Sher Singh’s job is to carry mails between Raksham and Chitkul, villages situated at 11,150 ft in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, where nobody asks, “Do we still have Dak-Runners?” Across India, on landscapes where no wheel will turn, Dak-Runners such as Singh strap mailbags to their shoulders and stride towards remote settlements. Chitkul, for instance, is the last village on the Himachal Pradesh-China border. Singh, 49, was in Delhi — his first time in the Capital — for the launch of journalist BG Verghese’s book, Post Haste, which is dedicated to “the Dak-Runners of India, who still connect us contemporaneously and with our past”.
“I never see what is in the mail but I expect there are several job letters and exam roll numbers. I know there are people waiting for these and this keeps me going,” says Singh, a day after the launch, at the offices of Tranquebar-Westland, publishers of Post Haste.
Even in Delhi, Singh wears his uniform of khakhi shirt and trousers, paired with thick leather shoes and pink woollen socks. Outdoor, the sun is blazing but the Dak-Runner isn’t breaking into a sweat. “These shoes and socks never become hot in summer or cold in the snow. I can wear them in Delhi, Mumbai, in the hills, anywhere,” he says. Singh had the shoes and socks made for the job, while the uniform is a postal department issue.
There are no roads on his beat, informs Singh, only paths made by animals and a few humans. “It is 12 km from Raksham to Chitkul and takes three hours to cover. I hand over the mailbag at the post office in Chitkul and carry a fresh bag back to Raksham,” he says. At Raksham, he exchanges mailbags with a Dak-Runner on the Sangla-Raksham stretch. Singh has mastered the Dak-Runner’s walk. “One doesn’t speed up or slow down, we maintain the same pace all through,” he says.
The Himalayan ranges beyond Kinnaur district, is home to thick forests in which landslides are as frequent as sheep, yaks, goats and leopards. “I came across a cheetah twice. If I had run, the animal would have chased me, so I stood still. I could hear my heart hammering. I was sure I would be killed,” he says. At other times, he has come across bears and had leopards leaping across his path on their way to the khuds below or the forests above. “During winter, when the snow is up to my thighs, I watch out for footprints before deciding my course,” he says, adding, “I have a staff but I am all alone so have to be alert.”
Singh has an erect posture and an unsmiling, focused look. The only time his voice charges up is when he recalls the story of the legendary Dak-Runners of India. A primary school pass-out, Singh has never read the history of Dak-Runners, but the buzurg (elderly people) at home would talk about men who would “walk in such a way that everybody stepped aside.” “These were the dakiya, now called Dak-Runners, and they walked night and day. There were ghungroos tied to their feet and on the staff in their hands so that everybody knew 10-15 km ahead that a dakiya was on his way. Even snakes moved out of their path,” he says.
According to Post Haste, such messengers were called harkaras and the Mughal empire had a network of 4,000. Verghese says nobody knows how many Dak-Runners still exist in India, though the postal department apparently puts the number at 150-200. They operate in mountain regions of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and the Northeast.
Singh, son of a farmer, still practises farming in a five bigha land in his ancestral village of Bhabhanagar, where his family, which includes his six children, live. “It is 120 km from where I work, so I visit on Sundays,” he says. No, he doesn’t walk the way, he takes a bus.