As a newshound, it sometimes pays to hunt with a blank mind. Without any preconceived ideas. Expecting the unexpected to report the unreported, or re-report the oft reported.
Till the mid-1990s, I was – to translate a Hindi/Bengali/Assamese axiom literally – a frog in a well called Guwahati. In April 1997, this frog leapt and landed in Lucknow via Varanasi and Vadodara, hopping from The Indian Express to Hindustan Times.
Land of Nawabs, Imambara, kebabs, chikankaari and pehle aap – these were the only Lakhnawi inputs in my cerebrum before I reached the Uttar Pradesh capital.
The City Reporting chief probably felt it was risky assigning heavy beats to someone who knew as much about Lucknow as an Eskimo does about the Sahara desert (Lucknow has a Sahara connection, though). So I ended up with seemingly insignificant beats like Posts & Telegraph, where a piece of news missed wouldn’t have hurt much.
That was how I strayed into the Return Letter Office one day.
“Why don’t you go to the Dead Letter Office aka RLO?” advised Ashok Kumar Gupta, Lucknow’s postal chief then. He must have read my story-starved face and taken pity.
Half-heartedly, I trudged to the RLO at Hazratganj. It wasn’t as bad as it appeared – dark, dingy, messy and chaotic. The place turned heavenly as soon as RLO manager Nathu Ram showed the first ‘dead’ letter.
“To the sacred feet of the most worshipful, the most respected brother, Guru Pershad Singh,” was inscribed (in Hindi) in the address box of the inland letter. It was like a bone for a hungry dog, or in my case, fish for a famished cat.
That letter had only four days to ‘cremation’ in the postal morgue. “We keep letters and parcels sporting faulty, incomplete or illegible address for a year before destroying them,” Nathu Ram told me.
Pershad Singh’s brother was possibly not literate enough or was too much in awe of his sibling. Some others were no better; a few seemed to have been in a hurry, too smart or innovative, or addicted to translation. Like the NRI who sent a letter to an acquaintance in Fathepur-84 (Fatehpur Chaurasi, different from Fatehpur town) or someone who wrote to a kin in Zard Deewar (Urdu for Pilibhit, Varun Gandhi’s domain). Likewise, Charbagh (where Lucknow railway station is) became 4-bagh and Barabanki 12-bunky.
Hardly anyone writes letter these days, not even in villages. That, however, hasn’t stopped people from keying in the wrong number or SMS-ing the wrong person. I have often had to be ‘Chandu bhaiya’ for someone holding a cellphone somewhere in Bihar. And on many an occasion, I was woken up at midnight to ensure a truckload of maal is unloaded in my godown.
If that were not enough, I received an SMS the other day saying how I looked “gr8 in d red spaghetti strap dress at d party”. I was trying hard to recall any cross-dressing moment in my life when the sender texted another message urging me to ignore the earlier SMS as it was meant for someone else.
Time they had a cellular RLO?