‘The Last Post’ book review: A world long lost

Express News Service

Postage stamps, letter boxes, old post offices… in fact, anything connected with the mail tells a story of its own. They tell you tales  ranging from politics, history, technology, biography, genealogy, economics, geography, disaster and triumph.

Anil Dhir’s The Last Post is an ode to the romance of the post office tinged with nostalgia. He brings to us the human side of the thousands of people who have lived and worked within the system.    

Our tradition of ‘mail-running’ dates back to the 15th century, when the Mughals ruled most of India. Down the ages, the job of a mail-runner was a risky one, and the ‘hirkara’, as he was called, had to protect life and limb with a staff, spear and bell.

At the hour of cow-dust, these khaki-clad runners assisted by torchbearers went through valleys, hills and forests accompanied by dug-dugiwallahs to chase away wild animals. So infested was the countryside with predators that the roads were almost impassable. ‘Day after day, for nearly a fortnight, some of the dak-people were carried off at one or the other passes.’

Today, in our cities perhaps, we take the postman for granted. It’s a courier’s world, zooming from house to house, on two-wheelers making deliveries. Elsewhere, without fuss, our man of letters continues to deliver mail to 90 percent of the countryside, just as he did a 100 years ago, when mail running was fraught with risks. 

Record books have it that in the early days of our hill stations, mail totalled less than a 100 articles a week, which in June 1935 peaked to 1,31,562 articles: all managed by one post master and his two able assistants. An old colonel got a new orderly, whom he instructed to drop the mail ‘into the hole in the red box’ at the post office.

This the orderly did with regularity. Six weeks passed and urgent official letters remained unanswered, the colonel grew anxious. He dragged the servant by the ear (I believe you could do that in those days!) and that is how the twain arrived at the post office. 

Adjoining the office was the post master’s drawing room—neat, clean, and with a fireplace three quarters draped in the summer months with a plush red curtain. Of course the letters had been posted, there they lay, behind the curtains—all 17 of them behind ‘the hole’.   

I guess it’s about time for the post offices to reinvent themselves. Till they do so, they will hardly be capable of withstanding the new challenges thrown up by courier companies, mobiles, SMS and WhatsApp and email.  

A good read for those who love history.


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