The Postman9 mins 263 9 mins 263
An erratic, talkative village postman. An old woman who looked forward to her son's letters each month. She wished that the postman became more organized and punctual.
The scorching 11 am sun accentuated the wrinkles on Thangamma's dark brown skin. Beads of sweat rolled down her withered face. They drenched her body and her clothes – the signature white sari paired with a black blouse. The only colors on her clothes were the streaks of brown and orange from the mud and dust. She leaned on to the bamboo gate waiting for Balan, the village postman. Once again, he was late.
She wondered why Balan was so erratic. After all, he just needed to deliver letters.
"Krishnan sir was so much better."
She missed Balan's punctual, diligent predecessor who had retired eight months back. During his decade of service as the main postman of Pingal village in Kerala, he had always passed by their house at 10:30 am, sharp. The letters were always delivered on time.
However, in those ten years, Thangamma had never seen Krishnan smile. Nor did she hear him speak, unless there was a dire need. He would slow down if there was a letter and shove it into the bamboo gate. He would, then, ring the bicycle bell and speed as fast as he could to the next house. Thangamma's son, Kannan, would collect the letter – usually a mundane catch-up conversation from her Kolkata-based brother – and read it out to his illiterate mother.
Thangamma's brother died last year. Since then, she had no letters to look forward to – until seven months back, when Kannan left for Dubai.
"He's got an excellent job in the Gulf." Her eyes gleamed, as she spread the news among her fellow villagers. "His salary is eighteen thousand rupees per month."
The neighbors reacted in different ways. Some felt happy, some were proud and some, jealous. And yet, some were indifferent. The fact remained that Kannan was the first person from the village to migrate to the Middle East. He had struggled to pass his twelfth grade. But he was enterprising and resourceful. Most villagers were, therefore, not surprised that he bagged this job with the help of his extended network.
Ever since he had left, Kannan would send one letter each month to Thangamma. Once in three months, the letter was accompanied by a modest sum through a money order. Thangamma awaited the letters with bated breath. When the letter arrived, it had become the norm for the new postman, Balan, to read it out to her. After that, Thangamma would dictate her response. Balan would transcribe the response and post it to Kannan's address. Thangamma would reimburse Balan for the postal charges.
Kannan's last letter was special. He sent it on Vishu – the Malayalam new year, which also happened to be his mother's birthday. The letter was placed inside a flat cardboard box, which also contained a sealed brown packet. As always, Balan read it out for Thangamma.
14th April 1982
Happy Vishu! Hope you are fine.
You didn't need to remind me about your birthday in your last letter. I knew it anyway, and have prayed for you in a Ganapathi temple near where I stay.
The letter in his hand, Balan sat on the steps at the entrance. Thangamma sat on an old wooden chair on the veranda. Tears poured from her eyes as Balan read through the message.
Now, please open the packet that has come with this letter. It's my surprise birthday gift for my mother. You've always told me that I'm not too good with my sense of aesthetics. But I hope you like this one.
Thangamma tore open the packet. Out came a beautiful, yellow and gold, silk sari. She was speechless. Her dark, furrowed lips stretched to a smile. Balan continued to read.
Don't worry about me. The Sheikh has entrusted me with a lot of responsibility. He is very happy with my work. I think I'll be promoted soon.
I miss you. I'll get some leave during Onam when I complete a year. I hope to come home then. We'll celebrate Onam together.
Look forward to hearing from you – especially whether you liked the gift!
Your very own, Kannan
The tears continued to roll from her sunken eyes onto her wrinkled, hollow cheeks. She moved her fingers over the new sari. Then, she took it with both hands and pressed it against her chest.
"Kannan, my son," she said, sobbing. Her voice was uncharacteristically soft and drowned by the hissing sounds of the strong morning sea-breeze. Balan could barely hear her.
Soon, she wiped her tears with the tip of her sari. She beamed. Her eyes glittered with pride. She looked at Balan, all set to dictate her reply. With pen in hand and a sheet of paper in front of him, Balan was ready to transcribe it.
For the next two weeks, Thangamma undertook a number of activities that she had given up in the recent past or delegated to someone else. She went to the electricity and panchayat offices to pay for her bills. For the past year, Chandu, her maid's son, had helped her with this. She had not been to the village women's welfare meetings for more than six months. She showed up at the most recent one and felt that she should continue to attend these, going forward. She also caught up with her childhood friends, Sheela and Janaki. After all, it was a lifetime since they had met each other.
She was all over the village – wrapped in her new sari. Some villagers complimented her, some mocked at her, some did not notice, or simply did not care. Thangamma was neutral to these reactions. Wherever she went, her first few sentences would comprise:
"Nice sari, isn't it? My son sent it from Dubai!"
That day, it was a month since she received her birthday gift. She was expecting the next letter from Kannan that week. But, Balan was late.
"Balan is a big mouth," she thought. "He spends a lot of time in gossips, wherever he goes. That's why he's never on time."
She took a deep, exasperated breath. The fragrance of the jasmine flowers was soothing. The beautiful, white flowers flourished on the unruly, callous shrubs that grew in her compound. She closed her eyes and breathed in again.
After five minutes, she turned around and trudged along the seven meters of the stony, thorny, unkempt front-yard between her gate and the house. The April blaze had drained her. Exhausted, she shook her head. She rubbed her bare, muddy feet over the even muddier doormat placed in front of her main door.
"So, no letter today," she mumbled. "Perhaps, it'll reach tomorrow."
She sank into the creaky armchair and closed her eyes. Soon she was in a state of subdued sleep.
The familiar, shrill sound of Kannan's bicycle bell shook her up from her slumber. It bolstered up Thangamma's energy levels by a few notches. She rushed towards the gate. A beaming Balan leaned his bicycle against the compound wall and stood at the gate.
"How are you, Ammachi?" he said. "You're looking very tired."
Thangamma wrinkled her forehead and turned her face to one side in a huff.
"Come in," she mumbled.
Balan laughed out loud. "Don't be angry with me, Ammachi," he said. "I had a lot of houses to cover on the way, today."
He walked into the compound and sat on his familiar perch – the steps at the entrance. He kept his heavy sling bag and a thick register on the veranda floor.
"…And a lot of gossips to give and take. Right?"
Still smiling, Balan took out his handkerchief and wiped his frosty glasses and dark, sweaty face. His red, tired eyes, the creases on his face, the thick mustache, and the salt and pepper stubble made him look a decade older than his age.
"I promise, I did not give or take any gossip," he said. "Leave it, Ammachi. I've come now, albeit a little late. Haven't I? And that too, with your son's letter."
He took out the letter from his bag. He sipped some water from his water-bottle and opened the letter. Thangamma's irritation was history. She sat on the wooden veranda railing, eyes wide open, all set to hear what her son had to say. Balan read out the letter.
15th May 1982
Hope you are fine.
I am delighted to know that you liked the sari. Did you wear it? I'm sure you'd have received compliments. Didn't you? Many of the village women, I'm sure, would have been jealous of seeing you in this sari. Let me know the reactions…
The letter did not have too much more – except for a reiteration of Kannan's success at his work, the luxury in which he was living, and that he would come home during Onam. After the ritual of reading the letter and transcribing the response, Balan left Thangamma's house.
He went on with his work. He was late. He had another six houses to deliver letters, before needing to report to the post office at 1 pm.
He cycled down the narrow dusty road. It was one of the three arterial roads that connected the village center with the rest of the village. The roads were flanked by coconut palms and lush paddy fields on one side and jackfruit and cashew groves on the other. The greenery was punctuated every few hundred meters, by a line of five to six earthy houses. Pingal, in the midst of nature, was a welcome change for Balan. He hated the populous, brick and mortar landscape of Idukki town, where he was previously posted.
The old, noisy bicycle clanked through the uneven lanes. Balan went through the motions. The harsh summer afternoon sun took a toll on him. Sweat poured from his face. His khaki dress was now deep brown, soaked in his sweat. He had had enough for the day. He struggled through the bumps. The roads seemed to have stretched in distance. In thirty minutes, he delivered the remaining six letters and reported back to the post office a minute before 1 pm.
He sat at his desk in one of the corners of the office room. He took a deep exasperated breath and wiped off his sweat with a towel. The breeze from the old, creaky fan was not enough for comfort. Beads continued to seep through his forehead, down his cheeks. He let out short gasps, attempting to regain his normal breath. After a minute, he took out a piece of paper from inside a file in his locker. It was a telegram dated 18th November 1981, from one of Balan's colleagues in Dubai, addressed to Thangamma:
Kannan expired. Accident. Cremated here.
Balan stared vaguely at the telegram for a minute and then flipped it back. He leaned towards the wall-calendar to his right and moved his pen over some of the dates. He circled one.
His mind was blank; yet, full – with a concoction of weird, half-baked ideas. Onam would come in four months.