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Glimpses of India through stamps

Post haste — Quintessential India: B. G. Verghese

Post haste — Quintessential India: B. G. Verghese   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan

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Selling the story of India captured by its postal stamps to Generation Y which knows little about the country’s hoary past and even less about the 150-year-old India Post, which is used to e-mail and instant messaging, is a daunting task. Even more challenging is attracting contemporary Indians to a book dedicated to dak runners they have never heard of. Veteran journalist B G Verghese has taken up this task and done it with admirable ease and woven a fascinating account of India’s different races and faiths, its history and heritage and the independence struggle and its transition to a modern nation state.

The book is obviously a stamp collector’s delight. But then, India Post has commemorated only achievers in different fields and landmark events in India’s long history. Overall, it will give only an impression of India shining. It is here the author’s vast experience comes to play in not just connecting dots, but providing footnotes to bring in shades of grey to get a balanced picture.

The author says the book “portrays but a fragment of India, illustrated exclusively with postage stamps”. It is meant for the young which should have learnt at their mother’s knee the amazing, history, geography, and heritage of our country, its kingdoms, sages, warriors and statesmen but has been denied that pleasure because today’s mothers have become bread-winners too and so have to manage home and work with little time to tell stories to children.

“Post Haste: Quintessential India” is just that — neither complete nor detailed, a poor knee replacement. It offers no more than a hint of the colours that decorate the bouquet called India. It hopefully tells just enough to arouse curiosity and make the young readers want to know more. By asking their elders, children will hopefully educate their parents to make us all better Indians. Since there is a child in each one of us and we will never cease to wonder, this book is for all ages too”.

Stamps are perhaps no longer in vogue as electronic communication has replaced the romance of the postal system. But “the world is poorer for the decreasing frequency of the postman’s knock, just as much as the bustling city longs to hear the koel sing.

The postal stamp is both heritage and history and the book connects the country’s past with its continuing present and moves into the 21st century like the dak runners of India “who still connect us contemporaneously and with our past”.

The writer gives a brief history of the evolution of the postal system from pigeon post to boat to air mail (launched in 1932 when JRD Tata flew a tiny single engine). And postal cancellations too have changed over years and the high point was when Indian astronaut Rakesh Sharma cancelled an Indian Post letter aboard the Russian space ship Salyut in 1966.” You can’t go higher than that, can you?”

Talking about the heterogeneity of peoples, races, faiths, histories and cultures, the author says: “India has been moulded in a crucible of multiculturalism with which Europe is not finding easy to come to terms. We are not a melting pot but a bouquet of flowers in a garden of different hues and fragrances with unobtrusive hybrid vigour. Let us keep it that way, a rainbow country”. An advice to the present rulers.

Over the centuries, kings and warriors, saints and sages, philosophers and men and women of science and letters moulded and shaped, but never overwhelmed, the “Idea of India” reflected in Mohammed Iqbal’s verse, “sare jahan se achcha, Hindoostan hamara”. As the rest of the poem, Terene-e-Hind (The anthem of Hindustan) elaborates, its purpose was not to glorify any territorial expression of geography, but rather to celebrate the idea of India which took from and gave so much to the world.

India Post has commemorated not just the famous nationalist warriors and defenders, but also the not so well known. For example, Rajarshi Bhagyachandra, an 18th century hero who reconquered Manipur from the Burmese, consolidated the Vaishnavism introduced there by his father and went on to develop the rasa leela that choreographs the Radha-Krishna legend, laying the foundation for the famed Manipur school of dancing.

The men and women of Indian National Army who followed Netaji Bose who fought the British with Japanese assistance will never be forgotten. There is a fine memorial to them on the edge of the Imphal Valley in Manipur.

During the Second World War, “Azad Hind” stamps were printed in Germany and subsequently ‘Chalo Delhi’ stamps for the Provisional government of Free India were printed in Rangoon. They were never used on mail, but were later displayed in philately exhibitions.

Talking about the soul of India, he says it is wrong to equate culture with religion. Urdu is no more “Muslim” because of its Persian script than bhoomi puja or the bindi are Hindu, the Mahabharata and Ramayana are as much Indian as Sufi music. Nowhere is the fallacy of confusing religion with culture more exposed than in Muslim Indonesia and Buddhist Thailand which are richly infused with Hindu culture.

On the making of the Constitution and the promises, he says uniquely, India has two formal names. Article 1 says ‘India that is Bharat”. India and Bharat are not one and the same. India is the territorial expression of the contemporary Indian state. Bharat is a Sanksritic reference to an ancient or epic civilisational or cultural entity that included parts of Afghanistan.

The Postal Department in 2000 issued a stamp that depicted the stylised back of the Mahatma, a cartoon drawn by Ranga, in the likeness of a map of the country.

POST HASTE — Quintessential India: B. G. Verghese; Tranquebar Press, 61 Silverline Building, II Floor, Alapakkam Main Road, Maduravoyal, Chennai-600095. Rs. 1295.

Correction

>>A sentence in “Glimpses of India through stamps” (August 12, 2014, Book Review page) read: “The writer gives a brief history of … to air mail (launched in 1931 when JRD Tata flew a tiny single engine).” The correct year is 1932.

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