Reflections on the snail mail

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It is Sasmita Kanungo’s sensitively written piece on her village postman, which I read long ago, that has triggered some thoughts in me on what is somewhat disparagingly called “snail mail” by the highly educated urbans in our country. Her postman was not merely an official of the postal department, a faceless entity, but was an individual, with an endearing name: Manua Bhai. “Manu” becomes “Manua” when the bearer of this name has low social status. And “Manua” would become “Manu” in face- to- face interaction at least when his economic condition and consequently, social status improves. In Manua’s case, the addition of “bhai”, literally brother, but here, a term of endearment, saved him by neutralizing, to an extent, the societal disregard of him on account of his status. He brought to the villagers not merely letters but also hopes and cheers and they gave him their goodwill in abundance. Then a day arrived when a little money came to the hard-working young man. He abandoned his bicycle and came on a motor bike, and carried no letters but only telegrams and money orders. As far as I remember, Sumitra did not write in her piece who, thereafter, brought the letters to her village. Or did her villagers and she herself go to the post office in the adjacent village to collect their letters?

The problem with the “ordinary”letters – as against “registered”ones – is, and has always been, that there is no guarantee that the intended recipient would get it. I have heard of a post man who belonged to a family with a high social status in the village, where he had his job. He considered it beneath his dignity to home-deliver the letters. Many in his own village and the nearby villages, thought that his attitude was eminently reasonable and they came to the post office to receive their letters and even their money orders. I do not know what he did with the telegrams, which, in any case, rarely came to the village post office. In this “postman -friendly” mail delivery system, mails accumulated in the post office. Letters were not collected when their intended recipients did not know that there was a letter waiting for them at the post office. When the uncollected letters grew into a decent pile, our status-conscious postman quietly consigned them to the river as the dusk was giving way to darkness. His village was on the bank of the river so, he didn’t have to walk much. But all this, many years ago. Things surely have changed; these days, even in the remote villages, considerably fewer, if at all,  letters must be having their watery redemption.

This of course was not the only reason why letters did not reach their intended destination. Sometimes a postman would give someone’s letter to someone else and request him to pass it on to the addreesse. Forgetfulness or carelessness was not the only reason why the man did not give him the letter. There have always been nosy parkers, who take delight in reading someone else’s letter on the sly.   

By the mid-nineteen nineties, email had truly arrived in urban India. It was hailed as the harbinger of the communication revolution in the country. Those who had this facility were excited and looked down upon those who didn’t, like me, as semi-educated, at best. The number of letters that came to us from our post office went down and most of those we received were official. Hardly did anyone, at our Institute, unless he was in his mid-fifties or or older, seem to notice what was happening. One humid afternoon, during a power-cut, the Director of our Institute announced to us in the directorial tone that our Institute would soon have paperless offices. That of course did not happen; there were few takers at the Institute for either a quick or a smooth transition from “everything in black and white” culture to “nothing in black or white” culture. As the wise say, bad habits, like bad ideas, tend to live long.

Now, soon after email, came the expression “snail mail”. Snail mail is slow mail, be it ordinary letters or registered or speed post letters, in comparison with email, i.e., electronic mail. But “snail mail” is not a harmless, neutral expression. It is an attitudinal expression that belittles the postal mail. One little phrase with just two words and it dismisses the immense contribution of the postal service to our society for over a period of hundred and fifty years.  

In about five years’ time, the cell phone arrived. Another five years and almost everyone had a mobile phone. It was only ten years before this happened that STD booths were seen within speaking distances from each other! In just a decade, it so happened that one wouldn’t find one even if one runs a kilometer. With the STD booths, disappeared the queues of impatient people waiting to speak to their loved ones, as the one inside the booth seemed to have an unending talk to his loved one. Soon arrived SMS, threatening to render even emails outdated. Now the airlines and the railways say that e-tickets are no more necessary, only the relevant SMS would do: use a cell phone, save paper, save trees, save environment! You could of course continue to cut trees but not in the name of Indian Postal Service.

As an English teacher, I am concerned about the growing popularity of electronic correspondence. Emails, chats and SMS’s have threatened to play havoc with English spelling. To the traditionalist like me, it is nothing short of an assault on the language. The innovators have no time: why, for example, type three letters and waste time and energy – y,o and u – instead of just u, when y and o do not add to the content of the intended word anyway? Why write one or more sentences to say how unhappy or happy one is? Who has time to write those sentences or read them? Then there is the additional problem that the relevant sentence or the sentences may not effectively express one’s feeling? Some are competent users of a language but most are not. Why then run the risk of being half-understood, which is really being misunderstood? Why not just use an emoji and be done with it? Aren’t we using symbols anyway? What else are punctuation markers? Here we can go one step ahead by choosing emojis, which are not language-specific.  

In the degitalized world of electronic correspondence, online transactions, online teaching, online medical consultation and what have you, the use of the snail mail will shrink increasingly and inevitably, in our country and elsewhere. But it will not disappear in our country in the near future at least. Because for that to happen, every village has to have electricity supply and all insitutions and the vast majority of the population must have some device of electronic communication and ideally, every family must have access to this facilty, and none excluded.

By the way, if you are championing the cause of electronic ccommunication, you must not ignore the fact that the now-uncelebrated snail mail is the most reliable with respect to the confidentiality of content. There is of course the possibility, even with speed post or registered letters, that they might fall in the hands of someone else. But do not worry; you can always take comfort in the thought that the hands in which your letter has fallen, will type your biography when the time comes.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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