Friday, March 20, 2015

Stamp of Approval

This piece appeared in The Hindu dated 13th March:

I first heard about philately in school. While discussing hobbies someone had mentioned the word, and I, not even knowing what it meant, was more than impressed: it sounded intelligent! A few years later, only when I saw a large, fat album containing all sorts of colourful stamps from all across the world, did I get to know what philately meant. I remember wanting most of those stamps, especially the colourful ones from Russia and America. But that was almost twenty years ago.

In the age of e-mail, courier, faxes, and, more recently, Whatsapp, Skype and Facebook, the fascination for colourful stamps was eventually lost. Until we – my husband and I – became a part of an online community where the members send post-cards to each other through snail-mail.

While postcards were easier to find (if you look hard you can spot them in an obscure corner of a bookshop or a souvenir stall), getting stamps, especially of our choice, was arduous: the neighbourhood post office stocked only a handful of same-old-boring ones and our request for variety was either met with stiff silence or with a freezing glare.

Not to be bogged down, we took our hunt to another level. Every city or town we travelled to, we made a trip to the post office: from the forests of Gir, to the head post office at Jamshedpur, from the airport lounge of Mumbai to the bazaars of Nainital, we went to every post office that came in our way, scouring for unusual stamps. It is on such a quest that I first came across a philatelic museum, and then another.

Postal stamps in India date back to the British period. The first stamp, a white paper embossed with wafers of blue and red, was issued in 1852. The next, which came out in 1854, was a half-anna stamp with the profile of a young Queen Victoria.(The pictures of the British Queen – and Kings – continued to dominate the Indian stamps until Independence).

The first three stamps issued by an independent India in 1947, however, were that of the Ashoka Pillar, the Indian National Flag, and that of an aircraft. In the years to follow stamps were used to display, commemorate, and celebrate the country’s heritage as well as its achievements. In the last 67 years, since independence, India graduated from three types of stamps to more than three thousand of them. These are not only used for postage but also for collection and study of the postal history; most major post offices have a philatelic department – or museum – that stocks and exhibits these stamps.

I had expected the officials at the philatelic bureau to be indifferent like their counterparts in my neighbourhood Post Office, I was in for a surprise though: the first official we met, after hunting for him in the corridors of over a century old Jamshedpur GPO, returned to his desk in under five minutes (as promised), expressed surprise at seeing us (apparently he knew every philatelist in town), indulged us in a long conversation about philately (I was amazed by his knowledge and passion), and helped us pick relevant stamps.

The other officials, who we met at the GPO in Lucknow, were even more forthcoming and their philately department much larger and modern. We were greeted with a warm smile, made to sit at a large wooden desk and were offered tea. Post which, they proudly showcased their collection – a large section of books, specially printed post cards, memorabilia, and of course the stamps.

While husband got into a detailed conversation with them, I forayed into the museum – three large rooms lined with glass covered panels displaying stamps, first day covers, and cancellations in chronological order. The variety was mind boggling and subjects varied: Politics, Arts, Literature, Festivals, Monuments, People, Cities, Towns, Railways, Sports, everything seemed to have a stamp dedicated to it. The oldest stamp I spotted was atop a faded envelope and had been posted to the Kanpur Post Office on 19th Dec 1948 from the Gandhi Nagar Post Office in Jaipur.

Appreciating the stamps was good, but what we needed more was a steady flow of them (that was why we were there in the first place). Surprisingly the officials had a solution to our never-ending woe: we could become members of the philatelic department and they would send us every new stamp that the department issues. We could also opt for brochures, first day covers, and cancellations if we wanted, and had the option of choosing the denomination of the stamps too.

The process was simple. We filled up a form, submitted a thousand rupees and got a receipt. By the time we walked out, almost two hours later, we had over three-dozen post cards, one brass letter box, a membership number, and, most importantly, a hope of receiving an unending supply of interesting stamps. But the skeptic that I am, I also had a doubt: what if the stamps never turn up? After all, the same postal department fails to deliver something as basic as a greeting card. My doubt was laid to rest, and my faith reinstated, when I received the first batch of carefully packed stamps and brochures by registered post a few weeks ago – well begun, as they say, is half done.

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