Saturday, August 23, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Mail retains its romance
Mohinder Singh

Photo by Gaurav SoodDID you know that in England where the modern mail system originated, the postage was paid by the recipient? The mail man collected it in cash on delivery. The due sum was calculated using complex formula.

Frankly I had no idea of it till some time back.

Rowland Hill (later Sir Rowland Hill), the greatest postal reformer in history) never forgot that as a boy his poor mother once sent him out to sell a bag of garments to raise three shillings to receive a batch of letters. And he was the one who devised a scheme of shifting the burden from the addressee to the sender.

This welcome shift, however, harboured an unintended twist. When the recipient was paying, the sender had some moral obligation to be extra good to the addressee. With the sender paying, he or she could get away with less courtesy. Something similar may happen with cell phone conversations, now that the receiver isnít obliged to share in the talking-time charges.


Lytton Strachey, one of the great letter writers, once remarked, "No good letter was ever written to convey information, or to please its recipient: It may achieve both these ends incidentally; but its fundamental purpose is to express the personality of its writer."

In 1840, the first postage stamp was issued. It bore a profile of Queen Victoria. Some people fretted over disfiguring the royal head in the process of cancellation. But the good Queen welcomed the move. She renounced the royal franking privilege for the pleasure of walking to the local post office from her Balmoral Castle to buy stamps and gossip with the postmaster.

Rowlandís revolutionary reforms boosted letter writing beyond belief. A fitting finale to the bygone eras of runners, carrier pigeons and post riders.

Older people like me have experienced the romance of the mail. I waited for love letters in youth; job-related mail while in service, things like postings, transfers; and now in retirement, an occasional cheque for a published piece.

I can peer into our letterbox at the gate from my second-floor study-room window. Anything nestling therein makes me come down to fetch it. Itís another matter, much of it these days is junk mail: offers of credit cards, loans, travel plans. Advertisers apparently believe that someone living in Vasant Vihar must be flush with money.

Still a source of unfailing minor pleasure is the opening of the mail. Using my old steel letter opener ó an instrument that survives on writing tables despite all the technological advances.

Pity, nowadays one receives quite a few letters ó mostly containing bills or cheques ó that are heavily stapled. Itís a job extracting the contents without doing them damage. Maybe, Ineed a staple extractor along with the letter opener.

Notwithstanding a marked deterioration in many of our public services, the mail mercifully arrives every working day. Yet Ifeel nostalgic about our stay in Hamburg during 1968-72. Mail was delivered at fixed timings four times a day. Money transactions were routinely made when payment orders to cover them were in the mail.

After resisting for a long time, Iíve quit my backward status, bought a modem, signed up for e-mail. Friends and relatives had often been asking about my e-mail address.

Hardly anybody asks for the fax number since I acquired the machine.

Hardly anybody asks for the fax number since I acquired the machine.

Over 80 per cent of what I receive is junk e-mail: to purchase Viagra, to regrow thinning hair, to lose weight, to win prizes of all sorts. Let alone the reading of it, even deletion is time-consuming.

A cousin of mine in Los Angeles keeps on sending a stream of jokes ó marked to thirty friends and relatives on his mailing list ó that he receives from someone in America. Very few are funny in our context, but I donít have the heart to tell him so.

Of the e-mail calling for a reply, I feel rather impelled to reply the same day. Itís unlike a letter where one usually takes some time. And then the ritual of folding the letter, sealing the envelope, writing the correct address, affixing the needed stamps, and walking to the postbox.

Yes, the instant nature of e-mail from any part of the globe to any other part is surely a plus. And so also its inexpensiveness. But mail, which must take a certain time to travel, and is getting costlier by the day, retains its own romance, more so to older people of my generation, grown up on it.