January, a remnant of the times when to know what 'e-mail' meant you had to be a nerd going to one of those eight-week courses to learn BBC BASIC, COBOL, C++ and other computer languages that we were told were absolutely necessary to move about in the impending 21st century where social networking and marriages would disappear.
But it wasn't a greeting card that slowly travelled and made its oesophageal way from one office desk in the post-1911 capital of India to another office desk in the pre-1911 capital of India. It was a letter.
But unlike the great letters flying back and forth between Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Sanjay Dutt and Poonam Dhillon in Naam (the arrival of a letter after a long gap resulting in the Pankaj Udhas ghazal 'Chitthi aaiyi hai'), the inordinate time it took for Home Minister P Chidambaram's first letter to reach West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was much more important than its contents.
Chidambaram's first letter, dated December 21 and despatched via Speed Post on December 22, received no acknowledgement from Bhattacharjee until December 27. Two days after his cabinet colleague had posted the letter, Union minister Pranab Mukherjee accused the Left Front Bengal government of not fulfilling “its responsibility” by not acknowledging the receipt of the letter. Many of us thought of taking out the old Sarkaria Commission Report on Centre-state relations and studying what the protocol for a state government replying to a letter from Delhi was in constitutional terms.
As it turned out, the delay in responding to the letter was not a result of bad Bengali upbringing but because the bhadralok from Bengal hadn't received the letter until five bristly days after it had started on its tortuous, long route from Delhi. The culprit: seven postal workers who, reportedly, after clearing 49 out of the 56 mail bags that had arrived in Calcutta's General Post Office on December 24 at 6 am, had left the seven remaining bags unopened because they “were busy”. Chidambaram's letter, alas, was in one of the seven unsorted bags after which Christmas and assorted delaying systems kicked in.
Bhattacharjee, perhaps realising that leaving things only to Speed Post could provide unnecessary grist to the Opposition mill, especially as things grow bleaker by the day for his government, did the right thing by replying to Chidambaram not only by Speed Post but also by fax. (Yes, the fax machine can still be found in decrepit corners of offices.) Even though there was some talk about Chidambaram not replying immediately to Bhattacharjee's letter — the home minister was out of town when the fax came in — the fax from Calcutta put an end to the nasty business of letters in limbo and unanswered missives being suspected as subtle agit-prop.
The contents of Chidambaram's December 22 letter and Bhattacharjee's December 27 reply, as well as the two other epistles from the home minister, were silly twitter compared to the dangerous dust that rose out of the delay in the first letter reaching its destination. The Bengal CM being 'upset' that the Union home minister referred to armed CPI(M) cadres as 'harmad' — from the word 'armada' originally used in Bengali to describe the Portuguese pirates and slave traders who came to Bengal in the 18th century, and recently introduced in the present context by Mamata Banerjee — is a minor matter of semantics, riding on the slightly more serious matter of Chidambaram's charge of lawlessness in Bengal.
The real question that should gnaw the bright minds in the central government is why official India circa 2011 should use snail mail at all. The letter sent out from North Block to the Writers' Buildings couldn't have been classified, considering the media were briefed about its contents a day after it was posted. Also, there's nothing that stops GoI from using postal companies better than the Department of Post except for its irrational fear of professional, private enterprises. Secretary, Department of Posts, Radhika Doraiswamy, went on record to say that a Speed Post letter from Delhi should reach Calcutta in two days. Well, the December 22 letter from Delhi did reach Calcutta on December 24. It just never reached the address inside Calcutta for another three days.
The solution may lie in the fact that on its website, India Post tells you to contact them by mail in case of delays or complaints about Speed Post. The mail address: speedpost@indiapost. gov.in