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Oh, for the postman dear!

Kevalam Subbu is an old postman in Chennai. Having worked with the postal department for over four decades, he must have outlived many of the trees in the city. He obviously cannot cover as many houses as he used to, but he just doesn't feel it. He explains it himself- “People don't write letters as they used to earlier, they now send mails through the internet.” Although he himself has never sent an e-mail, he knows about it quite well. His bag used to be very heavy, but now he does not even carry one. “A postman these days does not require a bag,” he says “He can fasten whatever five or ten letters he has to the bicycle seat.”

The recent years have seen the gradual disappearance of many professions, which once acquired importance in every society. One such person who was ubiquitous but is fast disappearing is the postman. Even two decades ago, people sitting on the verandah, with their eyes longing for the khaki-clad postman, were a common sight. They waited ardently, with hope filled in their hearts, for the news the postman brought with him of a loved one posted faraway, or perhaps even a photograph they had eagerly waited for. As the postman drew nearer, their anticipations suddenly grew until he handed over the letter. They kept their fingers crossed as the envelope was torn open and a letter popped out, giving them information of the well-being of someone, or, maybe, the news of success or failure. The postman waited with his humble bicycle all along as the letter was being read, and also shared the sorrow or happiness, whatever came along with it. But the younger generation of the 21st century hardly knows the priceless value of a hand-written letter. The words and even the feel of the paper became a part of a person's fond memories and would go on to become an heirloom.

R.K. Narayan's story ‘The Missing Mail' is about a postman, Thanappa, who withheld a letter carrying bad news, just to ensure that a marriage took place successfully. Such was the importance of the postman those days. People knew the postman personally, and when this unique harbinger of news did not arrive for a few days, they got worried.

This gradual disappearance of such professions, not only that of the postman, is not confined to India. It started a long time ago with the Industrial Revolution. In the late 18th century, English cartoonist Rowlandson depicted the trades that had started disappearing rapidly with the growth of industrial capitalism. In one such caricature, titled ‘The Rattrap Seller', he shows a picture of how perplexed the residents of London are when a rat-trap peddler knocks on their doors to sell his wares. The calls of hawkers, exhorting people to have their cooking vessels, zippers and suitcases repaired are no longer heard anymore. It's the software engineer who knocks on our door more often. The hawkers, poor as they are, silently go unnoticed. These are small unknown people who will be forgotten if they disappear. Neither would they find a place in our history textbooks alongside those monarchs. We should remember that people's history is as important as the history of kings and queens.

The only hawker who visits our doorsteps nowadays is the newspaperman. Perhaps, many of us won't even know his face or name, as he visits us in the early hours, throws the newspaper on our verandah and goes away without meeting us. The world will move on, supermarkets, malls and stores will mushroom and we will get all our wares there (perhaps, even newspapers!). So the next time you see a hawker, do remember to wave at him with a smile, or sit with him for a chat, even if you don't buy anything.

(The writer's email is medieval_skateboarder@iamafreebird.com)

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Printable version | Jun 28, 2020 6:04:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Oh-for-the-postman-dear/article14936944.ece

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