The Curious Case of the Missing Postbox
Sunderlal the postman stopped mid-step. It was the four hundred and eleventh step from his last halt on his morning beat midway between the nineteenth and twentieth postboxes, a beat he walked purposefully, punctually and daily, rain or shine, in the proud commission of the duties entrusted to him by the India Postal Service, but today, of all days, something was wrong.
The postbox had vanished from its place. How could it happen? He had seen it just forty-eight hours before; yesterday was Sunday. He decided that he would walk up again. He knew the exact number of steps – four hundred and eleven. He muttered the numbers to himself as he traced the path again. The postbox had indeed disappeared without any trace. He walked over to the ever-busy cobbler who sat right opposite where the postbox used to stand.
‘Did you see the postbox?’
Without even bothering to lift his head, he made a clucking noise to indicate no. Sunderlal tried to recollect if the cobbler ever lifted his head from work.
Next to the cobbler was a paan-tobacco kiosk. The paanwala attired in spotless white, hair slickly combed greeted him with bonhomie.
‘A bit late today, aren’t you?’
‘Not really. Did you see what happened to the postbox?’
‘Sorry, I was too busy to notice. Did something happen to it?’
‘Yes, it is no longer there!’
‘Oh, good riddance! It will save you the effort of coming here everyday,’ guffawed the paanwala.
‘No, looks like it has been stolen!’ Sunderlal cried in anguish.
‘Stolen? Who will steal a worthless thing like a postbox? Even thieves are smarter than that!
‘Listen people, the postman here says that the postbox has been stolen,’ the paanwala continued with more hearty chortles.
The paanwala’s loud voice and mirthful remarks attracted the attention of passers-by. It was a busy period on the thoroughfare, but many were intrigued by the theft of a postbox.
‘If it is stolen, let us call the police,’ piped a voice.
‘Yes, let us!’ joined another and yet another.
‘There is a cop right there,’ said another.
‘No, he only controls traffic. He will be of no use. Let us call the police station. What is the number?’
The crowd around the harried postman had grown. Among them was Zhireen G, looking not even an inch like a mother of two schoolgoing children, in tight jeans and an even more tight t-shirt.
‘Hey, did you see her? Mother of two, you know!’
‘Yes, how does she manage that body?’
‘Gym every morning’
‘How do you know?’
‘I go at the same time. I joined this month just to look at her’
Ms G pretended not to overhear this conversation, but knew the last line came from a strapping lad who had been stalking her for the past fortnight.
Speculation began on what could have happened to the postbox. Sunderlal was being quizzed by everyone and he was gesturing animatedly, pointing out the spot where the postbox last stood.
‘I think I know what happened. They just got rid of it to widen the road.’
‘Yes, a good idea. We need wide roads for our big cars.’
‘No!’ a senior citizen protested. ‘What will happen to elders like us? Where will we walk?’
‘Nana-Nani park has been constructed for people like you. Go there!’ said someone derisively. Many laughed.
Two teenaged girls were furiously typing on their smartphones.
‘You know, I already got twenty-three likes for my post on Facebook.’
‘What? You also posted it on Facebook? How mean ya!’
‘Yes! And I also sent it out on whatsapp. Ria and Tia are already on their way. They are so excited to see a missing postbox.’
‘They have nothing else to do. Always vela ya! By the way, how did you show the missing postbox on the Facebook post?’
‘I copied it first from Google images.’
‘How cheeky ya!’
The two girls giggled, much to the annoyance of Sunderlal and the crowd that were engaged in serious analysis. The day was getting hotter, the traffic noisier.
‘I don’t agree with your road widening theory. I think it is a conspiracy by the SCAM people,’said the lad who had been eyeing Zhireen’s chest almost non-stop.
‘SCAM people? Who are they?’ Zhireen’s throaty voice was incredulous.
‘Society for Computer Assisted Mail,’ the boy pronounced knowing well that he was making an impression.
‘Ooh la la,’ cooed Zhireen. The boy moved closer to ogle at her from a more flattering angle.
‘SCAM is opening centres all across the city. People who don’t have computers can go there and send and receive e-mails. See that Irani restaurant there? It has been sold and will become a SCAM franchisee soon.’
A collective gasp rose in the audience. The boy was enjoying the attention and moved still closer to Zhireen, still not taking his eyes off her chest.
Many were impressed by the SCAM hypothesis.
‘Must have paid the corporator to get the postbox removed on the weekend.’
‘But won’t SCAM promote spam?’ One of the teenage girl squeaked in.
‘Yes!’ Sunderlal piped in loudly.
‘Scam, Spam and Scrum,’ chimed Zhireen wanting to show off her vocabulary. She loved playing word-games in the afternoon paper.
‘Scram not scrum. Scrum happens in Rugby,’ the boy chipped in to correct.
‘Oh dear! Do you play rugby? You do have thighs of a rugby player.’
The boy blushed. Sunderlal was beginning to feel ignored.
‘I also strum the guitar madam.’ The boy wanted to show off now.
‘Wow! I love your word play. Are you on whatsapp?’ The teenage girls knew what was happening and made eyes at each other. ‘Bitch,’ blurted out one, not too silently.
The police van arrived noisily. The sub-inspector and two cops lost no time in making themselves important. ‘What is happening here?’ the inspector thundered.
‘Saheb, the postbox has been stolen,’ said many voices.
‘Who saw the postbox here last?’ the inspector’s eyes twinkled.
The silence was deafening.
‘See! There was no postbox here at all. I will have you all arrested for unlawful assembly and creating public disorder. Sunderlal was exhausted and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Zhireen quietly slipped away. The boy followed her.
‘There was a postbox here officer’. The voice was feeble but assertive. It belonged to the senior citizen.
‘When did you last see it?’
‘I don’t remember. But I have posted many love letters in it.’
‘Love letters, at your age?’ The crowd doubled up in laughter.
‘No, it was to my then would-be wife,’ the elder responded in a tone of righteous indignation.
‘Let me recollect now. When did Indira Gandhi impose emergency?’ The crowd roared again, this time in appreciation.
‘Throw the madman out for wasting my time,’ thundered the inspector.
Suddenly there was commotion at the centre of the crowd. Sunderlal had collapsed.
‘I think it is the heat. Let us give him some water’
‘Who has got water?’
‘Go get a mineral water bottle. Here take this money,’ the senior citizen offered.
‘Make sure it is oxygenated,’ shouted someone to the boy who started running to fetch the bottle.
‘I think we should summon the ambulance. It could be a heat stroke.’ The water arrived. So did the ambulance, minutes later, weaving its way through the disorderly traffic. The crowd helped Sunderlal into the ambulance and it went off, the siren blaring away.
The crowd did not dissipate readily. Many started doubting the existence of the postbox. Was the postman hallucinating?
‘Lend me your ears, brothers and sisters.’ It was a new strangely disruptive voice belonging to a middle-aged and bearded man who was dressed in the traditional garb of a politician. All eyes now turned to him. ‘Our party and our honourable leader have been concerned about the harsh conditions that our postmen have to endure. So we have earmarked funds under Dakiya Swasthya Yojana to phase out postboxes. The postman will no longer be required to go to the postbox!’
Spontaneous applause broke out for the netaji.
‘We need more brilliant schemes,’ was the chorus.
As the crowd started dispersing, the senior citizen was heard muttering – all that money will go to SCAM!
K Sahasranaman, is a chemical engineer by profession and works with a multinational engineering consulting company in Pune and Mumbai. Procrastination has prevented him from writing beyond his maiden short story, which was published in a Sunday paper in 2000. He is active on twitter observing the idiosyncrasies of life and occasionally blogs on travel and quizzing. He also loves to travel, especially by train. He is a solitary wanderer and has been to the far flung corners of the country to explore nature in its raw beauty with his camera. Vegetarian by choice, he likes to experiment in the kitchen; also an aficionado of filter coffee, curd rice and single malt. On most days he writes a diary.