By Charisma K. Lepcha (Sikkim University)

In April 2018, I moved to Shimla[1] for a year at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS). Located on a hill with a view of the Himalayas, IIAS used to be the residence of the Viceregal Lodge of colonial India.[2] The building is historical and “picturesque,” and it is also one of the top tourist spots to visit in Shimla. Their lawn is well maintained and flowers of all colors take turns to visit the garden. I wanted my friends to visit me. I thought that a postcard of this place would definitely make them curious and pack their bags to come see me. It would be my invitation to them. So I bought a few postcards and mailed them to my friends in northeast India and one in London. Almost a year since, nobody has received those postcards, except for the one I sent to my ex-colleague in London, who received it within a few weeks of me mailing it. This made me think about the times when my friends said they mailed me postcards but I never received them, and vice versa. This essay is foremost an attempt to examine why postcards were not reaching their destinations in a country that produced and exchanged so many postcards during colonial times.

It is generally agreed that Europeans sent millions of postcards (Thomas 2018) from colonial India. In 1909 alone, during the peak of the postcard boom, the sale of stamps used for only postcards reached 400 million in India, not counting the cards mailed inside envelopes or carried by hand (Patterson 2006, 145). The first postcard in India was issued on July 1, 1879 (although the designing and printing was done in London), as it was the beginning of the postal system that enabled the postcards to move from one corner of the world to another. The first post office in India was started by the British East India Company in 1764.[3] Their aim was to facilitate commercial interests of the East India Company, but India’s post office was officially recognized of national importance only in 1854.

Postcards, on the other hand, were visuals produced and circulated during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Europeans told their friends and families of the people and the places they visited and encountered. It was a window to faraway places that heightened interest of those back home or helped form an image of those who wanted to visit as well. The early postcards, which were a colonial product, exoticized the Natives, their religion, and their everyday life, alongside landscape photography,[4] especially in the hill stations. Postcards provided a visual record of the social history of that time while promoting international tourism that was developing in the late nineteenth century (Chaudhuri 2018). It was affordable, popular, and had “more in common with Instagram posts than we realize,” with its varied themes (Jain 2018). They were also used as colonial propaganda,[5] featuring newly built railways, hospitals, high courts, universities, gardens, etc. They aimed to showcase their good life in the colonies despite occasional hiccups they had to negotiate. So, postcards disclosed how the British imagined and depicted the empire (Patterson 2006, 143), as picture-perfect images were being produced and circulated for mass consumption across the world.

Indeed, the study of postcards has also critiqued the colonial gaze and the problems of representation, especially of the Natives, but it only seems to garner newer ways of looking at postcards, with various exhibits and even coffee-table books[6] that are part of the study of postcards from the Raj in India today.

My interest in postcards stems from the time in school when my father used to send postcards from the places he visited. I still have the postcard he sent from Bangladesh with a lady husking paddy as he described Bangladesh to be a “beautiful country on the way to fast development.”

Figure 1. “Natural Beauty of Bangladesh.”

And while this has been the image of Bangladesh in my mind even after all these years, it was not just the image but the content on the back of the postcard that aided my understanding of Bangladesh as a developing country. The ethnographic value of a postcard therefore lies in the “synergistic consonance between image and message” (Hoskins 2007, 16), as we need to look at both sides of the coin to understand the purpose and meaning of the postcard. The images are assumed to be self-explanatory, aided with a caption (although the caption could be vague and general) that often helps construct the image of what it wants to tell. For instance, the caption in my postcard from Bangladesh actually reads “Natural beauty of Bangladesh,” although the image is very different from what is generally imagined as “natural beauty.” So, the message behind is important and often reveals more than what meets the eye. It tells the reader, “this is what you should think when you look at this card” (16). But the message could also be a tricky thing: What can you actually write on a postcard? One cannot write what one would write in a letter because a postcard is open and public, which means anyone can see it. From the people at the post office to the delivery person to your grandfather, the postcard can be seen and read by anyone on its way to its intended recipient.

This study sets off firstly by sending postcards to better understand the time taken for a postcard to reach its destination, indirectly examining the efficiency of the Indian postal service. Secondly, it examines the postcard culture by asking the receivers to mail back a postcard. Thirdly, it analyses the message on the received postcards to consider the popularity of postcards in the age of Instagram.

In October 2018, I emailed my friends and long-lost contacts all around the world if they would like to receive a postcard from me. If they did, they should send me their addresses and I would mail them the same. I also offered my address and asked them to send a postcard to me from wherever they were. The replies started pouring in along the lines of, “I’d love to receive a postcard from you. I have no idea the last time I was at a post office.” The prompt responses made me rush to the institute’s gift shop, where I bought thirty-one copies of a postcard with an image of the snow-covered colonial building of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. This postcard (Figure 2) was mailed to different addresses across the world. Eighteen postcards were mailed outside of India: to Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, South Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam. Thirteen were mailed to different states of India, which included: Assam, Dehradun, Delhi, Goa, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Odisha, Sikkim, and West Bengal.

Figure 2. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

In the postcard, I asked my friends and colleagues to specifically write the date they received my postcard and the date they would mail the postcard, so I kept a log of the time it took for the postcard to arrive. I also asked about the last time they sent/received a postcard and who they generally sent postcards to. With these questions, I mailed my postcards from the Summer Hill Post office, Shimla, and was optimistic about the responses. Shimla is one of the last hill stations that thrives on colonial legacies, including roads, architecture, and even the post office. Everywhere around the city, you see the red mailboxes, which we hardly see in other cities of India today. The postal department in Shimla is one of the oldest and most prominent in the country as well.

Figure 3a. History of Shimla post office.
Figure 3b. Postbox in Shimla.

Having mailed the postcards, I eagerly waited for the responses. Twenty-nine days after mailing them, my first postcard arrived from the United States. It had taken twelve days to travel to the United States and twelve days to arrive at my address. Thereafter, I received one postcard from Denmark that took thirteen days to arrive, another one from Germany[7] that took seventeen days, and another one from Austria that took twenty days to reach India. The first four postcards that were returned to me were all from abroad, and it had taken a decent time to travel, I thought. But my fifth postcard was from Goa, India. It had taken fourteen days to reach Goa and nine days to get back to me. And when the sixth postcard arrived, and there had been no news of my other postcards mailed within India, I tweeted @IndiaPostOffice that my friends in “Shillong, Nagaland, Sikkim had still not received the postcards I mailed around the same time.” Fair enough, they tweeted back, “Postcard is not an accountable item. This is for your kind information.”

Figure 4. Tweet from India Post Office.

It took me a while to digest that the postal service would tweet such a response and accept their inefficiency and unaccountability regarding the postcards I had sent. It reminded me of all the postcards that were sent to me and never reached me as well. But this was India’s reality today—from sending millions of “picturesque” postcards all over the world, we had reached a point when a picture-perfect postcard was worth next to nothing. Despite their long history, postcards in India had lost their significance and meaning, and might as well die a slow death, as they did not have the support of the post office itself.

However, the total number of postcards I received out of this experiment was fifteen,[8] with eleven from outside India and four from within India, which shows a stark difference between both postal service and postcard culture in India and abroad. To begin with, most of the postcards from outside India were from Europe and America,[9] featuring mostly architecture and art of that particular place. The senders also explained what they were doing in that city of the postcard, such as how long they had been living there. They mentioned that they do send postcards to friends and family, especially when they were on a holiday or traveling. Since I had not been in touch with most of those who sent me the postcards from abroad, there were also a few pleasantries exchanged.

Figure 5. Postcard from Salzburg.
Figure 6. Postcard from Goa.

Of the four postcards that reached me from within India, the one from Goa was the quickest, which makes me wonder if it had anything to do with the Portuguese colonial postal legacy. Goa also had a thriving postcard circulation, and the postcard featured old churches of Goa, reminding me of the postcards received from Europe. The other three arrived from Delhi, Meghalaya,[10] and West Bengal, with images of Jama Masjid, river Dawki, and a mountain view of Kalimpong, respectively.

The two senders from Delhi and Kalimpong, West Bengal, who had received my postcards had been complaining that they could not find the right postcard and so ended up sending the typical postcards circulating since colonial times. These two postcards were also a good revelation of postcard culture in India, which over time seems to have fallen out of favor. The first postcard mentioned how it was “a novel experience to get a hand-written message on a postcard.” The second one also shared a similar sentiment by writing, “it’s kinda strange to write a letter in a postcard, but yet it feels good and nostalgic.” One of them also mentioned that “postcard is definitely alive” and hoped by the end of the project that postcards would be back again.

Figure 7. Landscape of Kalimpong.
Figure 8. Message from Delhi.

But it is wishful thinking because eight other postcards within India never reached their destinations, and two others who received my postcards said they had not been able to send back a postcard. It is also true that smaller cities in India hardly sell postcards. It is difficult to even locate a shop that would sell postcards, so sending them would take too much time and confusion, which suggests an almost nonexistent postcard culture in small-town India. Instead, a picture on your phone and a post on Instagram often serve the purpose of a postcard in the age of social media.

One would think that the more people travel, the more they would be buying and mailing postcards; however, this does not seem to be the case. Even when I went to mail my postcards at the post office in Shimla, the employee did not know the correct stamp required to mail a postcard in India and abroad, implying that postcards were not a popular product. It is also interesting because the India post website lists the tariff as Rs. 12 for countries outside South Asia.[11] But the employee asked me to pay Rs. 30 for each of the postcards I mailed outside India. I knew the lower price because it was what I had paid on earlier occasions, but I could not argue at the counter, so I paid more than it was required.

In the meantime, I was able to travel to Myanmar in December 2018, so I sent seven postcards to the same recipients in India who had not received my postcards from Shimla. Interestingly, four of them received the postcards from Myanmar, although it was two months after the first round of postcards that was mailed to them. One can wonder if international post is preferred to domestic when it comes to mailing postcards to India.

While these findings may seem very small in the bigger picture of how postcards have been situated in the Indian postal service, there is a definite trend of negligence as the senders and receivers of a postcard are often left to decide whether to even make that effort of mailing. In this case, the ethnographic value of a postcard loses its meaning on different levels because it never reaches its destination. If you have carefully selected a postcard with an eventful image and written important news on the back, there are chances that the postcard would never be received. Once, a friend mentioned how the postman might’ve probably liked the postcard and decided to keep the postcard for himself. But it is not an isolated case, as the loss of postcards in Indian postal service is something many have experienced over time. The time taken for postcards to reach their destination within the country is too long or nonexistent. Meanwhile, international travel time is shorter, and chances are better that the postcard might reach its destination. What could be the reason? The experiment does not reveal those reasons, but India post should be held accountable for this delay and inconsistency in fulfilling their obligation. Can we then blame the Indian post if the sender has done their job? The thought of your postcard lying in some corner of the post office to be eventually thrown away is what I dread, but experience has taught that perhaps this is closer to reality. Our postcards are not only taking longer to travel but are losing their significance due to the negligence of our post offices. In the age of social media platforms, where postcards have been replaced by Instagram posts, the lack of responsible and efficient postal service has left us disappointed and frustrated, especially when they respond with tweets like “postcard is not an accountable item.”

 

REFERENCES CITED

Chaudhuri, Zinnia Ray. 2018. “How the British Used Postcards as a Propaganda Tool During the Bombay plague of 1896.” Scroll.in website, September 22. https://scroll.in/magazine/891745/how-the-british-used-postcards-as-a-propaganda-tool-during-thebombay-plague-of-1896.

Gugganig, Mascha, and Sophie Schor. 2020. “Multimodal Ethnography in/of/as Postcards.” American Anthropologist 122 (3). https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13435.

Harris, Clare. 2017. “Photography in the ‘Contact Zone’: Identifying Copresence and Agency in the Studios of Darjeeling.” In Transcultural Encounters in the Himalayan Borderlands: Kalimpong as a “Contact Zone,” edited by Markus Viehbeck, 95–120. Heidelberg: Heidelberg University Press.

Hoskins, Janet. 2007. “Postcards from the Edge of Empire: Images and Messages from French Indochina.” IIAS Newsletter 44:16–17

Jain, Mahima. 2018. “British Postcards Had More in Common with Instagram Posts than We Realise.” Scroll.in website, September 5. https://scroll.in/magazine/892184/british-indian-postcards-had-more-in-common-with-instagram-posts-than-we-think.

Khan, Omar. Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing.

Patterson, Steven. 2006. “Postcards from the Raj.” Patterns of Prejudice 40 (2): 142–58.

Thomas, Maria. 2018. “Europeans Sent Millions of Postcards from Colonial India—Now Indians Get to See Them.” Quartz India website, November 15. https://qz.com/india/1464829/picture-postcards-capture-colonial-indias-bombay-bangalore/.

 

NOTES

[1] One of the favorite hill stations for the British in India

[2] It was built for Lord Dufferin, Viceroy of India (1884–1888) and was home to subsequent viceroys. Post-independence, it was used as a summer home for the president of India. But Dr. Radhakrishnan turned it to a center of learning and created the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in October 1964.

[3] https://www.postalmuseum.org/discover/collections/postal-history-india/.

[4] British hill stations like Darjeeling, Mussoorie, and Shimla also garnered attention on landscape photography, as they were close to the Himalayas.

[5] For example, the photos from the bubonic plague in Bombay in 1896 featured in Omar Khan’s book were used as propaganda by the British to show that the inoculation camps were under their control (Chaudhuri 2018)

[6] Recent publications include Picturesque India: A Journey in East Picture Postcards (1896–1947) and Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj (2018).

[7] Sent by Mascha Gugganig, whose call for postcards inspired this essay and is related to the article on “Multimodal Ethnography in/of/as Postcard.”

[8] Four were sent during the time frame from people who did not necessarily receive my postcards first but they heard about it or were traveling at that time. Since the dates were mentioned when they wrote the postcards, I calculated the time taken to reach me.

[9] There was no response from Canada, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, South Korea, and Vietnam, which were also included in the list.

[10] This postcard was not a part of the exchange, as it was sent to me when the sender saw my updates on Twitter. However, the postcard that was sent to the same city to another friend has still not been received.

[11] https://www.indiapost.gov.in/MBE/Pages/Content/international-letter.aspx.