Pen friends

Rishi Majumder chats up letter writers whose expertise has fallen into disuse with technology’s sweep

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Letter writer Jaiprakash Murkar (white shirt) and Achchalal Chaurasia (right) at his paan shop

Dear Ma. My husband takes so much care of me and our daughter! So much that I hardly need the money I earn as a receptionist. Please save it to educate Ram and marry Shalu. They shouldn’t have to leave their hometown like I did. Though I’m very happy having done so, it doesn’t work out likewise for everybody
GP Sawant, one of the oldest letter writers in business, remembers being unable to blink back a tear as he penned this. Shobha, on whose behalf the letter was written, was a prostitute with a three-year-old child. Like with every time she wanted a letter written, she poured out her woes in a torrent. Then she told Sawant none of what could be revealed to her parents. So ‘Sawant Bhaiyya’ made up the lies, cross checked them, and posted them in. Sawant, at 60, has been working as a letter writer for over 40 years. “I started while I was in school, but contin
ued” he says. He quit his State Transport controllership, because the business (now 100 years old) was one of the most lucrative in the service sector then. Earlier an official letter writer inside the GPO, next to VT Station, he shifted onto the pavement outside after the government abolished tenders (and unions) for such services in 1985. “Then in ’94 they wanted to beautify the pavement,” he shrugs. Today, 16 proud literates circle half the frolicking kabutarkhana opposite the GPO with a loosely constructed plastic canopy shielding their packages, forms, money orders and letters from pigeon manure… well, barely.
“How is she (his wife) faring? Did the doctor say anything about what to expect (boy or girl)? We will educate the child…”
H R Khan, here since 1973, remembers writing this one for a migrant dock worker. He joined, like everyone, as an ‘assistant’ to a letter writer. “But
few people join today,” Khan laughs. Because few letters are written. Phones, mobile phones, courier services, hundis (in-country hawala systems) and the internet have ensured the business exists at five per cent of what it once was. “We earn less than Rs 2,000 a month nowadays, as compared to Rs 10,000 a month 15 years ago,” Dilip Pandey, in his twenties and the youngest, calculates. Dilip relies on a bank and LIC agency for income, using the letter writing desk his brother coached him at 10 years ago as central office space.
“If you want to see your daughter alive, and not sold off in the Gulf, make sure you hand over the amount of…”
This ransom note was not written by the letter writers. It was present inside a parcel they once posted. Traced back to their address, Sawant remembers informing the police when the kidnapper checked back for a reply,
and getting him nabbed. But far more drama has ensued. Sawant pulls out of his pocket torn remnants of his most important “personal” letter. Dated 1978, it is a letter of thanks from a judicial magistrate. “His daughter attempted khudkushi at VT,” Sawant recalls. “She was pregnant, but wanted to leave her husband, suffering from every vice in the book.” Taking another “behen” into his care, he tried everything from a religious guru to persuasion… so she would return to her father.
Far more drama emerges from the stories of Sawant’s assistants. One was fixed as language tutor to Pir Khan Dada (Haji Mastan’s arch rival)—an illiterate don. Another, he claims, was an erstwhile mill owner, swindled of all property, to take to the footpath for retirement, and letter writing for pension. Yet another went on to write scripts for films, but eventually com
mitted suicide. And one Ashok Sinha, mysteriously called Anil, is discussed and quoted by Suketu Mehta in his book Maximum City. Mehta describes Sinha as a “drunk” and an “expert in love letters”. We learn also that the promising writer assisted famed Hindi writer Kamleshwar. “Before his alcoholism pushed him over the brink,” says Jaiprakash Murkar in Bengali. Murkar’s not Bengali, but learnt the language from friends. Like many others, who’ve used such imbibed spatterings of Bengali, Gujarati and Tamil to colour their client’s correspondences. Even the paanwaala at this joint (referred to as the coterie’s ‘gossip tabloid’) has learnt. He spells out his name “A-c-h-c-h-a-l-a-l C-h-a-u-r-a-s-ia” smugly, as a pigeon dropping hits him with the rain. The pigeons, historic mail carriers, fluttering about a business now taken over by electronic media cluck in resonance with Dilip’s attempt at philosophy: “Phone aur internet ke wajah se desh mein kranti aaya hai! Par kya vikas aaya hai?”

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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