People sometimes ask me from where I get my knowledge about India. And I always answer; through literature. It was by reading a novel I first learnt about the letter writers in Mumbai. The main character was one of these. He placed himself outside the general post office in Mumbai every day, where he wrote letters on behalf of all those – immigrants for example – who were not able to write, and probably not read.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that this trade is declining. Not necessarily because more people are able to read and write these days, but because of the cell phone which is more or less common property – also among the poor and illiterate in India. India is after all the world’s fastest-growing market for cell phones.
When I first read about the letters writers, the phenomena intrigued me. I tried to envisage the situation; the letter writer and his customer. The latter sharing all kinds of information from happiness to tragedy. And with no other option than to trust the man, the letter writer, in front of him.
From the outset, the letter writers sat inside the post office, but had to move out in 1995. I never believed I would find a single letter writer in our time. Just by chance, I asked a guide who took me to a market one day, of their whereabouts. But no, she said, they’re gone years ago. But it so happened that I took a tour with Beyond Bombay a few days later, we were walking in the footsteps of one of the characters in the novel Shantaram. My tour started right outside the famous VT, Victoria Terminus – Mumbai’s grand train station in the south of Mumbai. And only a short walk away; the letters writers sprang to live in front of me… It came as a big surprise actually, but they were very much present – if not in abundance…: A few men at the base of a tree, under a tarpaulin. Not too busy, still, they were in business. Maybe writing letters is not their most important task these days, but wrapping parcels and filling in forms seemed to be in need.
It doesn’t some as a surprise that one finds this kind of business in Mumbai, or India for that matter. All kinds of business affairs take place on the pavement. But the letter writers will eventually disappear. I haven’t seen them mentioned in any guide book, and I’m glad that they’re not a tourist attraction. But I’m glad I read the novel that took me to such an interesting cultural phenomena.