You’ve (still) got mail: Why postcards are forever
In the past two months, Paras Tyagi, 30, has sent about 800 postcards to different authorities in Delhi, raising a host of civic issues, especially the pathetic conditions of parks in west Delhi’s Vikaspuri and Budhela, where he lives. Tyagi has great faith in the postcard’s power of persuasion which, he believes, present-day digital messaging tools cannot match.
“Every day, people receive any number of emails, SMSs and WhatsApp messages; they either ignore them or delete them. But handwritten postcards, having become a novelty thanks to their declining use, make people sit up and take note. There is a human element in a postcard that is hard to ignore,” says Tyagi, co-founder, Centre For Youth Culture Law and Environment, an NGO working in the area of public policy.
Not just activists, for millions of commoners across India, the humble postcard, which costs only 50 paisa, continues to be a preferred mode of communication. According to recent data from India Post, postcard sales went up from 99.89 crore in 2016-17 to 106.23 crore in 2017-18. This figure was 104.70 crore in 2015-16.
If political parties are using them as a weapon against their opponents (the recent postcard war between TMC and BJP being a case in point), many people use them to keep in touch with family and friends. The postcards that arrive through snail mail leave a lasting imprint on the mind of the recipient, they say.
For the past 20 years, Jitendra Singh Gurjar, 39, a private security guard at a Surat school, has been writing postcards to families of martyred soldiers and paramilitary jawans across the country. So far, he says, he has sent about 5,500 postcards to such families.
“I started doing so after the Kargil war. It is my way of saluting the valour of our jawans and expressing my gratitude to their families,” says Gurjar, a native of Bharatpur district in Rajasthan. “I carefully read newspapers every day and if I come across any news of the martyrdom of a soldier or a paramilitary jawan, I try to obtain his address and write a postcard to his family.”
And why does he choose a postcard? “It is cost-effective, sturdy, and conveys my heartfelt message in brief,” says Gurjar, who writes a standard 80-word message on the postcards. Last year, he was delighted when a group of engineering students gifted him 5,000 new postcards. “They said I was making the best use of postcards.”
For decades, the postcard has had different uses for different people, carrying everything from a simple message to poems, quotes, sketches, recipes and childhood memories. “There are people in everyone’s life who deserve more than an email. These days, when people receive a postcard, they are pleasantly surprised. The DMs are disposable, postcards are forever,” says Gaurav Gupta, a marketing professional who often writes postcards both to his relatives and business associates.
Aditya Sharma, a Delhi-based writer-lawyer, echoes his sentiments. “The postcard commands a certain sense of timelessness. It requires a precise, direct, and honest form of writing, whether you are writing a personal or a political message. In fact, now postcard stories are becoming popular all over the world,” he says.
In India, postcards were introduced in 1879. Designed and printed by London-based Messrs Thomas De La Rue & Company, a postcard meant for domestic use was priced at quarter Anna and one meant for the countries affiliated to the Universal Postal Union (UPU) cost one-and-a-half Anna. The quarter Anna postcard had the inscription ‘East India Post Card’ with the coat of arms of Great Britain. In 1899, the word ‘East’ was removed and it became India Post Card. In 1911, special postcards, without stamp print, were released for official use to commemorate the coronation of King George V during Delhi Durbar.
After Independence, the first postcards were issued in 1949, and on October 2, 1951, the first postcards featuring Mahatma Gandhi were introduced. In 1979, the Post and Telegraph department released a commemorative postage stamp, celebrating the centenary of postcards, which are now printed at India Security Press in Nashik.
The postcard’s first challenge came in the mid-1990s when the public call office (PCO) with subscriber trunk dialling (STD) became popular in every city and small town across the country. “We generally wrote postcards, and used inland letters only if the message was a bit personal. I regularly sent postcards to my aunts and uncles till 1998 when we got a telephone in our house,” says Manish Kumar, 41, an artist who lives in Mayur Vihar.
The popularity of TV serials such as Surabhi , a cultural show hosted by Renuka Shahane and Siddharth Kak, ensured the postcard remained much in demand. In 1993, India Post introduced competition postcards after Surabhi, which had a weekly quiz for viewers, received 14 lakh letters in a week. Unlike the ordinary postcard that cost 15 paisa those days, the competition postcard cost ₹2, and was eventually priced at ₹10.
“Postcard sales peaked in the late 1990s. Sales started falling in the early 2000s when the internet gained popularity and private couriers, which were largely unregulated, mushroomed everywhere,” says Shekhar Kumar Sinha, former director general, India Post, and the author of the book ‘Productivity, Efficiency and Pricing in India Post’. “The cost of producing and delivering a normal postcard has always been much more than its sale price, but the department of posts continued with it as it was widely seen as the poor man’s mode of communication.” India Post sold about 336 crore postcards during 1999-2000.
In its quest for additional revenue, in 2002, India Post launched Meghdoot Postcard with a provision for advertisements on the address side. It was mainly aimed at advertisers and cost 25 paisa for the users. The rate of the advertisement was Rs 2 per postcard with a minimum printing order of 1 lakh pieces. Both the Meghdoot and competition postcards have been discontinued.
Interestingly, a few young entrepreneurs have now turned writing postcards into a flourishing business. Anubhav Ankit, co-founder of The Indian Handwritten Letter Co. (TIHLC), a firm that describes itself as “your personal letter writer”, writes and send handwritten letters on behalf of its clients.
“I write 400 postcards in a month, up from 40 three years back. People want us to send greetings, thank you notes, congratulatory messages, and even love messages on postcards to their near and dear ones.”
So, what was the last message he wrote on a postcard? “Only the other day, I wrote a postcard on behalf of a man to his fiancée, ‘This is just to tell how much I care about you.’ The beauty of postcards is that they do not demand much of the reader, and have a way of strengthening bonds and disarming people,” Ankit said.
For many, the postcards are collectibles. Take, for example, Rajesh Pareek, 67, who has been collecting postcards since he was 21. His collection includes some of the earliest postcards from the Raj, and almost all released after Independence. “Though most philatelists like to collect stamps, I always wanted to collect postcards. In smaller towns and villages, a lot of people, instead of sending wedding cards, wrote postcards to invite people to weddings and other occasions,” he says.
In 1978, Pareek won a silver medal in a competition, organised by the Department of Posts, for his collection of postcards of erstwhile princely states such as Hyderabad, Travancore and Jaipur, among others. “I am particularly interested in Jaipur’s stamps and stationary,” says Pareek. “But my most prized possession is a postcard written by my mother. She learnt to write from her sister-in-law and wrote her first postcard to me.”
In this age of Instagram, even picture postcards continue to be popular with many people as travel journals, reminding them about the time and places they visited. “I always write a personal note on a picture postcard, generally about a memorable experience during a trip. For me craftsy, little postcards are souvenirs. They are like paper Instagrams. I like to collect them,” says Aditya Gupta, an IT professional, who sent about 10 cards to his relatives and himself from a recent trip to Turkey.
Back in the capital, while many souvenir shops at Janpath still sell picture postcards, their sales are negligible. “Mostly foreigners buy them. Postcards featuring India Gate and Qutab Minar have been bestsellers over the years,” says Anil Bhardwaj of Karachi Stationary Mart at Janpath, showing us stacks of cards featuring various Delhi monuments.
Pune-based software engineer, Sivakumar Pandithar complains that postcards are now becoming scarce in post offices. He should know. Since April 2013, he says, he had been sending a postcard every day to the President until March this year to protest crimes against women. “I did not find postcards in the city’s post offices. Finally, I have obtained a few postcards and will now resume my postcard protest. But what does he find so special about them as a medium of protest? Firstly, it is affordable, and somehow the postcard gives me a sense of commitment to the cause that an email doesn’t.”