Book Review: Post Haste

Sunday, 6 April 2014 - 3:02pm IST | Agency: dna

Author: BG Verghese
Publishing House: Tranquebar

Cost: Rs1295
384 pages

Post Haste is something of an overview of India. It tells you almost everything that you need to know about the land's history, its geography and politics, its people and rulers, its culture and economy, its traditions and religions and its heroes and villains.

Postage stamps are not just something you stick on envelopes to pay for cartage. They are mementos of important events, places, people, things, buildings, animals. They are, as veteran journalist BG Verghese writes in the preface to this book, "both heritage and history". The Indian government has issued more than 3,000 stamps since independence, depicting things of national importance such as the emblem and flag as also personalities who've made important contributions in the independence struggle, politics, culture, academics and so on. There are also stamps on landmark buildings and tourism sites, flagship sarkari projects and schemes, cultural artefacts like paintings, sculptures and much more.

Stamps are, thus, a window into the country and Verghese uses them to illustrate this volume that is something of a "one book you need to read to know all about India". Stamps, as Verghese says, are the "vehicle" on which the volume rises. It's an ingenious idea that works because of the sheer range of stamps issued by India Posts — thanks to the department's fairly lax standards when deciding what and who deserved to be put on stamps.

Post Haste is something of an overview of India. It tells you almost everything that you need to know about the land's history, its geography and politics, its people and rulers, its culture and economy, its traditions and religions, its heroes and villains, its monuments, flora and fauna. And while it gives the larger picture, it also gives the details, the interesting but little-known snippets that bring to life the larger narrative — all using the stamp as the point of departure.

For instance, few would know that the Wadias of Bombay Dyeing were originally shipbuilders in Surat who were contracted by the East India Company to build 100 warships for the British between 1736 and 1830. In fact, Verghese informs, the HMS Foudroyant, which served as Nelson's flagship for a few years and was captured by the British in the Battle of Trafalgar, was a Wadia warship, and so was HMS Minden, on which the Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem, is said to have been composed.

But for the most part this is an elementary account, informative and simply told. Verghese says he wrote it because he found few people these days even had basic knowledge of the history and geography of their country. Verghese calls Post Haste a "poor knee replacement" for young people, because it tells them about the myths, legends and fairytales of our country that they should have learnt at their mother's knee — except that most modern mothers now go out to work.

But by far the most interesting bit is the one on the history of the postal system of India, tracing letter-writing modes and mediums from Shakuntala's love letters to the rock edicts of Ashoka, and the dak runners, those barefoot messengers who physically transported letters on their back across vast distances and treacherous landscapes. Verghese has little nuggets of information — that the runners frequently took a dose of opium to ward off fatigue, and that in the 19th century the government used postmen to distribute quinine as a public health measure.

Also, did you know that Freddie Mercury of rock band Queen was an avid stamp collector and that after he died of AIDS in 1991, his father sold his collection to the Royal Mail in Britain and donated the proceeds to an AIDS charity?




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