Time hasn’t stood still at the Ballygunge Post Office (BPO) in South Kolkata, as I discovered during a visit in June this year after a long time. Some of the earlier counters for postal and financial services were still there, but I didn’t quite see a queue for buying postage stamps. There were a few new counters though, including an Aadhaar ATM. Before this I didn’t know that such a facility existed.

Barring a couple of old-time and greying faces, most of the personnel at the counters were unfamiliar to me, and on an average, decidedly younger than the staff members of yesteryears when I frequented this neighbourhood post office often. Outside the post office, a sentinel overlooking the post office with its expansive branches and generous shade was also gone – a mighty tree that Amphan felled in 2020, leaving behind a void that still hasn’t filled up.

This photograph shows an inside view of the Ballygunge Post Office as it is today. It has been taken at an angle below a ceiling fan running at full speed. The photograph also shows an expanse of the high post office ceiling – its beams, neat wiring, and tube lights hanging from the ceiling. To the right of the fan is a pillar supporting one of the beams. The ceiling, pillar and the fan are all painted in white. A notice has been pasted on the pillar, closer to the eye level. To the left of the fan, a few people can be seen standing at two glass-fronted counters. Red and yellow panels with the India Post logo, fitted above the glass fronts, provide a touch of colour. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

A current view inside the BPO

The outer structure of the BPO has remained more or less the same ever since I first saw it as a school goer, though the colour scheme for the external walls has changed from time to time. The most significant transformation has been inside. Imagine whitewashed walls, the colour of a white school uniform washed with Ujala fabric whitener, but somehow sooty and cobwebbed as well, droning ceiling fans, poor lighting – this was pretty much the scene till the 1990s. Over the years, there have been gradual changes in the layout, glass fronts have been put up at the counters, and the air circulation and lighting has definitely improved. Swanky I wouldn’t call it, but surely smarter.

As Kolkata’s famed load shedding has almost disappeared, so seem to have queues with sweaty bodies in the BPO. But the floor space remains the same, and on busy days I can still imagine different queues getting entangled amid frayed tempers. Even on the day I visited, there was a large number of people sitting on the benches (steel ones, much more numerous and better than the old wooden ones), awaiting their name or number to be called out from some counter or the other, hope and resignation writ large on their faces.

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What a large part the BPO has played in my life! It used to be my destination several times a week in the 1980s, 1990s and even up to the mid 2000s – for posting letters and greeting cards; sending money orders, correspondence course assignments, letters to editors, and articles to youth affair magazines; and buying stamps, postcards, and inland or aerogramme letter cards. There would be a variety of envelopes to be bought, many from the hawkers outside on the pavement. As I grew older, I also had to take on the responsibility of managing postal accounts and term deposits at the post office. Somehow, the high point would be sending a letter by registered post because of the emphasis my parents put on making sure that the ‘acknowledement due’ card was attached to the envelope!

For a few years in the 1990s, the BPO also had the Quick Mail Service, with a kingfisher blue post box next to the usual red one. This service indeed lived up to its promise of delivering letters to metro cities within 24 hours.

Family errands were a significant part of why I visited the BPO so often. But since 1994, Counsel Club and Pravartak’s correspondence took over as the primary reason. Counsel Club, Kolkata (1993-2002) was one of India’s earliest queer support groups where I was a founder member. Pravartak was a queer newsletter that I edited and was also one of the earliest queer initiatives in India. It was published as an independent newsletter in 1991-92 and as Counsel Club’s house journal from 1993-2000. This was the pre-Internet era when letters were one of the main mediums of communication and outreach for groups like Counsel Club. In early 1994, a post bag at the BPO became Counsel Club’s main contact point with the larger queer world.

Back story: In 1989-90, when I started making queer pen pals through newsletters that published personal classifieds, a couple of my peers in Mumbai and Delhi advised me to open a post box. But I preferred to use my residential address, which some people thought was foolhardy and others brave. To me it seemed more practical because opening a post box was not an easy process and would’ve raised more questions at home. Besides, after I came out to my parents as gay in 1990, there was lesser need to hide what I was receiving in the mail.

Later though, I did manage to open a post box at the Park Street Post Office in my name, and this was used as the contact address for Pravartak for its third issue published in February-March 1992. Thereafter, the journal went into hibernation, and when it was revived in August 1993 as Counsel Club’s house journal, the plan was to use the same post box address. But I must’ve forgotten to pay the annual renewal fee and the address had become defunct. Many letters were being returned from the address.

This is a close-up shot of a document issued by the Ballygunge Post Office mentioning the allotment of a post bag with number 10237 to Pawan Dhall, the author of this article. The document is dated February 3, 1994. Only a part of the document is visible in the photograph. The post bag address served as the contact information for queer support group Counsel Club and its journal ‘Pravartak’ from 1994 to 1999. The document carries the stamps of the Department of Posts, India and the Sub-Post Master of Ballygunge Post Office. The author’s name, address and the main body of the document are handwritten in blue ink. The paper is a musty white, showing signs of ageing, but still well preserved. Photo credit: Prosenjit Pal

From the Counsel Club Archives maintained by Varta Trust. Photo credit: Prosenjit Pal

At this stage, Raj, another founder member of Counsel Club lent his personal post box number for the group and Pravartak. Soon after, he left the group and Kolkata, and we needed a new postal address. In February 1994, I opened a personal post bag account at the BPO. The post office had run out of post box allotments, and so it had to be my blue denim shoulder bag, fitted with a lock and key, that served as Counsel Club’s contact address right up to 1999. In that year, there was a change in responsibilities, and the group’s address shifted to yet another member’s personal post box at the Circus Avenue Post Office. But my post bag account now became the contact point for Integration Society, Counsel Club’s sister NGO founded in 1999. This arrangement continued till 2002, when my association with both Counsel Club and Integration Society came to an end.

The main reason why we had to depend so much on personal post bags and boxes for Counsel Club is because it wasn’t a registered entity. But using personal bags / boxes was not without its own troubles. When Counsel Club started receiving letters at the post bag, the post office authorities weren’t too happy about it. The letters would be addressed to the group with a ‘care of’ in my name. It seems this wasn’t technically the right thing to do.

Eventually, after some grumbling and tut-tuts, what prevailed was familiarity and goodwill generated over long years with the postal staff (they’d seen me grow up since my school days). This goodwill was also what made sure that we didn’t lose very many letters. It was stronger than the flimsy lock used for the post bag!

The post office staff handling the letters were also curious what Counsel Club was all about. Since mid-1994, the group received quite a lot of publicity in several Kolkata publications, and this must’ve caught their eye. To our immense surprise, one of them (or a friend of one of the staff members?) wrote a letter to the group. A couple of us met him at the BPO itself, and though memory’s foggy, I think he was disappointed that we weren’t a group that ‘provided’ sexual partners and space for having sex.

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This is another current-day inside view of the Ballygunge Post Office. The interiors are brightly lit with several tube lights. The main focus is on one of the pillars that support the post office ceiling beams. The upper part of the pillar shows the signage for an Aadhaar ATM located at the post office. The upper half of the pillar is painted white to match the colour of the ceiling and walls. The lower half is painted tan. Many years ago, this pillar used to have a pay phone attached to it, which was of special significance to the author. To the left and behind the pillar, a number of individuals of different genders can be seen standing at various counters or walking around. At the far end, several small banners and notices are mounted on a wooden panelled wall. The counters look bright with their glass fronts and red and yellow panelling. The photograph also reveals a tiled and spanking clean post office floor. Photo credit: Pawan DhallThe BPO has also had deep personal significance for me. My paternal grandmother, the late Dayawati Dhall, opened a six-year fixed deposit account for me, not long before she died in 1980. I have a fleeting memory of walking from my home in Palm Avenue through a leafy Iron Side Road (thankfully it still is quite green) to the post office when the deposit matured. It was an emotional and happy moment because my grandmother and I, the oldest and the youngest in the paternal part of the family, had been quite the best friends.

Forward jump by half a decade or so. The BPO used to have an old-style dial pay phone that consumed one rupee coins and worked rather wonderfully. I used it for many reasons, and in June 1992, I got news of landing my first job (in Business Standard newspaper) over this phone. I had to request my would-be employer, the late C. P. Kuruvilla, to repeat what he said – not just because of the din all around me but also because I was excited and couldn’t believe my ears. I remember the pillar to which the phone was attached (see left). Today, the pay phone’s gone and instead it has the signage of the Aadhaar ATM mentioned earlier.

Indeed, the BPO now performs many new functions. The reason why I was there after nearly a year was to link up my Aadhaar and mobile phone numbers – both items unthinkable of in the early 1990s.

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My visits to the BPO have been reduced to one or two a year, possibly only for occasional Speed Post errands. But my bonds with this institution remain strong. What hasn’t changed is that it still brings people together, in a much more egalitarian manner than say the private or even the public sector banks.

Many like me have moved on to online or courier services, but a huge number of Indians still depend on the offline services offered by India Post. One look at the animated counters inside the BPO or the postal vans being unloaded outside and Kishore Kumar’s Dakiya Daak Laya song from Palkon Ki Chhaon Mein (1977) resonates in my head.

I’m ever grateful to the BPO for the countless times it’s given me an adrenaline rush in anticipation of letters, and then some growing-up heartbreak moments too. It’s amazing how many queer individuals would’ve been served silently but quite efficiently by the BPO and its siblings elsewhere, unheralded, like an unglamourous software or app working away in the background.

As a professional, I still work to bring people together, and the post office seems to be doing it too. We’re rather on parallel paths now, but this ‘living, breathing, thriving’ entity, the BPO, will always be my hero.

About the main photo: A view of the BPO entrance as it is today. All photo credits Pawan Dhall, unless mentioned otherwise