Thursday November 30, 2023

From snail mail to email: A trip down memory lane

August 14, 2022

When one enters the building of Karachi General Post Office (GPO), one of the oldest post offices of Pakistan, located at I. I Chundrigar road, the mailboxes placed outside its gates revive the nostalgia for a forgotten era; when the post office and mail runner used to be the most popular attraction for the nobility and the populace. Historically, it is among the oldest government-run departments as it began functioning as a part of the Department of Post & Telegraph immediately after Pakistan’s independence in 1947. Eventually, in 1962, it became separated from the Telegraph Department and began functioning as an independent entity, connected to the Ministry of Communications.

What began as a small network of barely 3,000+ post offices has now expanded into more than 13,000 post offices across the country.

According to a 2021 ranking report released by the Universal Postal Union (UPU), which is a world-renowned organisation representing 168 countries with nationalised postal services, the global ranking of Pakistan Post has improved by 5 places in recent months.

Since time immemorial, Kings have maintained channels of communication for their exclusive use, and for receiving and sending the news of political and economic importance.

A large establishment for the transmission of messages is recorded for the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta in 322 BC. Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan traveller to India in 1310 AD detailed the mail system of Sultan Mohammed bin Tughlaq in his writings. Massive reorganisation of this system took place under Sher Shah Suri. It was further developed and maintained under the Mogul and later rulers.

The East India Company established a system of postal hubs at Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta in 1688. All the mail was required to be sent there before being sorted into distinct bags according to the destination. These bags were protected with official seals which only local postal chiefs were allowed to open.

The Indian Post Office was established in 1837. In 1850, four post offices were set up in Sindh: in Sukkur, Shikarpur, Hyderabad and Karachi. Sir Henry Bartle Frere modernised the postal system.

The very first Indian stamps were introduced in Karachi under the auspices of the Scinde Dawk. Mail was carried quickly and efficiently, connecting government offices and post offices. The efficiency improved in 1851, when mail runners replaced the horses and camels. The facility now included doorstep delivery of letters and could be used by common people.

Karachi holds significance in the postal history of the Indian subcontinent as the first postage stamps were issued from this city.

As the Postal Service evolved, faster routes were explored and the first Airmail Service in India began from Karachi to Bombay.

Faraz Iqbal, Assistant Superintendent at the Karachi GPO, mentioned that the post office provided essential services to the state not only historically but also in the present day. When Pakistan was first created, the GPO had a wide range of responsibilities: managing driving licenses, veteran pensions, TV and radio permits. Over time, separate institutions have been set up that manage these responsibilities individually resulting in the GPO’s revenue relying on utility bills and promotional offers from offices and universities.

With the development of more and more private courier companies, the Post Office now has competition, resulting in them being responsible for less parcel delivery. However, the staff of the Post Office appeared committed to their work. No one expressed disenchantment; rather they were optimistic about the future, holding hope that the government would pay attention to the upgrading of the institution. "The significance of the post office is still intact, the public trust us and we have more customers than any other private logistics or courier company." Says Faraz. "The GPO has the largest network which is spread in every corner of the country. Multinational courier companies have limited resources and access but GPO can reach or serve even in a remote village of 40 houses or less. The culture of stamp collecting is prevalent in people of all ages; however, writing letters is something that has become outdated for the youth. Nowadays, personal mail (letters and postcards to friends and family members) is barely sent out, resulting in the majority of mail being utility bills.

We have also switched to technology and all our services are available online including Express Mail Service (EMS) and EMS Plus -- which delivers orders internationally within 24 hours, Urgent Mail Service (UMS), electronic money orders and fax; we also launched an app for Pakistan Post. Despite getting used to technology people are still nostalgic about postcards and stamps which they purchase frequently from Pakistan Post."

One of the fondest memories attached to the post office is the stamp collection. There is a common slogan associated with stamp collection; it is the hobby of kings, and the king of hobbies. However, in recent years, the rise of awareness and accessibility made it a popular hobby amongst commoners as well. Mohammad Tariq Khattak, president of the Peshawar Stamp Society, is a philatelist (one who collects or studies stamps); even today, he enthusiastically pursues his passion. He is going to represent Pakistan in a World Stamp Exhibition in Jakarta, Indonesia.

"I picked up a hobby of stamp collection when I was in high school in 1970. A friend of mine had a stationary shop, where I saw packets of tickets in a box. I asked him what they were, and he said tickets. I knew about letters and postcards, but I had no idea about tickets or postage stamps. He told me that people are fond of collecting these tickets and hinge them into albums. He gave me an album and some stamps and I organised my own catalogue. Since then, I have never given up on this hobby. I joined the Peshawar Stamp Society and organised several events and philately exhibitions," Khattak recalls the beginning of his hobby for postage stamps.

Stamps allow us to have a peep into the past, showing that they are indeed slices of history. It is also impressive how any momentous event or even a whole epoch can be compressed into a tiny piece of paper. Hence, it can be considered a miniature art form.

Old stamp issues of Pakistan show the country’s past in a nutshell. When Pakistan came into existence, the word Pakistan was printed in large letters on the stamps of the British era and they were used as the first transitional stamps of the country. Later these stamps were reprinted and issued in Karachi

Those stamps bear India Postage written above the image of King George VI. These were tickets ranging in price from half anna to twelve annas and from one rupee to twenty-five rupees.

Pakistan’s first regular stamps were issued on July 9, 1948, to commemorate Independence Day. The tickets with four different designs were printed in London

The first one-rupee postage stamp was designed by renowned artist Abdul Rehman Chaghtai with the inscription of Pakistan Zindabad. The first ticket issued in commemoration of independence is red in colour, has the moon and stars on it and the date of establishment of Pakistan is mentioned as 15th August which was later changed to 14th August.

Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who is widely regarded as the architect of the concept of Pakistan, appeared on stamps for the first time on April 21, 1958, eleven years after the creation of Pakistan. In October 1958, the General Ayub Khan ascended to power by revoking the country’s first constitution. A year later, the government issued two stamps on Armed Forces Day, which was then celebrated on January 10, with the badge of the Pakistan Army imprinted on them. This was the first depiction of the Pakistani army on tickets.

None of the various tickets issued till August 1949 bear the image or name of the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. There is no picture or any painting of the distressed refugees who migrated from India or the common people killed in the riots during the partition. All tickets had pictures of buildings or the moon and stars.

A ticket was issued on the death of the Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in September 1919, on which Quaid-i-Azam is written but without his picture.

In commemoration of General Ayub Khan’s imposition of martial law, tickets were issued on October 27, 1966, under the title of Revolution Day. Their subject was Ayub Khan’s agricultural reforms, which had been expressed not by the portrayal of the farmers but by the portions of land.

During the period of Ayub Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, tickets with their pictures were issued two times. Benazir Bhutto also published a ticket with her photo but it was not issued.

In 1961, the country’s currency was changed to paisa and rupees instead of anna, so tickets were issued in memory of this historical event.

When the Parliament made the country’s first constitution in 1956, no commemorative stamp was issued. However, in memory of the 1962 constitution, proclaimed by General Ayub Khan’s military government, tickets were issued with maps of the provinces of East and West Pakistan and a stanza of a poem by Allama Iqbal, along with Gul Yasmin impressed on them.

The faces of military soldiers were the first human faces to appear on postage stamps.

In November 1966, the image of a person was first published on two stamps and that was of the military ruler, General Ayub Khan. The city of Islamabad, which was to become the new capital of the country, was printed on one ticket and the picture of General Ayub, dressed in an English suit, was imprinted on the other. Till that time, no stamps were issued with pictures of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah or Allama Iqbal.

June, 1968 was the first time for the province of Bengal to be represented on tickets, bearing the portraits of the famous Bengali poet Qazi Nazrul Salam. A year later, tickets with photos of Mirza Ghalib, the poet of the national language Urdu, were also issued.

In November 1976, the ticket with the first image of Quaid-i-Azam wearing a sherwani was released. The sherwani was not declared the country’s national dress until that year.

The decades of eighties and nineties saw a significant change in the stamps of Pakistan. The colourfulness of the themes was observed in them. Their topics included portraits of local poets, writers, painters, scholars and intellectuals, local handicrafts and clothing and messages of public interest. If seen from this perspective, the diverse themes of the stamps reflected a rapidly changing Pakistan.

Geoffrey Rothe Clarke, a British civil servant in India writes in his book, The Post Office of India and its Story, "The romance of the Post Office, however, must always lie in the mail runner or hirkara as he is called in old books of India."

Postman Muhammad Asif, serving for 32 years, is truly passionate about his work. "I deliver mail on foot. My area of delivery extends from Lighthouse to the bazaar to Burns Road. There’s a temple near Lighthouse and there are roughly 200 houses in the street near it and everyone there knows me by name, even the maintenance personnel" tells Asif.

Assistant Superintendent Faraz Iqbal, narrated an interesting tale about a postman who went out during curfew to deliver mail during the martial law of General Zia ul Haq. He was partially deaf and when army cops stopped him, he could not hear them. They reached out to him and identified him as the postman. "If you were without this uniform of a postman, we would have shot you."

From royal palaces to the dwellings of the poor, the postman was the confidant of all.

This reverence for postmen was preserved in the passing down of poems and songs. Hearing the popular song composed by the veteran composer Sohail Rana and sung by the children, in a popular PTV program of children of the 80s and the 90s, "Daak Babu, Daak Babu" immediately reminds people of the time when they used to eagerly wait to hear the drum or bell signaling the arrival of a postman. Some memorable songs that fascinate and remind us the intimacy that kept even the long distance relationships alive between friends, families and lovebirds are Chitthi Aayee Hai by Pankaj Udhas, Mere Mehboob Ka Aaya Hai Mohabbat Nama by Nahid Akhter, Likhe Jo Khat Tujhe by Mohammed Rafi.

Many people still want to keep this nostalgia and romance alive. Khattak is one of them. "I got acquainted with letter writing through an elder cousin of mine in childhood. He came over to my house in Peshawar and taught me the pattern and writing style of a letter. He told me about the basics; begin with, buzurgwaraan, when you address an elder in a letter, or with braadiran when you write to young ones, and if you want to write to your sister, then mention her as baaji sahiba and then begin your letter with salam. It was in 1969 that it became my routine practice, I would purchase the daak (postage envelopes) for 20 paisa (according to the 20-gram rate) and write to my cousin in Karachi daily."

When talking about letters, the name of the famous poet Mirza Ghalib immediately comes to mind. Besides his beautiful poetry, his letters have not only served as crucial windows into the history of the 1857 mutiny in Delhi, they are also of great literary value, showcasing his fineness in using casual yet intimate language to describe the events of his time.

A more comedic reminiscing of letters comes from Khattak: "When I was in 9th standard, I made some pen pals through letter writing and I remember an amusing incident from that period. I had a pen pal; her name was Zebunnisa, we used to exchange letters. Once she wrote to me before Eid and mentioned that everyone exchanges gifts on the occasion so I also sent her some presents through the post office. One day, I received her letter and noticed some mistakes -- she used masculine words for herself in some sentences. I realised then, that I had been cheated! This funny practice used to be popular at that time. I also wrote letters under the fake name of Kulsoom.

Even in this digitally advanced age, I write letters to my friends and family on some occasions. I send them Eid cards, which are now scarce in the market but I make my own. The reason I still write a letter even if someone dies or gets married has to do with the fact that if you pay condolences or congratulate someone on the phone, only one person hears about it, if you write a letter, your message reaches out to every family member." For Khattak, the delicacy of handwritten letters carries a sensational impact which is more meaningful to loved ones than a text message or phone call.

Amongst all the technological advancements we are witnessing today, the Post Office remains close to the hearts of people. It has retained the culture of letter writing and stamp collecting to flourish, preserving precious memories of people, about events, anecdotes of their time, as well as retaining a human touch of intimacy.