ANTHONY PARAKAL belonged to a time when common people wrote letters congratulating the Prime Minister of the country for being elected and received a response, sometimes in the form of handwritten letters. It was a time when a letter to the editor of a newspaper complaining about poor facilities spurred the authorities into taking action. Parakal — whose clanging typewriter in a one-room Malad residence kept highlighting the woes of the common man in Mumbai for over five decades — breathed his last on Tuesday. He died due to cardiac arrest. He was 89. He was bed-ridden for the last five years. He is survived by his wife and three children.
After his family gave a death notice in a newspaper, the name Anthony Parakal rang a bell for scores of journalists who worked with Mumbai-based newspapers between 1953 and 2005. There was a good reason for that. In 1993, Parakal’s name was included in the Limca Book of Records for having the most number of letters to editors published in newspapers till then: 3,700. As per his son Cherian, who is currently based in Sharjah, by 2005, when poor memory and ill health forced him to forsake the typewriter, he had around 5,000 letters published.
Parakal had typed out a note on giving up writing letters. “Due to failing memory and deteriorating health…I have given up my over 50 years’ writing letters to the editor. At the end, I feel very happy that I have done enough, that too within my limited economic resources….What motivated me to write on social causes is my belief that one should not live for himself but also for others without which we cannot live in a peaceful society.”
A stickler for record keeping that he was — there are currently 16 files comprising of all the letters Parakal wrote — he also noted down that his “last social commitment” was getting the height of Malad railway station platform raised so that people did not fall in the gap between the train footboard and the platform.
On December 15, 2003 Parakal’s letter about raising the height of the platform was published in The Times of India. On January 28, 2004, the letter of Shailendra Kumar, CPRO, WR Churchgate, read, “Apropos the complaint of Mr Anthony Parakal, the western railway will be raising heights of many platforms between Churchgate and Virar. For Malad station contract formalities are being completed.”
Parakal’s connection with the railway was a lifelong affair. Working for the Indian Railways, he was first posted at Jhansi. However, the weather did not suit him following which he sought and secured a transfer. In 1953, he was transferred to Mumbai. “In Mumbai he was shocked to see the poor amenities, especially the slums, water supply problems, diseases like leprosy. This was in stark contrast to Kerala from where he hailed,” Cherian (55) said.
Cherian says that Parakal’s elder brother Kurian, also known as Sarvodayam Parakal, a Gandhian from Narakkal in Kerala, was known for his social work. “He would go from house to house asking people if they needed anything. That is where my father also developed a sense of social responsibility,” Cherian said. This, in addition to the fact that at one point, Parakal was interested in journalism and had learnt shorthand writing, would have led him to choose ‘Letter to the editor’ as the means to fight the social issues he saw in the city.
Parakal, who got a free railway pass, would travel first class where he would get ideas about the causes he would write about to the newspapers. “So in the free time between Malad and CST in the train, he would jot down all the issues in shorthand. Once he returned home, he would take a bath, eat something and pull out the typewriter. He had a particular spot on the sofa. He would then type out these letters. The next day during his lunch break, he would post them in a post box near CST. He was so disciplined that the spot where he sat on the sofa every single day had worn off,” Cherian said.
It was a small one-room apartment in Malad, and Parakal would be surrounded by his children as he kept hitting away the typewriter keys.
“We enjoyed it. Only sometimes by the end of the month when cash was short, our mother would sometimes threaten to burn the letters. However, it was just for the sake of saying it and she was supportive of him. She took tuitions at home to support the family financially.”
Another peculiarity of Parakal was that the envelopes would also be made by him. “The A-4 sized letters that he sent did not fit properly in the envelopes available then. So he would make envelopes larger in size in which he would send these letters,” the 55-year-old said. Soon as Parakal’s fame grew, people from across the city would start coming to their house with issues.
“There were people who told him that they needed more public transport facilities so that they could reach their offices on time. He would write letters suggesting new BEST bus routes for areas that had a large population, some of which were accepted by the authorities. He would sometimes ignore us, but never the person who came home with a grievance.” his son says.
Parakal was also part of All India (Press) Letter-Writers’ Association (AILWA) that had others like Dr Leo Rebello, Abubaker Thwahir and KR Prithviraj whose names would often appear in the letter to the editor sections of newspapers. On the 12th annual meeting of the AILWA, Dr Rebello was reported to have said, “We are torch-bearers but editors call us epistomaniacs.” The chief guest of the meeting Justice (retd) Bakhtavar Lentin called the letter-writers “the conscience keepers of the nation”. Parakal was happy that those words were used to describe his ilk, his son says.
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