In this era of emails which have become the primary method of correspondence, how many of us actually sit down and write our letters? Write as in with ink and paper! And if you do, do you use the range of postal stationery which is available? Well, I do not, in fact all my correspondence is done via emails. Emails may make for rapid communication, but they can’t quite capture the romance of letter-writing. Letters capture the personality of the letter-writer, the stationery used, the colours, and of course the hand writing.
This post is not on the romance of letter writing but on the variety of postal stationery from the olden days. Most of these are still used but I can bet that most of us would not have used them in the recent years.
When was the last you wrote or received a postcard? Such a popular means of communication in the old days. A post card which barely has space to accommodate some twenty or thirty words. Some letter-writers had mastered the art of stretching this space to include the contents of an A4 sheet by scribbling all around the corners, often at impossible angles to the main text. Sometimes even spilling over into the address panel. which occupied one-quarter of the total area available. Perhaps they thought that the address panel was a waste of space!
There was an ingenious variant to the post card, the “jawaabi” post card, or return postcard. Twice the size of a normal postcard, folded half-way, each half a postcard. You would write your stuff on one card and leave the other blank except for filling in your own name and address. This was used when you thought the addressee whose reply was sought would be too imperious, or too lazy or too impoverished to source a postcard for a reply.
In my childhood, the postcard would cost 5 paise (or naye paise as it was then called). And this price held for long. My father, a regular letter writer, used to buy bunches of postcards on which he wrote his letters to his friends and students. He uses these cards even now- though not as often- in keeping with his Gandhian philosophy of frugality.
Next in hierarchy was the inland letter (“antardeshiya patra”) for slightly more detailed correspondence. This blue coloured sheet- the shade of blue varying over the years- had a peculiar contour. It had dotted lines running across telling you where to fold the sheet of paper to form it into a compact “envelope-y” shape for its onward journey. And helpfully it was pre-gummed so just a lick of the tongue and the inland was as secure as a sealed envelope. The gumming would come unstuck pretty often and you would often receive an ‘open” inland. If you were lucky to receive one with the seal intact then a deft maneuver of the forefinger through the folds of the inland would open it up but not before tearing away the edges! And if you slit open the other edge, you got a jigsaw of a letter! Which often happened to letters which you desperately anticipated! (We shall not discuss the nature of these letters in this post!!). The inland costs thrice as much as the postcard, 15 paise!
Then there was this stately cream-colored envelope or “lifafa”. With a neatly embossed Ashoka emblem adorning the top right corner. It was sparingly used, only if some important documents had to be sent. For example sending the horoscope, bio-data and the picture of the prospective bride to the boy’s parents. In some cases, it was even “registered” with an additional postage to ensure safe delivery. And if you really wanted to know that the envelope had reached its destination, you posted it “Registered with AD”; AD standing for “acknowledgement due”. The AD card – filled in with your own address- would be stitched to the envelope. The postman would take the signature of the addressee on the AD card and duly return it to the sender via the postal system. However, since the AD card itself was not registered, you could never be sure of getting it back.
There was one hell of an ingenious way of ensuring a secure arrival. Instead of paying extra to register your mail, you would actually under stamp it. So if a bulging envelope needed 60 paise worth of stamps, you would affix only 50 paise worth. The postman would ensure that this difference was made good, and more, by the addressee who would end up paying the balance 10 paise and another 10 paise as a fine. Of course the addressee had the choice of not accepting it at all. This was called a “bearing” letter in postal terminology. And commonly berang in Hindi-fied English. This Hindi word literally means colourless which I thought was a rather unfortunate word for something so ingenious and, well, colourful.
There was an interesting reverse of the AD business- UCP- Under Certificate of Posting. To be used in cases where the arrival of the letter at the destination was not as important as the confirmation from the originating post office that the letter had indeed been delivered to them for its onward journey. For instance proof that you had submitted your report to the head-office. This facility was cleverly used by the parents of a hostel mate of mine. The son claimed that he wrote regular letters and it was the vagaries of the Indian Postal Service which made the letters disappear mid-way. This guy was actually not writing letters and made up this excuse. The anxious parents finally got a clever idea. This chap was instructed to send all his letters UCP!
Another interesting stationery item sold at the post office was the money order form, money order being the cheapest and easiest way to transfer money. You would buy a long-long form, thick and yellowing with the dull grey bilingual printing barely visible. You would fill up the form and submit the remittance along with the processing charges (commission) to the postal clerk. In course of time, the recipient at the other end would have his own postman calling-in and handing over the cash. Simple! I remember the agonized wait for the postman in the first week of the month desperately awaiting the month’s allowances from home when I was staying in a hostel! Most postmen expected a tip from the recipient of the money order!
The email and internet has slowly taken over these functions. The basic email substituting the postcard and the inland, the lifafa replaced by the “attachment” facility available in all email services, and money transfer possible with just a few clicks. But, can an email replace the joy (and anxiety) of anticipating the postman on his daily rounds carrying his bagful of goodies?