Rummaging through my study drawers the other day, a blue piece of paper partially concealed by some old receipts caught my attention. Soon enough, I found myself holding an unused postal aerogram with the words ‘Par Avion’ printed on its outer surface. Nostalgia overtook me and I was transported back to a time when communicating through paper, pen and ink was an essential and well-loved part of our daily existence.

Letter writing was an art that became extinct with the advent of e-mail and social networking platforms. While electronic mail is a convenient and instantaneous method of intercommunication, letter writing was a means of speaking one’s heart out with no restraints of space or time.

Letters were sent using three types of ‘stationary’, the cheapest of which was the post card. This was a thin cardboard rectangle with a printed stamp, a place to put the destination address and space to write whatever one intended to. Then there was the envelope wherein one could put any number of sheets depending on the length and contents of the missive. These envelopes were of two types. There was the pale yellow postal service type with a printed stamp and second, the privately purchased plain envelope that was affixed by an appropriate postage stamp before dropping in the letter box. The appropriateness of the stamp was determined by the weight of the letter.

Mail was sent to its destination by mail train or four wheeled transport and then distributed by mailmen, who either walked or pedaled to their respective addresses. Overseas mail was sent by sea or air. The latter in blue envelopes edged with a pattern derived from ‘stylized arrows’. These envelopes were affixed with a stamp of a high denomination and had the words ‘Par Avion’ (the French for ‘By Air’) printed on the top left corner. It was only when inland ‘dak’ began to be dispatched by air that a light blue colored printed sheet with gummy edges and instructions to fold into an envelope appeared on the scene. This was the aerogram.

The footpath outside the post office was occupied by individuals known as ‘khat navees’ (letter writers). Their vocation was to write letters as dictated by illiterate customers or read out mail received by them. This breed of men has almost disappeared from the urban scene.

Letters of old began with a standard set of words, which went something like, “Azizum Bhai Jan. Baad aadaab ki arz hai ke yahan per sab khairiyat hai aur aapki khairiyat khudawand kareem se nek matloob hai. Deegar ahwal anke … etc etc.” The importance given to letter writing can be gauged from the fact that it became part of school curriculums and no exam was complete unless it included a letter to someone near and dear.

The mailman or ‘daakia’ was an oft seen figure on roads. He usually wore a khaki uniform consisting of trousers and coat with shiny brass buttons and graceful ‘pagri’. These mailmen had beats and knew everyone living within their area of responsibility. If one was lost, the right thing to do was to stop a ‘daakia’ and he would guide you to the house, sometimes with a warning to be “careful of the watchdog”.

Our mailman was a middle aged person sporting a hennaed beard. He would arrive punctually around noon and was always offered a cold glass of ‘fresh lime’ or tea, depending on the season. Like all mailmen, he was also a source of news and sometimes gossip. Then one day, a new and much younger individual walked up our drive carrying the news that his predecessor had been hit by a ‘tonga’ and was lying badly injured in Ganga Ram Hospital. Good old ‘Muhammad Din’ had delivered his last mail, for that night he succumbed to his injuries and passed away.

The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.