I walk along a familiar road. Nothing has changed in the last ten years… the temple at the end still looks as grand as it used to and the loyal crowd still gathers in front of it to hear the priest chant his evening ritual prayers. It was ten years ago on this same street when while playing cricket with my friends, I saw an old man in a coffee brown shirt, pass by in an equally old bicycle. He carried with him a peculiar red box.
My curious little mind then wanted to know what that it was…and why this old man was on this street – after all, the path was a dead end. My friends and I hurried over to him. He had stopped his old bicycle in front of the temple. He visited the temple while my curious little friends and I investigated what this big red thing was. The old man returned, with the vibudhi on his forehead, then picked up the box and placed it by the temple wall. It was then that I first spoke to him, asking what it was.
“A post box,” he said.
That evening I asked my mother what a post box was. I still recall how my innocent little mind couldn’t grasp why someone would take the trouble of carrying a letter all the way across the country for just 25 paisa.
It was then that I started writing letters. In the initial stages, I didn’t know the format in which the letter had to be typed. And because I bought the stamps from my snack money, I didn’t care to approach mother. This old post man humoured me by bringing these letters back to me, time stamped, instead of throwing them away. It was not until 6th standard that I learned to draft a letter properly. I recall how I wrote all sorts of letters back then: some to my friends, some to my school teachers, some even addressed to myself.
Back then I had the practise of writing two letters every week. And slowly the reason I went to the street was no longer to play cricket or visit the temple… but to post a letter. Time passed by and the old post man became more of a friend.
Then for my 15th birthday I got a phone as a gift and slowly I stopped writing letters… partly because it was difficult to encourage friends to reply via letters, but mainly because I was fascinated by the world of mobile phones. Slowly the street became a distant memory to me – like any other teenager I no longer visited the temple.
Ages rolled by and now I find myself in that street again – this time, praying to the almighty for good results in my 12th board exams. During these times a lot has changed: the temple has been renovated (or in traditional terms, it had its kumbabishekam), the houses along the street are now high rise flats. But this street always held a charm for me… the children still play and the bright red box has always been there.
It takes me a good ten minutes to realise the absence of that post box in front of the temple. Much to the anger of my father, I rush off in the middle of the puja to see that fabled old box. I am astonished to see that in the place of that post box now stands an old lady’s flower shop. On enquiring with the priest I learn that the area post office has been merged with that of the neighbouring area and subsequently this post box has moved two streets away.
A sudden gulp appears in my throat, and the emotions choke me.
I put the thoughts away for that moment and finish my exams. But weeks later, I return to that place two streets away to look at my old friend… there is no temple by the box this time, but a new set of boys revere this street as their pitch. My friend stood there, under the security of an old tree: he is has now been re-painted in a brighter red and given a new set of time labels. I look at the pickup time which reads 5:00pm and then at my watch which reads 4:50pm. I rush home, dig into my old things, searching frantically for something lost in a distant past. By a stroke of luck I find it: all those letters that the old man time stamped and gave me.
I want to post them all properly this time, even though the addresses may no longer exist. I rush to the nearby stationary shop and ask for 43 stamps; the person looks at me like I had asked him for something non-existent. It takes him a lengthy 5 minutes to search for the dusty old box. I pass him a hundred rupee note and rush to the street without expecting change – I was already late.
I see a new set of boys playing cricket on this street. I rush over to the post box. I take the stamps out and paste them over the old ones…and feel that joy again. I finish my job quickly and try to check if the letters inside have been collected. As I am about to put my hand into the box I hear a familiar voice.
“Yarada athu?” (Who’s that?)
I turn around to see the same the old man, on the same old bicycle, with that same vibudhi on his head. He simply stands and smiles. I sense he is happy to see me and vice versa. After a long stare he says nothing, but goes to collect the letters. There are two. As he is reading the addresses, I quickly hand him my 43 letters. He smiles and accepts them.
I can see from his face that he recalls the old time stamps that he had put. He looks at me and smiles again.
“Engada poirunda evalavu nalla?” (Where were you all this while?)
He doesn’t wait for my answer, but turns and rides away on his bicycle. As his image recedes into the distant traffic, I hear another familiar sound – my phone’s ringtone. The display reads “Amma calling…”
And that moment leaves one lingering thought…
“Families mourn when a person dies, but generations mourn when a tradition dies.”