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Dead letters brought alive!

chandigarh Updated: Sep 13, 2012 13:25 IST
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Any idea about dead letters? Not many youngsters would know. Letters that did not the reach the addressee were directed and dumped to be retrieved when the address was found in the Dead Letter Office (DLO). I can recall one that was located in Amritsar. Spirited letters that we wrote with so much indulgence are dead now, thanks to emails, SMSes and other communication vehicles available on the internet.

There was always a suspense and an apprehension if at all a letter would reach its destination or not, unless you sent it with a paid "Acknowledgement due", especially in a registered cover, that would cost you 10 times more than the usual postage. The best way then to make a letter reach the addressee was to send it as "bearing", which meant that the recipient had to pay double the postage. Most of the lower strata, especially labourers or workers from other states, used this mode. A "bearing" letter could be written on an exercise book page, folded appropriately.

The best way to ensure that a letter wasn't opened by anyone unauthorised was to ink-mark it on the folds with straight lines that would appear "tinkered" with if the fold had been scrap-opened. Hardcore writers left on their missives their "stains" in the form of symbols, tears, blood, lipstick or turmeric, as the situation warranted. A postcard torn on one edge sounded an alarm, for it contained information about someone's death.

Addresses were written in full measure, as if taking into account every lamp-post or municipal water tap, if one of these was a local landmark. The usual stereotype could be: "Mile Pandit Dinanath ji ko, Patanjali Yogacharya, Mandir ke peechhe, Kumharan Kuan, Nazdik Government Boys School, Chungi Ke Paas, Court Road, Allahabad". If the addressee had relocated himself, then his neighbour could provide the postman a new address, on which the letter could be "redirected" (superscribed with red pen) without landing in the DLO or being paid extra postage.

A proper salutation in a letter to the addressee was a must. Care was taken to make it as respectful as possible, but clichés like Poojya Pitaji, Adarniye Bhai Sahab, Azeez-o-Mun, Barkhurdar were invariably there. Closing the letter one would sound a tad more submissive - Apka agyakari beta; or, Sirf tumhara! In some letters, the available space, too, was filled up, making the reader turn it in many ways to decipher the entire scribbling.

The more animated letter writers invariably put a couplet, either at the beginning or at the end. It could be anything like "By God's grace we are all fine here and hope you are also sailing in the same boat"; "Atra kushlam tatra astoo", "Aage motor peechhe car, badon ko namaste chhoton ko pyaar". And then there were cautions: "Chitthi ko taar samajhna; Thode likhe ko zyada samajhna!" There could be none in the family or circle of the addressee who would go uninquired about: "Jeejaji ki naukri lagi ke nahin?", "Meena ke liye ladka dekha ki nahin?", "Abki baar Pappu pass ho gya ki nahin?" all this would end with "Khabar dena!"

In the 1949 Ashok Kumar-Madhubala blockbuster 'Mahal', the DLO retrieved a letter written by one Ranjana, who committed suicide, making it appear to be murder by her husband, but confessed it in a letter that did not reach the right hands. When the suspense was known after the letter was handed over to the judge, the character played by Ashok Kumar was saved from the gallows. A human error led to a blunder; a human effort sorted matters out - in letter and spirit.