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COVID-19 claims an ageing victim — the railway dak carrier who bore sensitive letters from the burra sahibs

By: Editorial | July 30, 2020 4:00:29 am
You have no mail It’s like executing a dead horse, just to make sure it stays dead.

It’s like executing a dead horse, just to make sure it stays dead. The dak carriers who bore messages across the world’s biggest railway system were already superannuated as the officers they served turned to email. But now, the financial belt-tightening in response to the pandemic has closed around their throats like a noose. They have been replaced by digital communications.

The idea of a dak carrier seems impossibly quaint now, but back in the day, they served the same purpose as 128-bit encryption. We have forgotten that India’s railway system was laid out after the uprising of 1857. Its first priority was rapid troop movement. Its second was the efficient carriage of goods and produce from the hinterland to industrial centres and ports. Paying passengers came a distant third. With people, the railway also carried the flu and the plague across the country. And it carried Mahatma Gandhi in third-class compartments, protesting about filthy loos and bearing word of freedom. But originally, the railway was a strategic asset of the empire, and information and orders would have had to be delivered by trusted carriers, in the interest of security.

Modernity has ended the romance of the rails, and now, privatisation looms. The drivers’ running rooms with porcelain service and white linen are long forgotten. The station master is no longer a pillar of the community. The neat staff lines beside stations, with their tended gardens, wicker gates and the characteristic earthenware chimneys bent like an upside-down J, are much reduced. Only a few stations remain relatively untouched — picturesque Barog in the hills, and imperial palaces of the age of steel and steam like Howrah and VT. Amidst this general eclipse, will the loss of the dak carrier, the most obscure relic of the colonial era, be noticed very much.

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