The disappearing tribe of India's letter writers

Jagdish Chandra Sharma writes address on a parcel Jagdish Chandra Sharma is perhaps the Indian capital's last surviving professional letter writer

For centuries, professional letter writers have helped millions of illiterate Indians but many have long disappeared from the cities - but not in Delhi, where one man claims to be the last letter writer left in the country's capital.

An abiding memory of my childhood years in the Indian city of Calcutta is of my mother writing letters for our domestic help, Kailash.

Kailash was 50, he was from the neighbouring state of Orissa and had never been to school.

Every month, my mother would put pen to paper and consult him before writing each sentence.

The letters would always begin with "Dear son..." and would then ask after the well-being of his large family. They contained all his news and instructions on how to spend the money he was sending them.

In our teenage years, my sister and I took on the responsibility of composing his letters.

Kailash lived in our home and he could come to any of us to write his letters.

Six billion letters a year

An Indian writes a postcard
  • Modern postal network set up in India in 1854
  • Today, India has more than 150,000 post offices
  • There are 573,749 letter boxes (on 31 March 2011)
  • Postal department employs 466,903 people (on 31 March 2013)
  • Total mail traffic in 2010-11 was 6.6 billion
  • A three-page letter written by Gandhi in 1943, described as "the most significant" in Indian history, sold for £115,000 at an auction last year

For millions of others like him, who travelled regularly from rural India to the big cities for work, there have been professional letter writers who thrived for centuries but are now on the verge of disappearing.

Jagdish Chandra Sharma is perhaps the Indian capital's last surviving professional letter writer. And even he hasn't written a letter in the last 10 years.

I find him outside the busy Kashmere Gate post office where, he says, he has been sitting for the past 31 years.

Over the years, he says he has written letters for labourers, sex workers from the nearby red light district, and the local fruit and vegetable vendors.

The tools of his trade are simple - a command over the language, a legible handwriting and an imaginative mind.

"People would tell me what they wanted to write, I would hear their stories and then summarise it and write it in my own nice words. Then I would read it back to them and they would be so impressed," he recalls.

Until a few years ago, Sharma used to be accompanied by several other writers who sat alongside him.

"Every day, long queues would form in front of us and we would write letters, fill up money order or telegram forms, pack parcels and write addresses on them."

File photo of a Kashmiri man writing a letter India has a rich tradition of writing letters

In those days, he says, he would service "70 to 80 customers in a day" and "some days I won't even find time for lunch".

Sometimes, his clients would bring letters to him to read for them.

Historian Najaf Haider, professor of medieval Indian history at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, says letter writers have been an integral part of Indian city life for centuries.

"In the Mughal era (16th - 17th century), there were Munshis who were employed in the courts of the kings and nobles and composed letters for aristocrats," he says.

"Then, there were Katibs or scribes - who copied documents and books and also wrote letters for the common people."

Aga Khan Museum A court manuscript workshop in 16th Century northern India

After the British set up India's modern postal network in 1854, they formalised the system of professional letter writers in the post offices.

Scribes of 17th Century

Historian Najaf Haider says the Katibs or scribes of the Mughal era were the predecessors of today's letter writers.

They generally sat in front of the law courts and wrote letters or documents that their clients dictated. Sometimes, they copied entire books for their patrons.

The most important qualification for a scribe was to have a good hand - which was legible and easily readable.

Prof Haider says one of the best-known scribes from the early 17th Century was Govardhan Surajdwaj.

He came to Delhi from a village in Uttar Pradesh and started working in the Mughal emperor Humayun's wife's kitchen, a job he quit to work as a scribe.

In time, he rose to become a high official and a man of considerable influence who went on to build a market and a temple in the northern town of Mathura.

"The British started the service sometime in the 19th Century because the literacy rate was very low in the country," say Brig YPS Mohan, former deputy director general of postal operations.

According to an entry in the Posts and Telegraphs manual, the post office superintendents had the authority "to allow professional letter writers to carry on their business on the post office premises" if it "served the interests of the public".

Under the scheme, hundreds of professional letter writers sat outside post offices across India, writing letters for the illiterate for a small fee.

But with the rising literacy rates and a telecom revolution sweeping the country - which has ensured that even the poorest are able to afford cheap mobile phones - over the last decade, the profession has been in steady decline.

And in July 2008, Brig Mohan signed the letter which sounded the death knell for the service.

"This system was set up at a time when the literacy rate was not high in the country and there was a need for assistance to illiterate people in facilitating their interaction with the post office and fulfilling their communication requirements," his order read.

"Now with the changes in the literacy profile all over the country along with the changes in the communications technology, it is felt that professional letter writers have become redundant," it added.

Sharma says even before the 2008 order, their profession had been on the decline.

As the pickings began to get slimmer and slimmer, most of his colleagues moved on to other jobs or took retirement.

Schoolchildren in India Rising literacy rates and modern communication technology have put letter writers out of business

But Sharma has persisted - every day of the week, except on Sundays or other postal holidays, he can be found outside the Kashmere Gate post office because, he says, "he has nowhere else to go".

One afternoon as I catch up with him, he is sitting in a quiet corner near the post office building, packing in a parcel of baby clothes for a woman client.

Taking out a needle and thread, he meticulously stitches the white muslin and writes the address of the recipient and the sender's name on the package. Then, he lights a candle to warm the official seal and mark the parcel.

His client, a shy lady named Rekha Kumari who works nearby, says she has been coming to him for at least 10 years now.

Mr Sharma says she is his first customer that day. I ask Rekha, who is illiterate, if she is going to ask Mr Sharma to write a letter for her too.

She shows her cheap plastic mobile phone and says: "No, I will call and speak to them."

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

More India stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • MouseEscape the rat race

    Burnt out? Meet the workers who took more than a vacation - and changed their lives

Programmes

  • (File photo) A man dressed as Father Christmas with a sleigh and a reindeer Click Watch

    A website which tracks Father Christmas, plus other sites and apps to keep you entertained

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.