Sunday, 9 August 2020

The Last Post

Updated: February 27, 2010 1:22 pm

I saw it through the early morning mist which had swept in from the sea. The old letter box, nestled on the trunk of a middle growth banyan tree. It had a wonderful rusty patina that only comes with years of quiet neglect. The silent sentinel was all but hidden in the shade of the tree near the fishing jetty of Satapada, the small village on the north of Chilika Lake.

            I was spending a weekend, photographing the birds and dolphins of the Chilika Lake. Satapada is a little sleepy village on the edge the Lake. This was a chance discovery on an early morning walk to the lake’s edge. A slight drizzle had made me take shelter under the tree and it was providence that had made me see it.

            The banyan tree must have not been very old, just about thirty to forty years. The older trees are characterised by their aerial prop roots which grow into thick woody trunks which, with age, can become indistinguishable from the main trunk. There were very few of these on this tree, the ones that were there were all hanging about the trunk, half a dozen strands had covered the rusty letter box.

            Was the tree protecting the letter box in a loving embrace or was it strangulating it? Maybe the tree remembered the day when three big nails were driven into its trunk and the red letter box had been put up. However to me it seemed that the tendrils were protecting it, keeping it safe, and holding it in place. The long nail on which the letter box had hung had long since vanished, it had been absorbed by the growing trunk. The Banyan had forgotten and forgiven. In Hinduism the banyan is considered very sacred and is called “Ashwath Vriksha.” God Shiva as Dakshinamurthy is depicted sitting in silence under the banyan with sages at his feet. It was the tree under which the Buddha got enlightenment. The banyan tree is the national tree of India. Like the network of India’s postal system, the banyan’s roots and branches too are symbolic of the country’s unity. The Banyan is thought of as perfectly symbolising eternal life due to its seemingly unending expansion.

            The thick canopy was shelter from the rains, which were very frequent in this area. May be in another decade the letter box would be totally engulfed in the tendrils,

swallowed by the tree, as if a mother had taken its child back into the womb.

            Standing under the tree, looking at the rusty and peeling letter box was like being in a time warp. The tree and the letter box must have such wonderful memories of the days gone by. This was the letter box that everyone knew about in all the adjoining islands. The original estuary of the Chilika, where the vast lake met the sea is a tiny inlet was just about three miles kilometres as the crow, or rather, the white bellied eagle flew. These were rich fishing grounds and many small boats dotted the area. The people of the small islands would give their letters to the boatmen, who often docked their small boats at least once a day at Satapada, either for fresh water or for selling their catch to the fish traders. Many a time, the boatmen just touched base, jumped off the little boats and sprinted to the letter box, posted the letters and then rushed back to catch the ebb tide that would take them home.

            There were letter boxes in many of the outlying island too, but the islanders preferred to have their letters sent across and posted at Satapada, as the other mail route was very lengthy. Mail was collected and sent to Parikud and then on to Berhampur via the Palur Junction. Even letters sent to nearby Puri took a week to be delivered if posted on the islands.

            The Letter box used to be stuffed full by noon and the peripatetic postmaster (who had long since retired), used to come on his ramshackle bicycle and open the rusty lock. At times, when the letter box was full, he used to find some letters kept at the fork of the tree. At times, finding the box full, the boatmen would walk half a mile to the village and give their letters to the postmaster and tell him to get a bigger box. Many a time the crab seller would call out to anyone passing by to let the postmaster know that the letter box was full. The postmaster too had written quite often for a pillar box, but the Postal Superintendent at Puri had always turned down the request.

            The Letter Box was painted red once every year. There were stubs for inserting the clearance indicator tablets which would have told the people of the next clearance, but the tablets had never been used. Once a day, the old postmaster emptied the box and put the letters his sack. He slung the sack on the handlebars of his bicycle and would then go to the jetty for sending the onward mail sack across the lagoon.

            In the last two decades, the letter box had seen so much. From a sleepy waterfront, the village had developed into an important tourist destination. The sprawling Panthanivas of the tourism department had come up in the adjoining land. Many buses would come from Puri and bring day trippers who would hire boats to go further from shore where the dolphins frolicked. The fishmongers would set up shop under the tree and sell crabs and prawns.

            During the super cyclone of 1999, the lake waters had come up to the tree. Most of the adjoining trees were flattened by the hurricane winds, but this banyan tree stood tall. Perhaps it was spared because of the Letter Box, which was a good luck charm. The early years of this century saw the setting up of Mobile phones towers in Satapada. This forecast the death knell for the letter box. The vastness of the lake and the distance between the small islands made the use of mobile handsets very popular in a short time. Just twenty metres behind the tree was a small market where the advertisements of Aircell, Reliance Mobile and Airtel were boldly displayed.

            Gradually, in gentle degrees, the letter box’s importance to the islanders waned. There were fewer and fewer letters, until the day when there were no letters at all. The postmaster would anyhow come every day, as he had to put the mailbags on the ferry which carried the mail across to the islands. He would now open the letter box only once in two days and even then find no letters. In fact if he found any letter, he was quite surprised.

            Then one day it happened. The key to the lock was lost. The letter box was never opened again. Maybe it still had a few letters in it. The last clearance must have been about ten years ago, because the present sub post master told me that he had never checked up the letter box.

            I had second thoughts on writing this piece. The mandarins at India Post, if they access this story will be quick to issue orders for its removal. Experience has taught me that things move very fast and efficiently from the top to the bottom, not vice versa. In all probability, or should I say certainty, the letter box will not be there when I next go to Satapada, but my earnest request would be to let it be as it is, a silent sentinel, a remembrance of things past, of a glorious era when letters were written and posted. If I would have had my way, I would have erected a small memorial around the tree, and ensure that no harm comes to it. It would be a happy reminder of the romance of posting letters.

            In Hinduism the banyan is considered very sacred and is also called the kalpavirksha, meaning the wish fulfilling tree. I wish from the core of my heart that the letter box remains where and as it is.

By Anil Dhir from Puri

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