A helicopter can perhaps fly from Kolkata to Kumirmari island in West Bengal’s Sundarbans in 17 minutes. I posted two ‘Speed Post’ letters to the same destination and they took 46 hours.
I won’t complain because of what I saw first hand. It took a post van, two trains, a bus, a ferry, a motorised boat, a cycle, and a walk for the letters to get delivered from PIN code 700006 in Kolkata to PIN code 743378 that covers Kumirmari.
It began when I met India Post officials and asked if I could go on a letter trail. Things fell into place with the approval at Yogayog Bhawan in Kolkata. Next, I went to Beadon Street post office, and posted two letters bearing Diwali greetings to two residents of Kumirmari via ‘Speed Post’.
Using the consignment number given to me, I could track the first few hours of my letters’ journey. Between 2:13 pm and 8:22 pm that day, they moved across a post office, an airport transit mail office, and a national sorting hub. Railway mail service office at Sealdah station was the next stop.
So next day, I reached the Sealdah station at 4:30 am and dashed to buy my ticket only to find long queues at two counters. I stood behind one, restlessly. My eyes fell on a man who was moving out of the queue, towards the third counter, slyly. Oh! That counter just opened. I followed suit, grabbed my ticket, and boarded the train with a part of a coach dedicated to India Post. The train started at 5:16 am. Two men were transferring mail bags, heaped on a cart, into the train. As it began chugging out of the station, three postal staffers began sorting the bags and parcels.
Over the next 30 minutes, they were lost in their work, oblivious to how many times and where the train stopped. I was distracted by the light streaming in through the windows but they did not look up.
Mondays are the heaviest to sort, they told me. ‘Jab tak dawai nahi, tab tak dhilai nahi’ — the Covid-safety message in actor Amitabh Bachchan’s voice played at frequent intervals in the train. Also aired were recorded warnings against brokers who promise jobs in the railways.
We reached the Sonarpur station, 16 km from Kolkata. Bags meant for Canning, a town away from Kolkata in the South 24 Parganas district, were loaded to another train. Jalil Molla, a helper, and Animesh Baidya, a multi-tasking employee, met me on the platform. They treated me to tea and biscuits before the next leg of the journey. We were on board again. The sub-sorting of mail bags continued, this time in a coach with a few passengers.
The train reached Canning at 6:36 am. Molla carried one mailbag, half his height, while a cart pulled away the rest on the platform lined with stalls selling bread and omelette. As we walked to the town post office, we passed flower and lottery-ticket vendors. The smell of incense sticks and coal wafted from a tiny tea shop.
Waiting for Aadhaar
It was not even 7 am but some women and children were sitting tightly in the veranda of the Canning town post office, located in a small building. They were there to sign up for their Aadhaar cards. The post office can process 20-30 applications in a day, so people queue up ahead of the business hours (10 am to 4 pm).
This post office gets around 2,000 items daily. The local dak (post) was segregated and kept in pigeon-hole racks. A date stamp was hammered on all items. A drawer had movable metal type (all numerals) that could be fitted to the stamp. The stamp reminded me of the letterpress era.
The mail bag with letters for Kumirmari was ready for the onward journey to the Chhoto Mollakhali sub post office. Dilip Mondal, also a multi-tasking employee, said we had to board a bus, then walk to the Chunakhali ghat and proceed in a ferry. Achintya Purkait, a development officer with postal life insurance, joined us to explain the workflow till the last mile.
The bus grunted to a start at 9 am, halting and pausing every few minutes initially. On the way, Mondal handed over a mail bag to a representative of the Phool Malancha branch post office through the window.
We got off the bus and walked for 10 minutes to catch a ferry to Bara Mollakhali. The locality is on western part of the Chhoto Mollakhali island while the Chhoto Mollakhali sub post office is on the east.
The ferry was crowded but Purkait and I found space at the far end on the top deck. The humidity and heat were unbearable, so we went to the lower deck. There, the engine was hot and steamy. So we moved back to the top and sat on a chowki, a low wooden seat. I pulled out my umbrella. As the ferry got moving, I saw people on the riverbanks waiving at it to hail a ride. After 45 minutes, we reached Dugdugi Bazar ghat. Mondal gave the mail bag to another carrier and left to return to town. We disembarked at the Bara Mollakhali stop and hopped on to a three-wheeler van to reach Chhoto Mollakhali, about 7 km away.
The cheer of the upcoming Durga Puja was palpable as we started walking towards the sub post office. The market was milling with people shopping for clothes and the chatter about people returning home for puja vacation was strong. I spotted kerosene lanterns in a shop and felt the urge to buy one. Growing up in Kolkata, we would light kerosene lanterns during power cuts but they aren’t as ubiquitous now. I gave in to the charm of small town things and bought a writing slate with chalk pencils made from natural stone of Mandsaur, a city in Madhya Pradesh. I sketched a boat!
Although costlier than the normal bicycles, I spotted a few battery-supported ones. People with solar panels opt for these as the charging happens free of cost, I was told.
The Chhoto Mollakhali sub post office and 13 branch offices associated with it have around 40 people who cover six islands in this region. The workload is heavy all week, said sub postmaster Pradip Kumar Naiya. Over the two days I stayed there, visitors told me power and Internet disruptions affect the services occasionally but they wait patiently and come back a second time.
It was 1 pm, four hours since we had left Canning. Since the mail for Kumirmari would be dispatched the next morning, I decided to use the free time to learn how the postal system works in remote areas.
Sashanka Sekhar Ghosal, 65, who retired earlier this year from the postal department, was standing in for a sick employee. He has distributed letters in the region for 12 years. One of the items to be delivered was a PAN card. I tagged along, and we walked through fields, along ponds, and on narrow brick lanes, asking residents to guide us to the address.
“Often, the addresses don’t mention landmarks. Then, many people have similar names. At times, the recipients are not at home as they work far away from these islands,” Ghosal spoke of the challenges.
At 10:17 am next day, Jamuna Mandal, Kumirmari’s assistant branch postmaster, came to the Chhoto Mollakhali sub post office to collect mail for the Kumirmari branch office. Usually, she brings along her cycle aboard a motorised boat. But she had walked to the sub office from the ghat the day I met her.
Aniket Biswas, branch postmaster of Kumirmari, joined me, Purkait and Jamuna for the onward journey. We walked to the ghat, boarded a motorised boat alongside two bikes, and hopped on to a van to Kumirmari branch office. It was time to deliver the letters.
Tapas Gayen is a delivery agent. I sat on the pillion on his bicycle. Biswas and Purkait came riding on another cycle. Luckily, my first recipient, Pabitra Mondal, a school teacher, worked closeby.
My second recipient, Amal Ranjan Sardar, was a retired teacher. We had to walk, cycle, walk again to get to his home. There were no shops, no street markets after we crossed a small market area. It was only green fields, smooth roads, and brick paths thereafter. It took us around an hour to reach the two addresses. That, I was told, was quick. The more remote corners take up to two hours of cycling and walking.
Digital communication and payment are slowly creeping into the island, but people trust the postal system. “We feel our savings are safe with them. The 13 primary and two high schools on the island receive all their formal communication by post. We also use the post for bank- related documents,” explained Sardar.
Many people from the island work in the south — in Bengaluru, and in places across Tamil Nadu, and send money home.
“When agents of the private couriers come to deliver parcels, they ask us to come till the ghat, or on the other side of the river, to collect them,” said Mondal.
Kumirmari receives 1,000 to 1,500 postal articles in a month. On rare days, 1,000 items in a day. Outgoing letters are fewer.
The journey to the island is long, and sometimes, tides and cyclones come in the way of postal work. “One day, we received 600 Aadhaar cards in a single lot. That is uncommon. It was raining heavily. I managed to distribute them in three days,” recalled Tapas, delivery agent. “Heavy rains erode walkways but we try our best, especially when it comes to urgent items,” branch postmaster Biswas said.
Ghosal, retired mail carrier, counted the 2009 Aila cyclone as his toughest challenge. “I was at the post office when an acquaintance rushed in to inform me that the water was submerging parts of the island. Even as we were talking, the water entered our office. Our records are on paper. So I quickly gathered the ledgers and stacked them on the almirahs,” he said.
Back at the Kumirmari branch office, sweating and tired, I was grateful the power supply was back, and the table fan was running. The plan was to cross the river in a motorised boat and go back to Chhoto Mollakhali on a cycle and stay the night there. Tides here determine the availability of boat rides, and there was none to Canning in the second half of the next day. The return to Kolkata was not easy to plan. If only I could hail a helicopter….