Stamped for good

Suryakumari Dennison tells you about a theft and its amazing consequences
Last Updated : 10 May 2024, 23:19 IST
Last Updated : 10 May 2024, 23:19 IST

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“What is so special about these bits of paper, Ajja?” asked Mohan, watching his grandfather leaf lovingly through a stamp album. 

“Bits of paper!” exclaimed Ajja. “Stamps are treasures, Mohan. Come, sit beside me.” Mohan pulled up a chair, and Ajja began to read out, in alphabetical order, the names of countries heading the pages: “Burma and Ceylon are Myanmar and Sri Lanka now. Isn’t that fascinating? As for Eire, how surprised I was to learn it was Ireland! These stamps came from my penfriend in France. When I visited Pierre, a few years ago, he took me sightseeing in Paris, but I was more interested in his stamps.”

“Better than the Eiffel Tower?” said Mohan, incredulously. 

“Well, perhaps not,” replied Ajja, chuckling. “Now, let me show you something wonderful. He flipped through the pages. “Germany, Ghana — Great Britain, the first nation to use postage stamps. Note these stamps in different shades.”

“Nothing special about them,” declared Mohan. “They all bear the face of the same woman.”

“This is Queen Elizabeth II,” said Ajja. “She died in September, 2022, at the age of 96.”

 “She seems very young here,” said Mohan, astonished.

 “These stamps portray her as she was, over seventy years ago, when she ascended the throne,” explained Ajja.

“Anyway, they are still unremarkable,” said Mohan. “They are monotonously alike, except for...”

“Except for what?” demanded Ajja.

“I’m not sure,” said Mohan slowly, “but there is something unusual about this blue one.”

 “My dear boy,” said Ajja warmly, “I knew you had the makings of a philatelist. Let me tell you the story of this stamp. A long time ago, after Raman uncle introduced me to philately, I would spend time with likeminded friends. We would take our albums to each other’s houses, to display our latest acquisitions and exchange duplicates.”

Mohan shook his head. “I can’t think of anyone with that hobby now,” he said. 

“On one occasion,” Ajja went on, “I had invited a few boys and girls home, to view a beautiful stamp that Raman uncle had sent me from the UK. It depicted a clown in a bright orange costume against a purple background.  After everyone had admired it, we went out to play, leaving my stamp album on the dining table. Later that evening, I realised that the clown was missing. The number of stamps on the Great Britain page, however, was unchanged. In place of the clown was a small blue stamp that featured the Queen of England.

“This stamp?” said Mohan eagerly, pointing to the one that had caught his eye.

‘‘Exactly,” said Ajja. ‘‘I had no idea who had taken my stamp. Anyone could have slipped indoors, and swiftly removed the clown — resting lightly on a hinge — while we children were outside. I told myself sadly that nothing could be done, and that I would just have to be extra careful in future. I knew I should be grateful to the thief for presenting me a stamp in place of the stolen one, but the substitute was dull in comparison with my colourful clown.’‘

“Go on, Ajja,” urged Mohan, as the elderly gentleman grew quiet, engulfed by a flood of memories. 

“When Raman uncle returned from abroad,” continued Ajja, “I told him what had happened, and showed him the blue stamp. Much to my amazement, he made a choking sound. ‘Gopi, do you know what this is?’” he said in a trembling voice. 

“You see, Mohan,” said Ajja, “Raman uncle had noticed, as you did, the difference between this stamp and the others in the set. Uncle told me that when Queen Elizabeth was crowned, stamps of her were immediately issued, based on pictures by top photographers. They showed her as she is on this blue stamp, happy and relaxed; undignified, it was felt, for a monarch. The stamps were quickly withdrawn and a new series soon came out, with the lady wearing her familiar, more serious expression.”

Mohan felt a surge of excitement. “Wouldn’t that make the old ones rather rare?” he asked. Ajja nodded. “Only thirty are known to exist, and most of those are in the royal collection. This stamp, with its catchy title, is in great demand. Philatelists around the world have offered me large sums for it, but I have not been tempted to sell it. I will never part with my ‘Smiling Sovereign’.   

Published 10 May 2024, 23:19 IST

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