Rabindranath Tagore's Amol in his play titled 'Dakghor' waits for a letter from the king with least signs of fatigue. Amol fantasises about being free of his confinement in his small room. He has been told that the new building opposite his home is a post office.
The king's reply to his letter would be brought to him by a postman. The letter Amol has written to the king narrates his present state of mind on being stricken by illness. He is confident that the king's letter shall arrive one day. So he continues to count the days. At times he dabbles in thoughts that enable him to taste his utopian freedom.
The suspense of a long wait coupled with an unexplainable eagerness for receiving a reply once characterised all handwritten letters.
In the play 'Dakghar', the letters are carried by 'daak harkaras' or postal runners. It was part of the letter distribution system back in the old days.
Amol is a boy suffering from an incurable illness. He believes if he gets a reply to his letter from the king, he will be fully cured. The kingdom's doctor assures him of the arrival of the king's letter.
Handwritten letters have all but disappeared from our life controlled by digital devices. Emails have largely taken the place of letters and the whole process has been made simple involving just two persons -- the sender of an emailed letter and the receiver.
The computer science has freed the whole process of letter writing and the delivery of a lot of formalities. Since online letters require just a single person writing a letter on screen, the functions of post office clerks selling envelopes or stamps, postcards, getting them sorted and officially marked eventually got reduced. This typical post office scenario in the email age prevails in almost all countries.
In these jet-speed days few care about the air of romance around a delayed letter. In the past, pragmatics would say, the easygoing people could afford the luxury of waiting for a letter from their near and dear ones.
The average letter receivers now remain busy with many urgent businesses. They cannot veritably put up with a letter's arrival after inordinate delays. That the emailed letters would slowly replace the conventional letters doesn't require much brainwork.
The preparations leading to the squeezing of the conventional volume of postal work have long been evident throughout the world. Developing countries like Bangladesh have been no exceptions. Clients' earlier long queues in front of various counters have lately begun being shortened at the central post offices in the big cities around the country.
Except sending parcels and job-related thick letters, few people nowadays turn to the post office -- long notorious for their delays, to send letters to overseas destinations. Moreover, the postal charges for letters continue to soar.
Compared to it, the cost of emailing, with letters attached, seems to be literally for free. The consumerist world of the 21st century carefully keeps itself distanced from any kind of emotional attachment.
It worships the habit of giving time its due value. Smelling the latent romance in the delayed arrival of a letter in the conventional way and the thrill of opening the envelope has already become anachronism.
Few people write letters nowadays. Those who do, do that deliberately --- with the intention of hiding their identities. The whereabouts of the writers of letters who prefer to remain incognito can be dug out with 'search devices' adopted by the online sleuths.
Nothing gets lost forever if something is released in the virtual world. It might need time to retrieve them. But the online detectives possess the tools and their expertise in locating a person posting missives containing questionable subjects in their letters or messages.
In the olden days, romantic youths, especially the young girls, used to soak their letters with one or two drops of perfumes, or pour a puff of talcum powder into the envelope meant for her fiancé. Many would scatter rose petals between the folds of a letter. Today's social media-hooked youths do not take the trouble of arranging these symbols of love.
They do not need them either. Online media outlets like Facebook have several signs of romance ready for the love-bitten letter writers in the Messenger option. Depending on the letter writers' moods, one can pick the signs suiting the occasions.
Letters no longer need to be written on paper. Before the start of the use of paper, correspondence between royal courts would be carried out through exchange of cloth-made scrolls. Special messengers normally used to be assigned to the task of carrying the letter-scrolls on horseback.
In another development, after the full-scale start of paper letters, tightly sealed bottles containing private longings, poetry-charged soliloquies or pure letters written by people used to be thrown into the sea. Many of these bottles kept floating for a long century or more before a curious fisherman or a sun-bather on a beach found them.
Of late, several such bottled letters were found on the coasts of Australia, New Zealand or the Pacific islands. Surprisingly, a few of the letters bore addresses. And close relatives of quite a few of the intended recipients were searched out at the addresses mentioned, and handed over the letters. Many would-be recipients have long left this world, while others have turned too old to remember the letters.
Notwithstanding their direct links to the invention of scripts and paper, man had to wait over a thousand year before letter writing revolutionised man-to-man correspondence. In Europe, the letter-culture had already taken hold -- though lacking an operative and speedy postal service.
Sher Shah Suri, the founder of the Suri Empire in the Asian Sub-continent's Bihar and Bengal in the 16th century, introduced a systematic postal system involving horse-riding postmen. Two centuries later, this fledgling system was transformed into a nearly modern postal network by the British rulers.
Post offices were set up throughout the Sub-continent. The postal department made provisions for post masters, clerks and uniformed postmen as government employees. Upon being in place as a dominant public service for over 100 years, the postal department is being made to make space for a service that functions online.
A number of post-office operated services have already been abolished. They prominently include the once-inevitable telegram service with their typical Morse code messages.
In reality, the postal service in general is facing a stiff competition coming from the digital communication system. In place of the trained horses and 'runners', courier planes now carry letters and parcels from country to country. Sea-going ships have long been largely out of service. For domestic operations, many countries are mulling the use of drones and other state-of-the-art technologies.
Few can deny the force and the emotion latent in handwritten letters. Down the long passage of modern history, some letters have been attached historic value. They include those written by Jawaharlal Nehru from prison to his young daughter Indira Gandhi during the British colonial rule.
These letters were compiled afterwards as a book called 'Letters from a Father to His Daughter'. At this point one would feel like mentioning Poet Rabindranath Tagore's letters written to his niece Indira in Kolkata. Tagore had been on regular tours of the vast rural areas under his ancestral 'zemindari' ownership in eastern Bengal.
With enveloped letters and postcards phasing out fast, they are finding place on postal museum galleries. Curious youngsters are found eager to learn about the evolution of letter writing and their dispatches. Bangladesh also has one such museum which has on display different types of postal paraphernalia.
Post offices and postmen have been immortalised in Bangla literature. How can one forget the village postmaster torn by the dilemma between his affection for a child and the call of duty?
Sukanta Bhattacharya's poem 'Runner' has carved out for itself a permanent place in Bangla poetry. So has W. H. Auden's poem 'Night Mail'.
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