what is today’s Uttarakhand.

What does this mean for the visitor, you or I?

Simply put, all that you have to do is buy a picture postcard from the Souvenir Shop, write a message saying  ‘I was here!’ and drop it into this bright red letterbox and it will guarantee a pictorial cancellation of the Academy.  Down the ages, postage stamps, letter Boxes, old Post Offices, in fact anything connected with the mail had a story to tell.

Just the other morning, catching me writing a letter my granddaughter exclaims: ‘Who writes a letter these days?’ Scampering off with: ‘Try WhatsApp, Nana!’

How does one tell a child of the bits of DNA in a handwritten letter? But who’s listening?  Like it or not, the romance of letter writing has taken a hit.

‘Letters work like charms or talismans for the invalids of the Convalescent Depot,’ Capt. Young had once assured his superiors in the EIC, trying to justify the setting up of a post office in Landour in 1827. And it was not always that easy as runners moved mail between Dehra, Rajpur and Mussoorie. Though our Main Post Office proved to be restive, moving location five times before settling down in Roleston House in 1909. Life in the hill station once revolved around the sub-post offices in Landour, Library, Charleville, Barlowganj and Jharipani.

Old records tell us that in the early days the mail totalled less than a hundred articles a week, but by June 1935 peaked to 1,31,562 articles. Imagine how wonderfully this mountain of mail was managed by just one post master and his two able assistants.

When you look at it, a hundred years ago, mail running must have been a very risky occupation. Hikaras ventured out with a spear or sword and after dark, and would occasionally be assisted by torchbearers, or dug-dugiwallahs to scare away prowling wild animals. Fortunately, gone are the days when prowling man-eating leopards spirited away mail-runners in parts of a countryside so infested with predatory tigers and leopards that the paths were almost impassable: ‘Day after day, for a long time, some of the dak people were carried off.’

On 1 October, 1837 the Post Office Act XVII came into force and Landour’s first post office began operating from the Chowk. For twelve years, from 1850 to 1862, Jim Corbett’s father, Christopher William Corbett, was a postmaster in Mussoorie and in 1972, Corbett Park got its own pictorial cancellation.

               An old story survives from earlier days which has an aging Colonel who 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. Growing anxious, he drags the servant by the ear (I believe one could do that in those days!) and that is how the twain arrived at the Post Office.

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

In our remote villages with their money-order economy, the postman still remains a welcome sight.

‘Sir! I have started this public library in Pungro, but the shelves need to be filled with books!’  urges Abhinav Shivam, a hard-working officer trying to collect books in far off Nagaland. ‘But no courier company will deliver packages. Only the Indian Postal Service works.’

With 1,55,105 post offices in the country, with a bit of help from you Gentle Readers, Pungro’s Public Library will overflow with books! Or you can send a postcard franked with a pictorial image of the iconic Academy.

 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.