A Red Life

‘Remembering the face of his son, as he attacked and looted his father, all the dak runner (post runner) could say was, “I couldn’t see the face”. ‘ If you had the good fortune to read a bengali short story called ‘Dak Harkara’ by Tarasankar Bandopadhyay, you will be able to easily connect the dots. The story and history of Indian postal service dates back to 1850’s when East India Company transferred the colonies of the Indian subcontinent to the British Crown. It is a service of tradition, of heritage and legacy. It was a time before mail vans and speed Post was even conceived. Mail used to be carried by train and from there to the post offices in the interiors by dak harkara (post runners/ postilions). 

Many of us as kids used to collect postage stamps – national and international and the special releases. My interest in philately was aroused when I was given a set of international stamps – Australia to Peru to Oman and Russia. There were approximately 30 to 40 stamps. The main interest was seeing the stamps on the envelope – travelling a long and difficult path to its destination.

How many of you have visited post offices? I doubt many in my generations also have. The quaint old red, blue boxes at the entrance, the huge room of the post office with the grilled windows and high desk. The smell of envelope glue is now long lost with introduction of modern smell less glue sticks, the long row of postmen stamping their mails and receipts is also gone. The world of the ‘snail mail’ is gradually fading into oblivion. The postmaster sitting on his high chair while the postmen and runners rested their weary feet, the age of mails and mail trains zooming past on dark nights to ensure the post reached on time.

The story of Dak Harkara narrates the life of a post runner – ferrying the mail from the station to the village, waiting for the mail train, running to a set rhythm, the lonely night runs through the jungle – the romance and the thrill is beautifully captured. In contrast, the son is shown as the younger generation – more interested in financial gains through quick means (such as being a dacoit), rather than live the life of romance and adventure.

The history of the Indian postal system is indeed one of romance and thrilling adventures. Even today, the remnants of the past stare into our lives – the old mail trains, the shabby and crumbling post offices, the plethora of stamps on the postmaster’s desk. It is a system evolved from the horse riding messengers to the modern airplanes of today. The postal system is today more of a showpiece of the old world. The telegraph poles still stand out in some parts of the country as a reminder of the old times when they brought the world together.

The red buildings with the red vans dashing across the city to make it to the mail train on time will long be missed in the fast paced world of ours. Communication has changed – from postal service and telegram first bringing the world together to today’s internet and video call services. The world has grown smaller over the years and the importance of a postcard or letter with its variety of stamps and emblems bringing the most important news in years for the expecting family will before long be lost in the minisculity of miniaturisation. Today the post office is an avenue of tax saving rather than a place where important news is traded. The advent of television, radio signals and the mobile phone has extinguished the light for postal services.

No longer does the postman come visiting with his bundle of letters, no more will there be money orders with the ability to change the life of someone far away, and no longer will we experience the anxiety and joy of waiting for a post from distant places. The romance of writing a letter or the thrills of being a postmaster in a distant outpost or post office will be nothing more than figments of our imagination.


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