Men who once traced their lineage to scribes from the Mughal era, the letter writers of Mumbai are now forced to pack parcels for a living.
Situated in South Mumbai’s grand Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus area, the General Post Office is an imperious figure. The black basalt and yellow Kurla stone building looks like a forgotten heirloom, with its central dome dominating the surrounding skyline. The structure has been here since 1913, and one of its oldest friends, Sajal Nath, has been giving it business for the last 35 years.
Nath is one of the few letter writers left in the area now. For a brief moment in time, people like Nath populated the streets around the post office, armed with their pens, helping the unlettered communicate with their families. They’d write money orders to old parents with specific instructions on how to use it and where to store it; letters from daughters informing parents about an unwanted pregnancy; pained missives from longing husbands sent to waiting wives.
Nath came to Mumbai in 1982, after he got mad at his parents. He then broke open his Amul ghee box, emptied it of all his savings and booked a ticket to the city. “In those days we had to wait for 10-12 days after booking to get a ticket. I stayed with a school friend once I arrived,” he told me. Nath had completed high school and was able to write basic English, but his strength, and what gave him employability in the city of dreams was his ability to read and write Bengali.
The man who was the voice of uneducated Bengali immigrants during a time when communication was analogue, now bides his days seated on a rickety wooden stool near a shop called Ashapora Travels. He sits with his supplies – a blue polythene containing a cutter, a large piece of cloth, tape, markers, wax, needles, and a solitary pen – in front of an empty wooden stool, where his customers once sat and poured their hearts out.
In her book, The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions, Nidhi Dugar Kundalia references historian Hajaf Haidar, who traced back these letter writers to the kitabs (scribes) of the Mughal era. These men were among the few who could read and they wrote letters for royals and commoners alike. Things are different today though, as email and WhatsApp have eliminated the need for letter writers, forcing 54-year- old Nath and his ilk to pivot professionally.
In 1995, the new postmaster general waltzed in and asked the letter writers to vacate the premises outside the various gates of the GPO. Displaced from the footpath they have occupied for decades, the letter writers scattered around the intersection between the GPO and Fort Bazaar.
At the intersection, a bunch of pigeons explodes in flight every few minutes and comes to rest on a large tree, whose biggest branch provides a little shade outside the kabootarkhana enclosure. Enjoying the shade, because there isn’t much else to do, is 70-year-old Parshuram Mukhla Chauhan. Chauhan arrived in Mumbai in 1974, from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh at the behest of his uncle who promised him a sarkaari naukri as a teller. But his uncle had lied; there was no job, and Chauhan was forced to fend for himself. Being moderately educated, Chauhan joined a burgeoning group of letter writers. He is the oldest writer here, one who has seen quite a bit. “I started writing letters for ₹2 in ’74,” he tells me. The price of their words could go up to ₹500 in the early ’90’s, if it included translations and packaging of parcels. “Everyone told us their secrets,” he tells me with a fading smile. “Now no one asks for us.”
Joining this motley crew is Shakil Ahmed, whose constituency was Mumbai’s Tamil population. I stayed close to him for about an hour as he bargained with a customer over a parcel, trying to get ₹120 from the initial ₹100 promised. “I’m used to you guys,” he tells me dismissively. “I have given 50 interviews but nothing happens. Journalists come here, get masala for their columns, and nothing happens,” he adds, before shooing me away. We are not important, he repeats over and over again.
Ahmed’s anger and contempt is justified. Like his colleagues, he finds himself hopelessly outmoded in a world, gamed out by emojis and online transactions. What was once a profession of pride, has now been reduced to “manual work”, earning them anywhere from ₹100-300 a day. It’s not enough to feed themselves, let alone their families.
As the sun folded into the clouds for the tenth time that day, the sadness of these men hits me with an extraordinary force. These letter writers who once tied together people in lands far away, holding their secrets close to their hearts, struggle to keep up with the churn of history.
Evolution, as history has taught us, remains undefeated. One just wishes it was a little more forgiving.