During my annual holiday last month, I ran into Ramettan, the village postman. Shrivelled and shrunk, he was still trudging long distances for delivering messages. I had thought he had retired long back, for he was a postman even when I was in school, which makes it about fifty years of service! When I asked him about superannuation, Ramettan shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘A couple of years more to go.’
A genial soul, he was (and still is) Ramettan to everyone, man or woman, old or young, though the suffix ‘ettan’ implies seniority in age. He had started life as a peon in the elementary school and doubled as a postman – quite like his boss Balan master – a school teacher who ‘moonlighted’ as the postmaster. They were part of a large contingent of what was called EDL staff (Extra Departmental … – what does the L stand for?)
He had set his own practices and rules for delivery of mail. The first batch of delivery was at the point of origin – the post office. A small crowd would be waiting at the post office in the evening for the ‘Jayashree bus' to bring the mail bag. Ramettan would open the bag, separate the special mail (registered letters, money orders etc) for scrutiny of the post master. Then thud, thud, he would affix the delivery stamp on each of the remaining items – one thud on the stamp pad and another on the letter.
As the loud thuds resound rhythmically, the expectant crowd outside would swell in size. He would read aloud the names of the addressees of the missives. Among them, those present there would come forward to collect them. People were free to collect letters meant for their neighbours too.
The vigilant observer could notice a pattern he followed while putting away the letters that could not be disposed of at this point: they were sorted into a few heaps – geographically, one presumed.
Ramettan would first head for the banyan tree in front of the Krishna temple where people would assemble in the evening to exchange the hottest gossip, play cards or ambulate. Delivering the first bunch of letters there, he would dispose of half the day’s arrivals.
The peripatetic delivery would start in the morning. Other things being equal, he gave priority to money orders and registered letters. He knew that aged parents might be looking forward to remittances from their employed children and youngsters would be awaiting call letters for interviews and appointment orders. The small tip that recipients of these would grant him was incidental, but incentive enough.
Bookpost and newspapers (Hard to believe, but, yes, they used to arrive by post!) received the lowest priority in Ramettan’s scheme of things. These would be held over till some ‘regular’ mail came for the same addressee – or his neighbour. Many are the days when three or four issues of the Indian Express would be delivered to my uncle in a bunch.
Most of the letters in those days when money was hard to come by were postcards because in the trade-off between privacy and frugality, the latter won hands down. As he walked through the fields and through the lanes, he would glance at the letters. While delivering the letters, he would also announce, ‘Nothing to worry, Karthiyedathi, Raghavettan has reached NEFA safe’ or ‘Kanaetta, your grand-daughter’s milk tooth has fallen off.’ The recipients would not take offence at his having had a sneak preview of the letter before they could read it.
Not many were literate in those days and needed help to decipher the contents. Help was always at hand in the form of Ramettan. At times, his assistance would be sought for writing out replies – something he happily did. This role of reader-cum-scribe made Ramettan privy to the secrets in several families. To give the devil his due, Ramettan would keep all those to himself; he would be the last to cause embarrassment to them by broadcasting these at the village fair.
Ramettan was, to use an overworked cliché, an institution. He had a share in the joys and the sorrows of every family in the village. He rejoiced when Appukkuttan got an appointment order, he was crestfallen when he brought the news that the right leg of Kumaran Nair was blown off when he stepped on a mine in Kargil.
One thing, however, has always been an enigma to me. It is one thing to scan a postcard and be a privy to the contents, but how on earth could he know the contents of inland letters and envelopes which were sealed? I recall that one evening during a summer vacation, he brought an envelope and handed it over to my grandmother, telling her, ‘Santhedathi has missed her periods again. You must ask her to stop, Kalyani Amma. This would be her seventh child, right?’