The first time I saw Chauhan Uncle he was sitting on a tiny stool at a busy traffic junction right in front of the General Post Office outside CST, Mumbai. Dressed in plain black pants and a blue formal shirt, his wrinkled face and sad eyes told many stories yet his lips remained sealed. A ballpoint pen peaked from his chest pocket. “Kya aap khat likhte hain (Do you write letters)?” I asked him since the watchman at the GPO had directed me here. He looked at me in bewilderment and then laughed sarcastically. “Who writes letters today,” he said snidely and walked off. I meandered in the area for several minutes asking people at random about letter writers. Strangely, they all pointed back to Chauhan Uncle. I walked back to him, reframing my question. “Kya aap khat likhte the (Did you ever write letters) ?” I asked. He nodded slowly.
For someone whose profession is on the verge of extinction his reluctance to talk wasn’t all that surprising. Having been a professional letter writer for more than 40 years, PM Chauhan has been sitting outside the GPO in Mumbai’s CST area since 1974 – hearing people’s stories, penning them down, sealing the envelope and then dropping it off in the red letterbox. Hailing from a village in UP, he enjoyed a certain command over the Hindi language and crafted beautiful letters. “The people would come and tell me what they wanted to be written and would be so impressed when I read it out to them,” he says reminiscing the olden days. Suddenly, I find him opening up to me with disarming candour, probably because nobody has shown interest in his beloved profession for days, let alone let him practice it.
“It’s all because of the damned mobile phone. People do not write letters anymore,” he says. “They prefer calling. It’s cheaper and quicker, but not as articulate and elaborate like letters can be,” he continues shaking his head. The letter writers were also responsible for making insurance papers and sending money orders, but the banks have changed those processes as well. He flashes a blue envelope in front of me and explains how they’d punch holes and sew the money inside the envelope in a way that no one would be able to steal it on the way. The profession of letter writing goes back to the Mughal era when Munshis employed in the courts of the kings and nobles composed letters for aristocrats and there were Katibs or scribes that wrote letters for the common people.
Looking at the widespread illiteracy in India, the British formalised the system of professional letter writers in post offices when they set up India’s modern postal network in 1854. The only important qualification that was required of a scribe was good handwriting and a command over the language. “Earlier we would have a queue of people waiting to get their letters written. Today however, if even one shows up, then it is a good day,” he says. From the 20 odd letter writers that occupied the area around Kabutar Khana in front of the GPO, only 7 exist today. Chauhan uncle is the eldest among them, the others much younger, have opened up side businesses to sustain themselves, but have not given up writing letters.
One such man is Dilip Pande, 35, who hails from Varanasi. Fascinated by the city and its people, he thought no other profession would be better than that of hearing people’s stories. Adept in English and Hindi, he picked up Marathi through local newspapers and has been a letter writer for the last two decades. “I have written so many letters, now I miss writing them. Earlier the Fort Area had a lot of Import-Export Businesses so we would draft many commercial letters and mail packages but after they moved to Navi Mumbai, the clients reduced considerably. Then with the advent of the internet, people have stopped coming altogether. I have moved on to LIC as an insurance agent, but if today, anyone comes seeking to get a letter written, I gladly do it for whatever money they can offer. It’s become more of a hobby,” he explains. Similar is the case with Ashok who has started the business of packaging and posting parcels at a price much cheaper than courier companies. “Courier companies are the biggest looters. They loot money from the public and professions from people like us,” he says.
Chauhan uncle, Dilip and Ashok all recount their clients from the good old days. The variety of people they’ve helped covers labourers, students and sex workers to even families of criminals in jail. “I have even written love letters,” chuckles Chauhan Uncle shyly, narrating a tale about a man who was in love with a married woman and would ask her to meet him at a given venue through letters.
“Love letters were fun to write, but I once wrote a divorce letter,” says Dilip. “On a bright Saturday morning, this young girl came to me raging in anger demanding I write a divorce letter immediately. I asked her to calm down and gave her a glass of water but she was fuming. Later, she narrated stories about some sort of misunderstanding with her husband and said she will collect the letter in a while. The next day, she came back saying that she no longer wanted to file a divorce. Things had been settled. I advised her to not give in to hasty decisions taken under temper.”
One letter would fetch them INR 30-40 though they would give discounts to students and people sending medicines. Today, their only customers are a few illiterate labourers and a motley of foreigners fascinated by the tradition of letter writing. “They all have phones, but they still get a letter written from us to take back home. They pay us quite well too,” says Ashok.
Today, this last generation of letter writers have not only lost clients but also a decent place to sit outside the GPO. “We keep getting kicked out of here. I have been here since 1974. I am not going so easily. Even one client matters” says Chauhan uncle who reaches his spot every morning at 9.30 AM and stays there until 4.30 PM. Others come and go as per their convenience. “We are very happy that the country is progressing and there is so much of technological advancement in our nation, but the government must re-purpose our skills elsewhere. Earlier we were bound by tenders with the GPO, but even they do not care about us today,” adds Dilip.
As our gadgets get more vibrant and swanky the last profession of letter writers slowly fades away in the country. While Dilip, Ashok and others continue to sustain themselves with other businesses, Chauhan uncle sits there processing the delivery of a few packages. Absolutely dejected, with no hope from the government, he waits for a client to come and narrate a story that he can put on paper. You see, he never wants to write that last letter.
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Feature illustration by Karan Kumar