Hunting for post boxes in this send-by-courier era

My father worked in the postal department; for me, as a child, red meant post-box red. Letters were everywhere. Sitting in a post office, waiting for my father to complete work, I’d see postmen hefting sacks of letters, or pouring out the contents on a table/ the floor. I’d see letters sorted expertly into piles, then bagged and put in vans. The smell of paper, of gum (that thick sort they used), pervaded the air. Once, when I had to go somewhere, I sat behind a postman’s cycle instead of a sack of letters.

When courier services started, I don’t remember imagining that they would ever become so big and so cheap that they would impact the postal service. But somewhere down the line, I started seeing courier services as more reliable than the postal service, and began switching to it for more important documents.

My changed approach hit me one day when I needed to send a very important document to a senior official at Dak Bhawan, Sansad Marg, the building that houses the senior-most officials of the Department of Posts. That is also the building where the head post office is, and where letters are sorted. I remember hesitating somewhat at the strangeness of my choice, but I finally used a courier service to send the document instead of posting it. My father had passed away by then, and I did pause to think of how he’d have seen my action–a betrayal? an amused smile at the change in the world?

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Anyway, so a few days back I wanted to send a letter. A simple postal letter, not a courier, not an email. An old-fashioned letter in an envelope and with a stamp on it.

I thought I knew where the nearest post-box was. I walked to it. It was missing. I asked some street vendors around, young boys. They frowned at me. I asked some older men in shops. They thought for a few moments and could not recall when they’d last seen the post-box. I asked them whether there was another post-box nearby. They couldn’t remember. Go to the post-office, they told me. But it was far away so I walked to the next location where I had seen a post-box some years ago. That was missing, too. However, I saw many “collection centers” of courier services as I walked.

I finally ended up reaching the post-office (at least the post office was still there) and using the post-box there.

Since that day, I’ve been scanning my surroundings for post-boxes. I’ve not found any, except at post-offices. I don’t claim to have looked hard enough, and I’m sure there are still post-boxes around, just fewer of them, and less noticed by people. I guess times change…

(do kids today even know what a postal stamp is?)

Childhood memories, cities that change

I spent the happiest part of my childhood in Patna. No, that’s not a typo. My father was posted there, and I lived there from 1962 to 1966 in a large Govt. bungalow spread over several acres. The bungalow was an old British style one, with a pantry and coal-house and large rooms and place for dancing and fireplaces and mantels and curved staircases. There was this huge banyan tree whose roots I would swing on. I distinctly remember three huge Dussheri mango trees, fourteen guava trees, lots of red silk cotton trees, sapota trees, bel trees, and many others. I would carry a cushion to my favorite guava tree, climb the tree, and sit comfortably and read my Enid Blyton.

In front of the house was a lawn, its air fragrant with jasmines and roses. A sand heap, left over after some construction, was an excellent playing ground. We also had a large kitchen garden and I loved to pull out radishes and carrots and potatoes and pluck tomatoes and hunt for gourds; it was like a treasure hunt. Sometimes one saw snakes on the road, and at night one could hear jackals, but I don’t remember being frightened.

It was a different life back then. Milk, for example. Every morning, a gwala would bring along his cow. He milked her in our presence, with just a thin cloth spread on the mouth of the pail to catch the dust and pieces of grass. I would sometimes drink the milk from the pail directly, without boiling, just freshly delivered, so to say.

I loved Patna for many things, not just the house we lived in. The people were helpful and gentle. I liked my school. There was a library we often visited. And I had many friends, and we would run along the main roads, chattering away, carefree. We were not scared of traffic or people; we felt safe.

And ah, the river Ganges, vast, blue, clean (at least that’s what my child’s eyes saw it as).

We would take a boat to cross over to a small sandy island in the middle of the Ganges, where my parents and their friends would sometimes go to listen to Devraha Baba (and we kids would tag along). The water of the Ganges was cool and sweet and I would dip a glass in it and drink it.

Oh yes, I loved Patna. By the end of the four years there, my Hindi was a pukka Bihari Hindi.

Sometimes, I talk of Patna with that strange fondness to my husband, and once he asked me whether I’d like to visit Patna again.

I said no.

I had, once, in a fit of nostalgia, tried to revisit Patna using Google maps. I could barely recognize the city layout and after a futile search for Taylor Road (it must have been renamed), I realized that the Patna I knew was probably best kept untouched, safe in my memories. My revisit lasted all of ten minutes from the safety of my current home.

And I’m so glad I did not think of returning, because a childhood friend, who, like me, had many tender memories of the city, decided to visit it to show her son the school and library and all the places she often talked about. And her large, relaxed house. She was, not surprisingly, shocked and deeply disappointed by how different and unrecognizable it all was, how unlike her descriptions to her son.

Memories, ah. They are sweetest when fuzzy and distant and kept free of reality checks based on the present. I know that I’m not the same person any more, and neither is the world around me. I would not dare drink milk directly from the cow now, and even the thought of drinking water from the Ganges makes me shudder. I’m sure the house has given way to a large office complex or shopping mall or both by now, and that the air has no freshness in it. But I have the richness in my memories, and I can still savor the city I loved.

BTW, when I started this blog, I’d decided I’d try to add at least one picture/ graphic to every post, so I looked for something to include in this post. Alas, cameras were rare back then, and photographs usually confined to studios. In my parents’ old album, I could find only four pictures that showed the house–all taken by a friend of my father who was visiting, all faded, dirty, unclear. I can barely make out the house–the front of the house is the background of one photo, and the banyan tree and way to the coal-house is visible in another photo–but our second-hand Vauxhall Velox is clear enough, as is the sand heap I loved playing in. (BTW, I’m the taller girl in the photos; the shorter one is a friend)

Fortunately my memories are far more detailed and vivid…at least so far.

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The flower that predicts

I’ve been snapping those small flowers on the roadside that one normally doesn’t notice, but which sometimes just brighten up the day, sort of feisty flowers that hold their head high above boring dried grass and nods at me when I am walking past.

Some days ago, I saw a flower that reminded me of my school days, when this particular flower was much sought after while we waited for the school bus. We called it the “he loves me, he loves me not” flower. We would scour the grass and find one, and even squabble about who would get a turn at “using” it. Whoever finally got the flower would pluck off the petals one by one, chanting something like, “he loves me”, “he loves me not”, “he loves me”, “he loves me not” till all the petals were plucked off and the last statement uttered was deemed true.

We used to use it for every sort of prediction. “Surprise test today”, “no surprise test”, for one. Or “Hindi Sir will come today-yes”, “no,” and so on. Our basic premise seemed to have been that some cosmic arranger would match the flower we picked up with the question we had (and the answer we should get):) We considered the flower sort of believable and quite useful, because it was right sometimes 🙂 (Just as those astrology columns are, I guess).

I wonder whether kids today use such simple games? I suspect not; they must have mobile apps for this by now.