Mumbai: G.P. Sawant never charged the prostitutes for his letter-writing services.
Not long after the women would descend on this swarming, chaotic city, they would find him at his stall near the post office, this letter writer for the unlettered.
They often came hungry, battered and lonely, needing someone to convert their spoken words into handwritten letters to mail back to their home villages.
Stamp of an era: G.P. Sawant (left) and his assistants at work in front of the General Post Office in Mumbai.
The letters ferried false reassurances. The women claimed in them that they had steady jobs as shopkeepers and Bollywood stage hands. Saying nothing of the brothels, beatings and rapes, they enclosed money orders to remit home rupees agonizingly acquired. Many called Sawant brother and tied a string on his wrist each year in the Hindu tradition.
Sometimes, suspicious parents would board a train to Mumbai and turn up at Sawant's stall, which a daughter had listed as her address. Sawant greeted them kindly but revealed nothing about the woman's work or whereabouts.
Such is the letter writer's honour code: When you live by writing other people's letters, you die with their secrets.
But now the professional letter writer is confronting the fate of middlemen everywhere: to be cut out.
In India, the fastest-growing market for mobile phones in the world, calling the village or sending a text message has all but supplanted the practice of dictating your intimacies to someone else.
And so Sawant, 61 years old and by his own guess the author of more than 10,000 of other people's letters, was sitting idly at his stall on a recent Monday, having earned just Rs5 from an afternoon spent filling out forms, submitting money orders, wrapping parcels—the postal trivialities that have survived the evaporation of his letter-writing trade.
But this is not the familiar story of the artisan flattened by the new economy, because, it turns out, his family has gained more from that economy than it has lost.
Sawant has three children riding the Indian economic boom, including a daughter, Suchitra, who works at Infosys Technologies Ltd, one of the pre-eminent Indian outsourcing firms. In the very years that a telecommunications revolution was squashing her father's business, it was plugging India into the global networks that would allow her industry to explode. Suchitra now earns Rs3.5 lakh a year, three times as much as her father did at his peak.
Globalization is said to create winners and losers. In the Sawants, it created both. And that duality reflects the furious pace at which entire professions are being invented and entire professions destroyed in the rush to modernize India.
There is, on one hand, a national quest under way to excise inefficiencies—to cut out middlemen. As go the letter writers, so go bank tellers as India adopts ATMs; phone-booth operators as mobile phones spread; and rural moneylenders as new Western-style supermarket chains start trading directly with farmers.
But for every occupation that vanishes, another is born. There are now mall attendants in a nation that until lately had no malls, McDonald's cashiers in a country where cows are sacred and Porsche sales executives in a land where most people still walk.
It used to be hard to obtain your own computer or telephone line in India; the country now has more software engineers and call-centre operators than just about anywhere else.
G.P. Sawant entered the letter-writing trade in 1982 when he won a government tender for a coveted stall inside the post office headquarters. Before long, he earned a reputation among illiterate migrants as a gifted writer of letters.
Many of the letters were instructions from urban breadwinners on how to spend the money they were remitting to the countryside. They included expressions of affection for family members for whom they toiled in Mumbai but rarely saw. They warned relatives not to squander money. They asked about the health of the aged and infirm.
There were some letters Sawant would not write. He refused, for example, to trade in romantic love. Love is fickle and dangerous, he said. Lovers lie; they cheat; they offer their love and rescind it. He refused to engage in chicanery on other people's behalf.
Though hardly a literary man, with schooling only to the 10th grade, Sawant described himself as a fastidious editor. He chopped pitilessly from his customers' dictations, rendering long speeches into short, punchy, to-the-point missives. (His customers were illiterate, so it was not as if he was going to get caught.)
The early years were bliss. But, in 1995, the post office was declared a historical site and the entire letter-writing squad, including Sawant and four assistants, was relocated across the street to where they are now, at the base of a gnarled tree, under a tarpaulin that shields them from the ceaselessly defecating pigeons that flutter among the branches.
As Sawant remembers it, 1995 happened to be the year when everything began to change.
India was emerging at that time from a long spell of economic reclusion and stagnation, in which one had to reserve long-distance telephone calls days in advance. With the landline infrastructure so dreary, the mobile phone was greeted with special enthusiasm when it arrived in India in the 1990s. Cellphone companies, seeking to tap a vast market of 1.1 billion Indians, dropped their prices to as low as one cent a minute. It did not take long for the personal letter to become obsolete.
Sawant mourns the demise of the letter culture. After dropping it in the box, he used to imagine its winding journey. Someone far away would open what he had written on someone else's behalf; they would read it and savour its kind words or its little secrets. They might file it away in a box, and perhaps revisit it weeks later in a burst of nostalgia.
But Sawant is not bitter. He said he was happy to stay behind if his country advanced. “With mobiles, India wins,” he said. “For other people, it may be difficult. But I'm happy.”
He is happy, of course, because his four children, all of whom he sent to private school using the proceeds from letter writing, have pulled the Sawants into the upper middle class. His son works at a bank. One daughter works as a civil engineer in Denmark; another daughter is studying computers in college; and there is Suchitra, who is currently in New Jersey on assignment for Infosys.
Sawant's mention of New Jersey prompted a suggestion. A producer making a Web video for this story was about to return to New York, not far from where Suchitra was working. Did Sawant want to scribble a letter to his daughter for her to hand-deliver?
His answer was instantaneous. “Why would I send her a letter?” he asked, perplexed. “I'll?just call her on the phone.”
©2007/INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE