The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, January 12, 2003

Trudging along with the postman, through rain and sun
V. N. Datta

An Approach to History of Post Office in India and other Essays.
by Shivanath. Army Postal Service Association, New Delhi. Pages 220. Rs 150.

Continuing Dilemma: Understanding Social Consciousness.
by Sudhir Chander. Tulika, Delhi. Pages XII + 321. Rs 550.

Kahanian (Urdu)
by Kewal Dhir. Sahir Cultural Akademi, Ludhiana. Pages 168. Rs 150.

THERE is always a difficulty in reviewing books of persons who one knows, and especially those with whom one has been connected. The author of the book An Approach to History of Post Office, Shivanath, has been a class fellow and close friend of this reviewer; the second author, Sudhir Chander, has been a pupil at the advanced stages of historical research; and finally, the author of the third book has been a correspondent with him sharing common literary interests.

Shivanath’s An Approach to History of Post Office in India and other Essays is largely a compilation of articles he has been writing over the years to Dak Patrika, Dak Tar and APS Mail Milap during his service in the Post and Telegraph Department. After a brilliant academic career, he joined the civil service, held high administrative positions both in India and abroad, and retired as member of the Post and Telegraph Board. He was also Adviser to the Fourth Central Pay Commission. Throughout his life he kept the literary flame burning despite the heavy schedule of official responsibilities.


He has established himself as a versatile Dogri scholar. He possesses a sound grasp of Hindi, Sanskrit and English literature. He was also Executive Member of the Sahitya Akademi. The first essay in the book An Approach to History of Post Office in India makes methodological pointers for the writing of a full-scale history of the postal system in India. Giving a synoptic view of the postal system in ancient and medieval India and focussing particularly on the roles of Sher Shah and Akbar in the expansion of postal delivery, the author emphasises that it was in 1688 that the East India Company introduced a comprehensive scheme whereby it ran an efficient service within its own paid runners; and an office was established in 1766.

The author has reconstructed the growth and development of the post office system in the country by using some works like Mulk Raj Anand’s Story of an Indian Postal Service and Geoffrey Clarke’s The Post of India and its Story, etc. For writing a history of the postal system in the country he suggests a strictly chronological approach like dividing the whole study into four parts: the pre-1688 period, 1688-1854, 1854-1947 and finally from 1947 up to present times. Though chronology is the key to history, this reviewer prefers a thematic approach to designing the book as under: (1) historical perspective (2) structure of the postal system, (3) dimension, quality and hazards of the system, (4) a comparative evaluation of the Indian postal system with other countries, and (5) summing up with suggestions for the improvement of the system.

Shivanath pinpoints the year 1854 when the Imperial Post Office organisation was set up. This was the way that Lord Dalhousie overhauled the entire administrative system, including archaeology, education, public works, etc. The author has provided a vivid and sensitive description of the post office in the Viceregal Lodge, Simla, which is now called the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. Of special interest are the article on the Jammu Port Office and one illuminating piece on Anthony Trollape, an English naturalist, and the British Post Office.

In this work there is indeed a remarkable novelty in the treatment of the whole postal system and organisation. The account presented is not just a recital of events connected with postal history. It is made into a vibrant and flowing narrative dazzlingly evoking nostalgic memories and showing imaginative sympathy for the solitary postman trudging along in rains, storms and through deep snows to discharge his heavy duties.

This book written with effortless ease in a free and flowing style provides a valuable and solid base for the reconstruction of a comprehensive history of the Postal system in India.

* * *

Sudhir Chandra has made a notable contribution to the study of social history of India in the 19th and 20th centuries on themes like nationalism, communalism, culture and social reforms. His present work, Continuing Dilemma and Understanding Social Consciousness, comprises an introductory chapter, "The Self and the Work," and seven other essays already published in journals. This study offers a compelling reconstruction of the intellectual journey that took him from a small town in Uttar Pradesh to higher places of learning in India and abroad, which provided him with ample opportunities for his own independent research work.

In his illuminating essay "The Self and the Work," as a witness through his own experiences of alternating hopes and deepening gloom, Sudhir Chandra finds himself deeply involved in a predicament, a dialectical jam that exasperated him, and he sees to his bewilderment, if not in desperation, the vicissitudes of human affairs, entangled in a network of inconsistencies and paradoxes leading to a state of drift or what E.M. Forster called a "flux". He writes, "Ambivalence is a way of understanding a constantly unfolding dynamism which is what human history is at any given point in time."

The approach throughout this work is that of an agitator, a crusader and a questioner of things established. Sudhir Chandra assails the binary view of historical interpretation such as nationalism versus communalism, or right versus wrong, and the tendency to see a human personality all of a single piece. One wonders whether his own perception of seizing on a one-dimensional pattern of ambivalence is not itself a pre-determined notion of viewing things through an optical illusion.

Some of the key questions analysed in this study relate to social justice, obsolete customs, the deprived and agonies of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which the author picks up and weaves round them a story. The work reflects meticulous scholarship, critical rigour and a natural flair for challenging the conventional assumptions usually taken for granted by social scientists.

* * *

Dr Dhir is carrying on the tradition of promoting the cause of Urdu language in Ludhiana, which was started by Manto, Sahir and Warris. Widely travelled, his writings translated into several languages, Dhir has established himself as an outstanding litterateur. Honours have come to him aplenty. It is commendable indeed that despite the difficulties encountered, he is keeping the spirit of Urdu alive by organising seminars, conferences and anniversaries of eminent Urdu writers in Punjab.

In his stories Dhir’s focus is on the middle class and its manifold dilemmas. Problem-oriented, his stories reflect psychological insights, imaginative sympathy and sensitivity. They unfold the complexity of human life in its variety—high ideals, thwarted ambitions, bitter struggles, and social inequalities are all rolled up. But there is no surrender! The noblest object is the assertion of human values, of which Basanti is the finest example.

With his artistic crafts, Dhir weaves his stories, step by step, coolly, arousing and sharpening our curiosity, and keeping the issues alive and open, leaving them for human ingenuity to resolve. By the sheer force of his visual imagination, Dhir has developed an exquisite form of narrative, wherein lies his real excellence.