“Hello?” the old postman uttered into the phone lying on his desk. The phone was surrounded by files whose edges had been feasted upon by rats. Rays of the setting sun penetrated the doorway of the post office and glowed on the metal desk behind which he was sitting.
While his ears were listening, his eyes were captivated by the cables that looked like a fat python. The village was getting ready for the next generation of telecom speeds. An interested group of youngsters stood by the construction site, all peeping at the workers and the drilling machine boring holes. To them, the ear-splitting noise made by the drilling machine was not an object of irritation, but of excitement.
The postman, however, had his eyebrows narrowed. As an essential part of the village ecosystem for more than half his life, Shyamlal had delivered several messages, happy and sad. Today, he was the one who felt his throat getting heavy as he spoke on the phone.
From being an ordinary postman who delivered letters to a powerful source of information delivering the latest updates on what was happening in which household, his responsibilities had grown significantly. There were several big changes that had happened in the village during his 35 years of service. The village had gained access to electricity, sufficient water supply, improved connectivity to the nearby town and other villages.
The number of buses had increased and so had the number of people traveling. There were several new kids who had started taking up jobs in the town while still living in the village. With the money that had started accruing, these kids were bringing gifts back to the village. With that, an abundance of information about the world around them was coming in.
With the technological advancements that the country was going through during the last two decades, Shyamlal was surprised at the pace of progress. He was amazed to see that there were several new jobs that the technically advanced generation was picking up. Right in front of the post office, there was a shop which had three phones setup which allowed anyone to speak to anyone in the world. Such was the promise of the telephones.
“Only if this telephone line could transport people as fast,” he looked at the sky.
Until now, he never feared the phones or the better connectivity. Though the number of letters at the post office had reduced in the last decade, his feet had also aged to no longer being able to deliver hundreds of letters a day. The older generation still asked him to read the letters, providing him with a good grasp of what was happening in the village. Of course, all the official communication was still channeled via the post office.
Today was exactly one year before he would retire from the Post Office. What a retirement it would be? Being the only person who worked at the Post Office after his boss’s retirement, he was responsible for the one-man-office, fulfilling responsibilities of a postmaster and a postman. He had fulfilled all the duties very well, ensuring a near cent percent accuracy in making sure that the letters were delivered.
However, where there was a good vibe about the development and his village gaining a lot of facilities and amenities, he was skeptic about this new thing. Young ones in the village were talking about ‘Internet’, a new mode of communication where people could send messages to anyone in the world, for free. For free? How would that even work?
His questions were usually met with a lot of facts and examples presented to him by these young people, who had by now convinced him that this mode of communication worked really well. The best part of it was that the communication happened within a few seconds.
With such seamless connectivity, he was really worried. Not for his job, knowing he would retire happily from the post office. The real cause was that he would no longer get to provide his suggestions and comments on other peoples’ letters. He would no longer be the news reporter of the village.
From a teacher to a life coach to a financial advisor, he had put forth his advice whenever a letter passed through his hands. In case a letter brought bad news, he was the first person to console the recipient. In case the letter was from a distant relative, he knew he could expect a piece of laddoo or two depending on the news. He had even made a few students make decisions about their careers and these students used to write to him often telling him how the choices had worked in their favour.
As a result, he felt he had a responsibility to take care of the village. But without knowing what was written on the messages being sent through the internet, how could he ever give good advice? How could he live the rest of his life unbeknownst to what was happening to his land?
This was the reason why he had been talking on the phone for almost fifteen minutes now. By speaking to his peers in the nearby town, he wanted to know what would happen to the good old connections he had established. Will this new thing kill the postmen? was the only question he had prepared to ask.
Gathering information about the internet was heartbreaking, like the denial of a bicycle to a kid who wants one to go to school each day. His face was distressed, but no one really cared to notice. Everyone was busy observing the cables being put under the earth.
The grey colored modest telephone had served him on numerous occasions to his delight. But today the phone looked ominous with the dust that had settled on it.
After a few ambiguous replies, he put the receiver down with his hands trembling. The phone had not been his lucky charm today. As much as he felt like throwing it away, he realized that the damages would have to be paid for. He could only sit in his chair looking at the cable being put in through the hole just outside the Post Office door.
It took only a casual glance for a curious young friend to notice the sadness in his eyes. Shyamlal had an extremely emotive face. As much as he thought to himself that he was excellently at hiding things, his face gave things away very easily. Despite the wrinkles and the rough stubble that had grown on his face, his cheeks and the patch under his eyes gave expressions away.
Kunal was quick in walking to his table at once.
“Kya hua, chacha?” Kunal asked in his raucous voice. The old man didn’t reply, even after being asked four times in different ways. The old man was sensitive, but he knew that the problem he was facing was not a problem for others around him.
As age progresses, a person comes across several predicaments where he chooses depending on what suits the best at that point in time. Of course, some of the choices are regretful. Nevertheless, these choices, good or bad, form stiff preferences and thus a way of life. From being an elastic handful of clay, a person starts solidifying to become a thick rock of mud, shedding some mud on his journey.
Kunal didn’t realize the predicament of the old man here, who had learned to live life one way and was at an age where changing from a pencil to another seemed like a daunting task. He had to find a new way of life, without the gossip, without the news, without the free counseling service. Noticing that the old man would not speak, Kunal walked away realizing that the old man might have problems that he didn’t want to broadcast.
The construction workers progressed with their work, looking good to meet their deadline. If the work continued at the current pace, there would be a stable dial-up internet connection across the village starting next month. Though the number of computers in the village was just two, the number of excited people noticing the activity was like a group of pilgrims headed to Haridwar. Everyone knew that the two computers were about to be an object of everyone’s envy and yearning. The questions surrounding affordability of computers remained, but more and more people were planning to save up to buy one of them.
Having seen the trend with telephones and televisions, Shyamlal knew that the transformation to a computer-dependent village would not take more than 2-3 years. When this transformation was done, he would no longer be needed in the village. No one would seek his advice when they could send instant mails to people across the world. The villagers would definitely seek actual experts and not him, a poor fellow who had gathered his knowledge on the basis of his observations of the village.
The sun drowned behind the mountains lining the village as the construction workers stopped for the day. Most of them were drinking water from the earthen pot that Shyamlal filled daily when he came to work. The workers thanked him for the water, but none of them noticed the deep lines on his forehead.
Kunal came back to sit with him and tried to indulge him in politics, talking about the forthcoming elections. Though Shyamlal spoke to him until it was dark and the construction workers had all disappeared, his face still bore the look of a forlorn cloud that knew it would no longer be able to shower on the earth.
Even Kunal gave up after talking to the old man for almost an hour, realizing his friends were calling him to play cards. The village had dived into the night activities as several televisions were switched on for the daily doses of news and new episodes of TV serials. Only the crickets chirped as everyone else was involved in his little house.
Shyamlal remembered the times when nights would bring people together for a round of cards or discussions about their daily lives. These meetings had in the past held discussions which had proved better than the Panchayat meetings. As the number of televisions and telephones had increased, these discussions had gone down, and so had the emotional connect between the villagers.
Though Shyamlal had managed to keep in touch with everyone due to the occasional letters, he felt that the village was now going to be all-the-more divided. The day was not far when there would be no one coming forward to make any decisions for the village. For a few moments, he even imagined the village broken down into so many pieces that no one even bothered to look at each other while walking on the streets. Everyone was stranger to everyone.
With the concerns ringing in his head, he started walking home. All the households were watching Doordarshan on television, apart from a few boys playing cards near the village Pan Shop. “Kunal!” He called his young friend and walked towards the group of friends. The group made space for the old man.
“Want to play?” Kunal asked. The old man nodded.
“Can you people promise me?” Shyamlal asked the group.
“That you will always play cards every night?”
“Haha, usually people are trying to shun us away from…”
“Just answer my question.”
“Sure, why not!”
“Why would we ever stop playing cards?” Kunal thought. Of course, he was too young to realize that a wave of change was coming.
The old man left after playing one round, convinced that at least five people would hopefully still want to meet every night.
If you are interested in reading similar short stories, please subscribe to my newsletter here.