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By Shubha Singh (10:40)
Book: Post Haste: Quintessential India; Author: B.G. Verghese; Publisher: Tranquebar Press; Pages: 384; Price: Rs.1,295.

The early forms of communication were smoke signals, flashing mirrors, hoisting flags or relays of drums. They were followed by messengers, who were largely spies and agents riding post-haste with their messages. But modern times brought increasing literacy and the written letter with the prepaid stamp to pay for its delivery. Over time the postal stamp evolved to "depict the life and landmarks of nations and symbols of pride and endeavour".

"Post Haste: Quintessential India" provides a glimpse of the colours and strands of India through its stamps. B.G. Verghese uses stamps to illustrate short snap-shorts or rather postcards of important events in India's history, its geography, culture and heritage. There are stamps on places, people, historical events, landmark buildings, plants, art, artists and litterateurs. More than 3,000 postage stamps have been issued by the Indian government since Independence, including on the national emblem, the flag and prominent freedom fighters.

The story of the stamps covers important events in India's history and the contributions of significant individuals who made a mark in the nation's life. It talks of the philosophers, the travellers, wandering minstrels, the freedom fighters, the artists and writers. It unfolds the process of making of the modern nation state through the writing of the constitution, setting up of institutions and initiating flagship government programmes.

The author relates the fascinating history of the post in India, beginning with a messenger-based post service that was started in the Sultanate period during the short-lived regime of Qutb-ud-din Aibak (1206-1210). It was later extended by Alauddin Khilji, who set up dak chowkis with horses and foot runners. There was the imperial post for kings, but merchants and other mortals used dak runners (dakiya daurias) the early avatars of the postman who were paid a small sum in cash or kind to take the messages; they were called harkaras or doots or kasids.

Trained in their youth for the job, the runners would set a brisk pace, walking barefoot carrying a staff with tassels and bells to announce their arrival and to scare away wild animals. The senior harkaras were polyglots who were often called upon to translate the messages or letters they carried. The runner system evolved into a regular postal service and as the post replaced the messenger, the need for a carriage fee gave rise to the postage stamp. But the Indian postal system still employs dak runners; hardy men who walk up the hilly slopes and transverse the valleys through snow and hail to deliver the post to remote villages in Ladakh and
Himachal Pradesh.

Verghese recalls the romance of post; the dakiya was a part of daily life in the country, celebrated in song and verse, bringing word of distant loved ones, the simple pleasure of soaking away the stamp from the envelope to add to the cherished stamp collection. Stamp-collecting was more than just a hobby for young and old or rich. Philately clubs thrived around the world to exchange the rare, attractive and colourful stamps. The world's first postage fee was a copper metal ticket; it was released by the Deputy Postmaster, Patna, in 1774. Two of the metal stamps exist; one at the British Museum and the second one is owned by a philatelist in Jabalpur, writes Verghese.

The world's first postage stamp, the famous Penny Black, was issued in 1840 with a picture of the young Queen Victoria against a dark background.

Verghese has intended "Post Haste..." as a book for young readers who know little about amazing India, but it is a book for all ages. It is a delightful book, to be dipped in again and again at leisure, to savour the interesting facts, amazing tales and engaging myths.

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