A Postcard’s Journey

old design post card

Very few people now use the postcard, that old workhorse, in this era of emails and whatsapp. Back in my day, the postcard costing one anna was the most standard and affordable means of communication.

So much agony, ecstasy and news crammed in that little postcard!

It was like writing an email in the public domain. There was nothing like my secure space – it was all public space!

If you sat down to write a postcard, the strange guy seated next to you had an automatic license to peep into it and to venture to suggest / comment / question:

“Why don’t write in better handwriting? How will the recipient read this crap?”

“Don’t write such stuff in the postcard, man. She will cry.”

Even the guy who was entrusted with dropping the postcard into the letterbox was free to read the contents. Everyone’s life was like an open book. Ditto for everyone at the post office at both ends.

The postman had to be multilingual expert of sorts. A letter written from Gujarat would invariably have the address written in Gujarati. For instance, the Marathi speaking sorter and the delivery postman in Mumbai would have developed a working knowledge of Gujarati. And likewise for other regional languages of India.

My maternal grandfather whom I used to address as ‘Bapa’ was the first matriculate in his village, knew English and was the retired headmaster of the local school there. His beloved daughter, my mother Lali, settled in the suburb of Matunga in Mumbai would regularly receive a postcard every month from her father. She had studied up to the 7th standard and would write back to her father, also of course on a postcard.

Bapa was meticulous in his choice of the contents of the letter as well as the address.

To ordinary mortals the content was as uninteresting as a boring movie, but it ran like this: “How are you Lali? And how is Nayak (my Dad)? Hope he is regular at his job. How is Babli? Make sure she wears proper clothes when she goes to her college. The world is becoming a crooked place, Lali, you know. And how is my little Baba – the little cute mischievous bundle? Does he enjoy going to school or does he throw tantrums. Do you still have problems with the water supply there? How is Dhiru (my mother’s brother living in another suburb, Andheri)? He does not write to me as often. My health is as good as can be at my old age. Don’t worry. The summer was hotter than it has ever been. The mango crop this year is so-so. But we will manage to send you some good mangoes like every year.”

Then came the address. Now, we all know the story about people writing to Mahatma Gandhi from all over the world, sometime to the following address: “To, Mahatma Gandhi, India”.

But Bapa could take no chances. He had to make sure the address was complete. After all, he was writing to his dear daughter.

First, the name of the addressee. “Rajmaan Rajeshree Shri Bhikhubhai Morarji Naik, M.Sc.”

The M.Sc was mandatory. This was Bapa’s son-in-law, and therefore deserving of the greatest respect, but he was also a scholar, and so mentioning his educational qualification was de rigueur.

Next: “Block No. 11, Narendra Villa, Second Floor”.

There was only one apartment with the number 11 and that was situated on the second floor, but why take a chance?

“Raghavji Kanji Estate” – i.e. the huge estate that had many buildings included Narendra Villa.

“Next to Kapol Niwas”. This well-known building in the locality was right on the main road and has stood there for ages. In fact, the bus stop there is still known as Kapol Niwas. No one can miss it. Certainly not a postman in the area, even if he was newly recruited.

So far so good.

Now, “Vincent Road / Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Road”.

The exercise of renaming of roads had just started in those days. The road known as Vincent road for donkey’s years was suddenly renamed “Doctor Babasaheb Ambedkar Road” in honour of the great son of India who passed away in 1956.

What if the postman doesn’t know that the two roads are identical? What’s in a name? Everything.

Then, “Matunga GIP (Central Railway)”.

The Great Indian Peninsular Railway was the grand old name handed over to us by the British. Somewhere down the line it changed to “Central Railway”. Now what if the postman is so ignorant as to be unaware of the new name? So write both the names. Peace of mind for Bapa.

For the uninitiated, there was also a BB Matunga, short for the Matunga station on the BB&CI line – ‘Bombay Baroda and Central India’. The BB&CI cut through the city between the west and east.

But since Matunga had been divided into BB Matunga and GIP Matunga in the olden days, the names had stuck. So east Matunga came to be known progressively as GIP Matunga, then Matunga Central but never Matunga East. The other Matunga originally donned the avatar of BB Matunga and eventually, Matunga West.

Thus, Bapa, the retired headmaster, had his geography right and mentioned both GIP and Central. The postcard had no business turning up at BB Matunga.

Postcode: “Bombay 19”. This was when entire region from Kutch in north Gujarat to Goa was known as Bombay State, of which Bombay was the capital.

Armed with all of this detail, there was no way any self-respecting postcard would miss arriving at its intended destination, i.e. the home of Bhikhubhai M. Naik, M.Sc.

But wait. What’s that last little scrawl in the address line?

“There is a large almond tree outside the building”.

You can imagine the amount of space this fine detailing would take up on a postcard. But this did not deter Bapa who had the ability of a miniature painting artist. He used every inch of that precious card, filling out the front, then going on to the back, writing vertically, diagonally, sometimes crossing into the space meant for the address, and even fitting in a line or two in the corners.

The Marathi speaking postman improved his knowledge of Gujarati in the process and earned a good Diwali bonus from my mother.

Stand by now, for my next blog post where I describe the process of drafting replies to such letters as dictated by my mother.

8 thoughts on “A Postcard’s Journey

  1. This reminds me of my great grand uncle – cousin brother of my grand father. He wrote postcards only. If one postcard is full, he would continue writing in another postcard; and yet another if the second also gets full. Of course he did not mention serial numbers on these postcards like “1 of 4” etc. He would then post all of them. Invariably, postcards did neither reach us in correct sequence nor together. My father used to wonder till all postcards are delivered and then arrange them sequentially. On the top of it, my father always got scolded by the uncle for not sending reply in time.

  2. very nice describing old but interesting communication tool completely different from present way of communication. very nice keep it up

  3. Well written and nostalgic at our age.
    I can add some more points to your narrative:
    1. The letter would start with a word “kshem” meaning everything was fine. That saved the reader the anxiety.
    2. The postman would have additional duty to read out the letter aloud for those who could not read.
    3. I remember my father saying that we should write the address first and then the contents.
    4. I was born in a small village called Guhagar in Ratnagiri District. My cousin sister, 12 years, who was with my mother at the time of delivery had sent a post card to my father in Mumbai written in pencil announcing my birth. We had that post card for many years in our house.
    5. IIT Postman was very well informed about the admissions to US Universities and would announce them while delivering the letters received for various hostels.
    6. Serial letters asking the receiver to make and post multiple copies for good luck and warning him of disasters if he did not do so were some aberrations . A later aberration was the Competition Postcards.
    7. Shailesh Gandhi would have been pleased reading the beginning of your blog: his tag line is that all his communications are in the “public” domain.

    Arun Joshi

    1. Yes Arun, enlightened readers like you can slip back in their own memory trails and keep adding to the Postcard story. Forgot to mention that there used to be a “Reply” postcard that came in handy for the receiver to respond. Have you heard about an office called “DLO”? i.e. Dead Letter Office in Mumbai where all undelivered/ undeliverable letters would be delivered and kept there for ages just in case …
      As for Shaliesh Gandhi I can write a special blog how I came to know about him at various stages of IIT Life. Chhotu was a phenomenon and still is..

  4. my father loved postcards . It was the easiest to fill for us in boarding school. An inland has so much to write. Thank you for taking us back to childhood

    1. Thanks DPK. Receiving a letter from home was something we used to eagerly await back in the U.S. where I had gone for higher studies way back in 1969 – 70. A letter from home meant something real that you receive had been touched by your folks. I have still kept f=a few letters written by my late father just before he passed away while I was studying for my Master’s in the U.S.. He had written a letter with a sea mail parcel that contained my musical instrument and i received it after he had passed away.

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