letter-mainLetters which never reach their destination
Written by Sarah Hafeez | New Delhi | Posted: January 18, 2015 1:00 am

“Anne, about 50 years ago we corresponded. I found your photo while sifting old papers. I am now old and want to remember old times and acquaintances, you are one of them. Hope all is well with you. Yours sincerely, Sushil.”

This note, written in black ink on a creased picture postcard from Toronto, Canada, with the picture of the Royal York set against a magenta backdrop, lies suspended in timeless limbo in the Dead Letter Office in New Delhi.

Back in 1963, a young Sushil had, perhaps, met a beautiful Anne in Germany. They had probably corresponded over letters, the photocopy of one of which is appended to the postcard. A fair Anne with short dark hair and a soft smile playing on her lips looks out of the picture attached to an A4 size sheet. The rest of it contains a note from her to Sushil written in German, and the address of the apartment where Sushil was living in Germany in 1963.

The picture postcard had been dispatched for Rhine, Germany, on September 17 last year. The German postal services hunted for the address. They neither found the house, nor could they locate Anne. The letter was then sent back to Delhi. The postal services here, according to protocol, redirected the postcard to the Returned Letter Office, where officials tried figuring out where the sender, Sushil, lives in Delhi. But in the absence of an address for the sender, the letter now lies suspended in transit between two cities, two nations and two correspondents. Is Anne still alive? Does she still live where she used to in 1963? If so, does she remember Sushil? Sushil might never know. And Anne might never know that a letter had travelled over 4,000 miles from India only to miss her. Situated in the heart of India’s capital, where high internet penetration, an ubiquitous telecom cover, an ever expanding metrorail network and a sea of private and public transport make connectivity a matter of unconcern, the Returned Letter Office becomes a humbling reminder of the power of chance over humans even in a hyper-connected world.

The Returned Letter Office in Jhandewalan, Delhi CircleThe Returned Letter Office in Jhandewalan, Delhi Circle (Source: Prem Nath Pandey)Hundreds of letters such as Sushil’s lie buried in the morgue of mails, the Dead Letter Office (officially known as the Returned Letter Office or the RLO) in Jhandewalan which falls under the Delhi Circle. Each of the 25 postal circles in the country has an RLO to itself. The RLO is the lost-and-found section of the Indian postal system ,where all letters and articles which do not reach their destination and can neither be mailed back to the sender are housed. “The unclaimed mail resides in the RLO for a stipulated preservation period in case the senders or the addressees come to claim them. Letters are kept for three months after which they are shredded and destroyed. Articles and parcels are kept for a year, after which they are auctioned off to the general public with a base price decided by the office,” says Pranav Kumar, director (Mail and Business Development), in charge of the RLO, Delhi Circle.

Housed in a nondescript room on the third floor of the Jhandewalan post office, the Returned Letter Office is a relic in itself. Inside, there are wooden tables and chairs, rusted old Godrej cupboards, weighing machines, a cubicle for the manager and bundles of white gunny bags occupying a corner. The workforce at the office comprises four men and five women, all middle-aged, each sitting before blue plastic trays stacked with envelopes, magazines and parcels. A tabby occupies the window sills, lapping milk from a bowl kept on an unused table. The employees at the office work as the decoders, entrusted with the task of verifying if the letters and articles can, indeed, not be sent to the recipient or the sender before destroying or auctioning them. The decoders, invested with the sole authority to open and go through the unclaimed letters which come into the RLO, become privy to hundreds of letters and the stories in them, which range from the banal to the bizarre, from the fascinating to the funny.

Tucked away in the bundles of letters at the Dead Letter Office is an envelope addressed to “Santa Claus, Gandhi Nagar”. Inside it lies a thin sheet of ruled paper with a wishlist scrawled in yellow pencilled block letters. The anonymous young writer comes straight to the point: “Santa, I Want Magic Pen (2), Kinder Joy (4), Stamp (1), Casio (1), Your Photo and sign (2), Your cap (2), Cosco Ball (green) (1), Balloon (15), pencil box (1), Stickers of Ben 10, Spiderman Cap (1), Angry Bird (2 packs), Crank 100000000000, I love you Santa.”

Wish lists apart, the office houses some of our deepest fears too — that of unrequited affection and rejection. A letter from a young man named Rocky to his love opens with, “Hello Reena, kahan ho yaar, bahut din ho gaye mile hue, na koi cal (sic) na koi WhatsApp par message. Kya hua, Facebook par se toh tera profile hi gayab hai, band kar di ya kisi aur naam se khol liya hai…(Where are you? It’s been so long since we met. You don’t call, or message on WhatsApp either. What has happened? Your profile’s disappeared from Facebook too. Have you disabled it or opened a new one?).” There are other letters too — letters from a librarian thanking a library in the village of Brades in Montserrat in West Indies for sending him some books and stationery, wedding cards that never found their way to the guests, anxious petitions from aged pensioners who have not received their pension, greeting cards and advertisement pamphlets. A senior official says, “Some of the letters and articles which end up here are quite unbelievable. The most popular addressee we deal with is god. People write lengthy letters to God, either sending requests or making confessions. Many post money to god as donation or a measure of thanks.”

One of the reasons why a letter ends up at the RLO is because the sender posts it without the correct address. For instance, a letter addressed to “Heena, New Delhi” will be almost impossible to deliver in the vast megapolis. The officials try to trace the addressees by going through their records or looking up the directory for phone numbers. They have the authority to open and read the letters to see if they can find a better described address or phone number. In case they are unable to find any information, they return it to the sender. However, in case the sender has not specified his or her own address, or written an incomplete or incorrect address, or simply refused to take back the letter or parcel, the mail ends up in the RLO.

A senior official at the RLO admits that precious articles and letters of archival value do come to the RLO. However, they are not open to the public and are destroyed because they entail personal correspondences. The RLO derives its powers to destroy the letters and auction off the articles with them under provisions of the Indian Post Office Act, 1898. Point 39 in Chapter VIII of the Act says, “Final disposal of undelivered postal articles… (a) letters and postcards shall be destroyed; (b) money or saleable property, not being of a perishable nature,…be credited to the Post Office (or) be sold, the sale-proceeds being credited to the Post Office.” A staffer at the RLO reveals that a major “cleanup” had been organised recently during the Swachh Bharat campaign. “All the letters were shredded, some from as far back as 12 years ago. There were rats thriving in the store among the parcels which had not been cleared for three years, though they are supposed to be auctioned off annually. Finally, all old articles were auctioned off for as little as a cumulative sum of over Rs 1 lakh. And sale proceeds from articles from overseas fetched us Rs 7 lakh,” he says.

Letters apart, the other bulk of traffic coming into the RLO comprise passports, identity cards, voter identity cards and driving licenses. Every day, on an average, around 200 to 300 of these end up in post boxes across the city. A kind stranger who might have found one lying around or a guilty pickpocket after emptying the contents of a purse slips the cards into mail boxes. The RLO then posts these back gratis to the owner the very day it receives them. Passports of foreign nationals are sent to the concerned embassy and those of Indian nationals to their permanent addresses. Among the articles which end up in the RLO, the most common are sweets and food items, electronic items, clothes, jewellery, money and at times gold as well. The gold and money are not auctioned, but deposited with the postal services as is the money earned from the auctions.

In this day of hyperconnectivity, social networking sites such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter might well serve as an exhaustive archive on its members and their moments, but there are many like Sushil and Anne who don’t figure in this documentary and whose stories silently perish at the Returned Letter Offices. And then there are those who breathe their hopes into a letter and send it to their private angels. Like this letter a woman addressed to Santa Claus at the Toy Factory, North Pole, last Christmas, that waits to be shred in a cold store room with hundreds of other unclaimed letters. “Dear Santa, I wish this letter finds you well. My name is Neha and I am sure you know who I am,” she begins. After asking for the well-being of her family and friends, she asks Santa to find her a soulmate “who would keep me happy always”. To drive home her urgency, she adds, “Please make him meet me soon. I am very lonely.” The letter closes with, “Santa, I love you and believe in you. Please grant me my wishes…please…pretty please. Oh, and last wish, I want to be happy.”

The story appeared in print with the headline A Letter For Anne