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?


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?)

On the convention that women should be (called) beautiful…

Everyone likes to look at beautiful things, and most people (men and women) assume that the best compliment to give to a woman is that she is beautiful. Other than when a person is downright-unbeautiful, people give such compliments. I consider this norm not just irrelevant but also somewhat shallow when given unsincerely, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction. It rarely involves noting the person’s expression or mood or character or actions. It’s just a token.

As a child I was distinctly unbeautiful (as per the ruling conventions). (Still am, but it no longer matters to me).

Persons who wanted to compliment me (on my looks, because when it comes to girls, that is what matters), would be stumped about what to say. They would, instead, dole out advice on how I could become beautiful. Daily facepacks with gram flour and cream and lemon? Avoid the sun? Clean the face with milk every night? Get multani mitti and rosewater? And since they couldn’t say I was beautiful (there’s a limit to believable lies), they twisted their compliments to imply that my beautiful persona was just around the corner if I kept rubbing lemons on the face a few more decades, please. She’s fairer now, they’d tell my mother after squinting to inspect me. She’s getting fairer.

Beauty = success = opportunities is deeply ingrained in all strata. It emerges at strange moments at unexpected quarters. When in my final year of MBA (at IIM Ahmedabad), just before job placements, we were sitting in the dining hall, a group of girls from our batch, chatting about jobs, when one of them suddenly turned to me, deep concern in her voice. “But what will you do, Swapna! Where will you get a job! You are not beautiful!” The other girls laughed in an embarrassed way, but it was clear that the classmate who had blurted out the sentence genuinely saw my lack of beauty as a major handicap. She considered herself beautiful, and though my grades were well ahead of hers, she pitied me and genuinely worried about poor little me, doomed because unbeautiful. I don’t think our male classmates had similar exchanges/ episodes/ concerns.

Complimenting a woman on her beauty is considered the right thing to do. Not being able to call a woman beautiful makes interactions clumsy. Even social media abounds with such conventions. When a woman posts a picture, “friends” rush to gush there with a “like” and a “You look beautiful”, or even “You’ve always been beautiful” or “You were the most beautiful girl in school and you haven’t changed a bit.” (Of course, there may be some implied return “like” or compliment math involved).

I think calling someone beautiful, is a bit of a short-cut to giving a compliment that seems socially required. The trite “you look beautiful” can possibly be typed without looking, it is so standard a phrase. “Friends” may even have keyboard shortcuts to paste that whenever they see a new photograph (of a female) posted online. I can think of many other words that show a higher degree of observation/ personalized attention: happy, joyous, radiant, energetic, determined, active. There may be descriptive phrases–your smile warmed my heart, your eyes are sparkling with energy. Sound mushy, eh? But perhaps “you look beautiful” is so desensitized (and socially empty) it no longer sounds mushy.

Anyway, there is a limit to what one can say of a person based on a photograph that shows a mug-shot, no action, no context, just a camera-facing pose.

When we write stories, a standard writing-craft instruction is to avoid words like this. Focus on characteristics that actually tell us about a person rather than use sweeping and common words like beautiful, we are told. Tell us about their expression, their mood, their actions. Calling someone nice or beautiful tell the readers nothing about what matters to the person, say the books. Even describing their complexion or hair does not help readers feel involved with the character. I think the advice is relevant even in interactions.

I’ve noticed that some people who give compliments on beauty mention seeing the person’s inner beauty in a photo, but the only word they use again is “beauty.” That really puzzles me. What is inner beauty? Is it more in someone who is fair, has a straighter nose? Is it more visible when you wear an expensive Kanjeevaram saree? When you dye your hair or get them set by a stylist? Is it less in people beyond the help of better lighting and Photoshop filters and airbrushing? Is it less if you have wrinkles? Or, if you are working in the elder care sector, is it more if you have wrinkles?

And here I was, naive me, assuming that inner beauty was about character and ability to love and feel for others, and about behavior and how a person responds to situations and persons 🙁

More important, should the non- beautiful persons to be considered undesirable/ bad/ lacking inner beauty?

This equating/ correlating of beauty with goodness is recognized as a root for peer pressure, isolation, bullying, inferiority complexes, disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Yet even persons who talk against environments of objectification or pressure often resort to (probably without realizing it) the knee-jerk “you are beautiful” response when they feel it is expected/ wanted.

This post got triggered by the fact that yesterday, I saw the “every woman must see these” Dove ads on “Real Beauty Sketches” and I was extremely uncomfortable. Everyone seemed to go gaga over the video, as if watching it would liberate every woman who had not known how beautiful she was.

I agree it can’t be nice to think you look bad, but surely the answer is to see that looks are not so important an aspect as to get you down? Is it really liberating and empowering to know that your nose is straighter than you thought it was?

Fact is, howsover they are packaged, these are advertisements, folks, by a company making beauty products– naturally they perpetrate the impression that a woman must think of herself (or “know” herself) as beautiful. I was relieved to see I was not alone in my discomfort when I chanced upon this post Why Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry.

Methinks that this social focus on beauty is a gone-awry mechanism. Evolution-wise, we are designed to note wholeness and symmetry and some other characteristics as desirable because they are usually indicative of better health and hence, better survival. But hey folks, we are far beyond those caveman survival days. In our times and context, we don’t need to evaluate everyone as a potential mate who will bear us healthy offspring that can outrun the tiger or hunt the dear or climb trees or till the lands all day long.

Here’s my suggestion: Next time, before you call someone beautiful, or before you want to be called beautiful, please pause. See if you are forgetting to notice the person as a person. See if you are looking at relevant characteristic/ skills for the context at hand. Consider whether your “compliment” can hurt/ put pressure on other persons who feel inferior because they don’t fit. And then check if you still want to comment on beauty, or whether you are ready to find something more individualistic to compliment them on.

And while you are at it, here’s another thought: would you rather spend three hours in a café with a beautiful person whose sole claim to compliments is their beauty? Or would you rather spend time with someone interesting, warm, genuine, energetic, cheerful or whatever, even if their nose is crooked and chin weak and they have a few warts under their eyes?

Maybe calling someone beautiful is not a compliment after all. Maybe there are better compliments to consider.

[Edited to add: I created this post to share my concern at how women and beauty and being good are too tightly interwoven in many social interactions, and how we can consider separating them. The post was written as a reaction, and in a hurry, and in retrospect I see some points I would argue differently if I rewrote it. I’d also probably have focused more on the consequences of this overemphasis on “beauty” on increasing number of persons with body image challenges, an aspect I mentioned but did not pursue. But there are enough articles and posts on such topics, anyway. ]

A hot day, buttermilk, and the satisfied discards of the litter-ati

So, right in front of our car is a bus. And somewhere, way ahead, is a closed railway gate. It’s a hot day. The bus is a long-distance bus, but not of the luxury sort.

The situation presents a business opportunity.

Sure enough, along comes a man with a cloth bag. There are plastic straws in a plastic pouch in his shirt pocket. His bag is full of plastic pouches with buttermilk and he takes out a couple of pouches and waves them out to the passengers in the bus. Hands wave back at him.

Business is brisk. Dozens of packets are sold. Some passengers even get down to buy them.

The vendor walks away.

And then the plastic packets start flying out of the window, sucked empty. Straws, too. They are thrown by the persons inside the bus, who do not even bother to check if anyone is passing near the bus; one packet almost falls on a scooterist who is trying to squeeze his way to the front of the winding queue of vehicles.

I’m sure you can picture what happens.It has taken just a few minutes and a buttermilk vendor to convert a relatively clean stretch of roadside mud to a splatter of discarded plastic.

bus stopsvendor selling stuff arivesvendor does businessvendor does businesspacket thrown outheap of littered packets

We are a culture without dustbins. I don’t think the bus had a dustbin; roads rarely do, anyway. And I don’t think anyone would have even looked for one, because these things are all inter-connected–people don’t look for or demand dustbins, they don’t expect them. They also don’t miss them. Packets can always be thrown out of the window, right?

Years ago, too, there were such buses, such vendors, such quenchers of thirsts. But the buttermilk was supplied in glasses that were collected back. Or in glass bottles that were paid for, and the money refunded when the bottle was returned. Or in earthen cups.

Not in plastic packets that won’t bio-degrade.

And here’s a thought: If they priced plastic packets to take into account the environmental costs, I suspect we’d be serving buttermilk in washable and collect-back glasses again.

From gobbling paper books to byting ebooks

I’ve always loved books. Always read a lot through libraries, and bought a lot of books. As my father was often transferred, this sometimes ended up in a race where I would buy books and my mother would persuade me to give them away, and many of my favorite purchases (huge piles of comics, lots of other stuff including Agatha Christies, Perry Mason and Chase) would vanish between the times I would go to hostel and return for vacations at a new location where my father had next got transferred. Later, when I moved away from parental packing and disposal techniques, my collection became unwieldy enough for me to offer books free to friends and neighbors. But the overall trend has always been upwards.

Last year, I moved house. As I dusted and packed shelf after shelf of books, and later dusted and unpacked them, I had to admit to myself that I was rather over-dosed with books, split equally between fiction and non-fiction.

There are science fiction books, fantasy books, children/ YA books, historical romance, mystery, literary books, bestsellers, classics, anthologies, you name it. There are Hindi books and English books, and even a few in other languages I am trying to learn. There’s poetry. There are books on science, math, religion, philosophy, neurology, ageing, dementia, business and strategy,health, exercise, self-improvement, writing craft. References, too, dictionaries, thesaurus, reverse dictionary, grammar books. And more, but you get the point. It is said that there is no such thing as too many books, and I’ve always thought so too, but I had to admit (duster in hand) that though I was unwilling to part with my collection, I possessed many books I would not have bought had I known the quality and content of the book in advance. I also had to admit that I was unlikely to read or refer to most of my books in future–partly because I lacked the time and energy and partly because I thirsted for fresh books. I even discovered scores of books which I had not read (a plus point of relocation 🙂

(Here, BTW, is a collage of some of the book shelves I populated)

my book collection

I’ve also found myself often at a loss for which books to carry along when I travel–I want to carry a whole bunch, but that’s not feasible, and looks a bit…greedy.

So around 8 months ago I decided to try out a few changes in my reading and acquisition approach (1) use libraries to read books and buy only books I felt I wanted to read again or that I felt I needed as reference (2) when buying a book, buy the ebook version (3) if a book was not available as an ebook, think and think again before buying the paper version.

I’ve stuck to that for most of the last 8-9 months. I’ve bought only around a dozen paper books, and the rest of my purchases have been e-books. I’ve done a lot of my reading by using libraries instead, or online stories/ articles. I’ve found that using libraries allows me to be more adventerous–I am less hesitant to try out a new author or read an introductory book on a new non-fiction topic. For many months now, I have used a Kindle, and also used my “Kindle for PC” app for a significant of my reading.

kindle readerI must admit that, though my actions probably bode well for trees, for my wallet, and also my back (which protested all that dusting and lifting), I miss paper books–the smell, the feel, the weight, the physical satisfaction of turning pages–and as I don’t want to buy more paper books, I find myself standing in front of my bookshelves and easing out an old favorite to savor. It’s fun in a way, like meeting old friends and finding I still love them.