Monday, 30th October 2017

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My mail, a snail with a stamp on it

Notes from far corners on the passing of a post office romance

  • Published 13.08.17
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Crossings

MANY MOONS ago, we had driven down to the charming Bhutan border town of Phuentsholing for the day. My most enduring memory is of a visit to the local post office, where we bought three-dimensional stamps of Himalayan animals (but of course) that I didn't have the heart to post. The child philatelist in me preserved them diligently in a red album for the occasional peek at the bear, panda or koala that moved within their tiny frames, quite a novelty at the time. On a more recent visit, we discovered that the post office in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, now allows tourists to take their photos for customised Bhutan stamps.

My fascination with post offices grew over the decades with epistolary pursuits aimed at 17 countries and a recurrent euphoria over first day covers at our General Post Office. The GPO had a wonderful array of themed stamps that never reached the smaller post offices of one's locality and selecting stamps was a rare privilege.

In boarding school, letters were most looked forward to and Sunday mornings were spent poring over them and replying to friends and relatives. The principal usually riffled through the day's post before leaving them on a brass salver for the prefect to collect. Sometimes, "suspicious-looking" envelopes - especially those with the tell-tale "Mummy" inscribed at the back - were opened for good measure and the teenaged recipient taken to task. I remember lamenting to a friend in the school library that the postal strike in Ireland was preventing my Irish penfriend from writing to me. That week, I received a "cheer-up" card in the post, sent by the librarian, who had overheard my remark.

With the invasion of electronic mail, "snail mail" was relegated to rare calendar events, if at all. But the penchant to send postcards from touristy destinations ensured that we visited post offices, some of them unique in their own right.

Central Post Office, Saigon, Vietnam

In Sri Lanka, for instance, several towns still have a clock tower in the town square: Colombo has three, Kandy, Galle, Piliyandala and Jaffna, among others, have imposing ones like the Big Ben. In Nuwara Eliya (or Little England), the clock tower is a part of the pink post office, this being the preferred local colour of cottages, hotels and even some government buildings. But our favourite post office in Serendip was the one in beachside Bentota: a large room with an asbestos roof and no ceiling fan, where the delightful Nerosha single-handedly manages daily activities. She sold us 26 postcards, waited patiently while I wrote in each, pasted beautiful stamps on them and put the seal so deftly that the stamp's beauty was not ruined. All the while I tried to imagine such an enviable ambience in our own post offices, which have increasingly become jostling, overcrowded banks. Long after our return, I realised that while the postcards mailed to America, Europe or Southeast Asia had reached in record time, those sent to India took much longer. The Bengal ones didn't reach at all!

Victorian English Post Office

In the US, the postal service is one of the most efficient and has brought me packages containing anything from fruity jam to books and gadgets. I posted richly hued autumn leaves to friends in India, accepted without demur by the campus post office. When I tried the same in Calcutta, I was not only asked to display the contents, but also made to sign a form and pay through my nose after standing in queue for the better part of an hour, during which the counter clerk took a prolonged lunch break.

I was so fascinated to learn that the Peach Springs, Arizona, post office has a mule to bring mail down to a village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, that I went all the way to Tempe to try and locate it. The Detroit river is said to have the only floating post office in the world, but that's not a patch on the underwater one in the island nation of Vanuatu - you need to don scuba diving gear to reach it!

Sudipta Bhattacharjee

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