A little after Saharanpur training I got my first regular posting orders. It was to Ahmedabad in Gujarat in charge of postal operations of the Ahmedabd Division. But by the time I reached Ahmedabad it was changed to Ahmedabad Railway Mail Service just because otherwise I would have been entitled to a house. The man who got it manipulated was right there and he got it swung in his favour. As a fresh recruit I did not make an issue of it but I had the added inconvenience of looking for a house.
I had a rough 24 hour journey from Bhopal in blistering heat. The train coaches were of wood and yet those would heat up like blazes. By the time I reached Ahmedabad it had cooled down a bit but this bit of bad news unnerved me as I didn’t like it one bit. My orders were issued by a regular Postmaster General and these were changed by an officer who was working on ad hoc basis in a leave vacancy and had no authority to change it that was issued by a senior.
I was put up in one of the inspection rooms in the huge GPO complex in the old town. But one had to walk only a few steps to get to Relief Road which was a massive artery through the town. On the junction of our lane with this road there was a very good restaurant named “Kwality” like the one in Regal Building of Delhi. This became my regular haunt for dinner. Later a Telecom Engineering Services probationer, T Poonen, living in another room in the Inspection Quarters also would join me. Both of us were fond of Western food. We would have a three course meal in Rs. 10 per head and occasionally walk across the road to Havmor Ice Cream Parlour. It was great going till it lasted which was not for long anyway. Ahmedabad was a prosperous and affluent town as it continues to be so even today.
My ever-helpful PS, SJ Mehta, would come every morning and take me to the office. He knew the way around pretty well and the buses that one had to take. Soon he found me a house on the banks of Sabarmati not very far from the Sabarmati Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi. The house was owned by a Burmese repatriate who had to return as Burmese were throwing out foreigners at that time. An old female relative of his agreed to work for me.
I had no conveyance of my own and had to depend on buses or auto rickshaws. I would catch a bus from the Ashram Road and get off as it crossed Gandhi Bridge. My office was bang on Sabarmati; actually my room used to be next to the sands of the Sabarmati River. When I saw it first it had no water, it had only sand. A fairly wide river full of sand could generate a lot of heat as well as dust as wind speed gathered strength. But with the onset of monsoon it would change and in one of the years I was there it got a massive inflow, so much so that in its rush it swept away cows and buffaloes by dozens. That year the Postmaster General rang me up and said he wanted to see the River in full flow. He came and saw the waters in their rush missing the deck of the bridge by inches. Now, of course, there is not much of sand as water is always there in the River with the completion of the River Front Project.
My jurisdiction extended to North Gujarat, Kathiawar and Kutch. I had to travel a lot and for that purpose. Under the prevailing arrangements with the department, the Railways used to provide me with I Class Railways travelling pass. It was to be used only while on duty. It covered the entire state of Gujarat but I could move south of Amedabad only if ordered to do so, elsewhere within my jurisdiction I could travel whenever I liked as it had to be in compliance of nature of my duties.
I was a rank novice in so far as the office work was concerned. I didn’t even know where to sign unless a helpful mark was added. Having never worked in an office my ignorance showed up. But the head clerk and other clerks had a lot of patience. Gradually, however, with my own efforts and application I understood the system. I also conceptualized my duties which I thought were maximum facilities to the members of the public and taking good care of the staff working under me regardless of their rank.
Railway Mail Service was patterned on British Royal Mail Service. It used to function in railway buildings and railway bogies specially designed for the purpose. Those functioning in the buildings of railways or owned by others including the P&T department were known as stationary mail offices and the ones functioning in railway bogies were called travelling mail offices. Communication by letter mail, unlike current times, was most vital in those days and the P&T department provided the cheapest means for people to reach out to others including governments and organizations of their choice. Our business was to ensure such arrangements that the mails reached the addressees’ hands in quickest possible time.
The scheme of sending all I Class mails by air without additional surcharge initiated by the Communication Minister, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, a unique gesture by the Government of India, added wings to the mails. Even the Universal Postal Union, the Specialised Agency of the UN on postal matters, was highly appreciative of it as it said that no country in the world, rich or poor, had extended such facilities to the people. The result was that in those early days, more than half a century ago, a letter from Ahmedabad for Jorhat in Assam would take only 72 hours to do its journey. I recall an incident when an unknown person rang me up to say that he was told that it was I who was organizing the routing etc of mails. He wanted to congratulate me as he found letters posted in evenings at Ahmedabad for his correspondents at Cochin reached the addressee in less than 24 hours – faster than a telegram. I couldn’t but thank him for the appreciation and told him that the system was designed by my predecessors and it evolved over time with minor necessary adjustments.
The system used to function like clock-work as the pre-independence work ethics were, by and large, still prevalent. People would be punctual and generally put in honest work for eight hours. Likewise the supervisors and the inspectors would be on their toes all the time. The inspectors were recruited from among the operatives through a very stiff departmental qualifying examination. Some of them were really brilliant as also dedicated, like the one I had as my Head Clerk – DH Dave. Supervision and monitoring of the performance of operatives was so intense that Indian P&T soon was considered to be the finest Postal System in the world. This was despite very little automation in its operations. No wonder numerous officers of the department were picked up by the Universal Postal Union to act as experts or consultants in countries in need of expertise or even man the vital positions in its office located at Berne, Switzerland.
I was recruited in the department when it was in expansion mode. People seemingly were starving for facilities. Occasional news reports would appear how people had to walk for miles in rural areas to find a letter box. More and more post offices were being opened and naturally it followed that a few more mail offices had to be opened. During my time in the division as many as four offices were opened including one at Bhuj. Bhuj would occasionally figure in the news as mails for it from Bombay would be flown on two flights that the city used to get every day. But from the airport these would be brought, quite laughably, on a donkey cart. The advantage gained by flying the mails was thus partially lost.
Talking of Bhuj reminds me the city’s wall that was thickest I had seen till then. The Chinese Wall that I later saw in Beijing was altogether in a different league. But the Bhuj was was perhaps the thickest one in India. It had to be as the people were rich and they and their property had to be protected. The city inside the wall was a maze of narrow streets, shops loaded with goodies and with electric and telephone wires criss-crossing overhead. These were mostly used as clothes lines messing up the distribution system.
I will remember Bhuj always for its guest house that I was put up in the first time I visited the city. It was, in fact, the residence of the British Agent and was a huge bungalow lavishly furnished. I was given a suite of rooms that contained a drawing room, the bedroom a dressing room and couple of toilets – a western style and the other had an Indian style commode. All the rooms were furnished with what looked like Burmese teak wood furniture. The beds were four-poster type with richly carved posts. The dining room was also well furnished and crockery was elegant with the Bhuj Maharaja’s insignia printed on them. The food too was of royal style and delectable and was pretty cheap to suit the pockets of bureaucrats who came and parked themselves there.
Unfortunately I could stay there only once as when I went there next time at the end of 1964 it had been taken over by the Army on account of the trouble in Sir Creek region of Kutch. It was one of the finest government properties that I ever stayed in.
Bhuj was not the only place where a good property of the former princely state was handed over to the successor government. There were state government properties elsewhere that were converted into circuit houses. Some were well maintained and some were not. I remember the circuit houses of Rajkot and Junagadh which were really good till then. The service was also good. Food used to be served by liveried bearers in crockery that had insignia of the respective former princely states. Another place of stay I liked tremendously was in Porbandar. The town had a Chowpaty and there were three what were called villas on it each surrounded by a well-maintained garden. Two villas would accommodate only four people and the third one was meant for the kitchen. They used to serve lovely fried fish and I would restrict my meals to them. They were so brilliantly made. Another peculiarity was the absence of fans as the sea breeze would blow in all the time keeping the villas cool.
Kathiawad used to be an interesting place and yet I did not see a few places that I should have. One was, of course, the Gir Forest and the other was Diu, the former Portuguese colony. I did not venture on bus journeys as they were primitive; I did, however, take the ferry from Navlakhi to Kandla, the port that was built specially as a substitute for Karachi that was lost to Pakistan on partition of the country and to receive the PL480 wheat from the USA. When I saw it more than 55 years ago there was hardly any activity. Now it is a busy port with miles of containers waiting to be taken away.
In Ahmedabad I came face to face with the formidable P&T Union that was Left oriented. They tested me out during first few meetings and perhaps realized that I didn’t mean any harm. Soon, the long list of pending items shrunk to just three or four – mostly because these could not be resolved at my level. When the Union’s senior leaders came from their Central Headquarters they came to see me and complimented me for the efforts that I had put in to resolve staff problems. They were impressed by the facilities we had provided in rest house for the travelling operatives for which even the Postmaster General had complemented me and my staff for providing such upgraded facilities.
The result of our efforts was visible on the railway platform on the day I was leaving Ahmedabad on transfer after two years and a half. The staff had collected in large numbers in front of the I Class compartment blocking the way for the passengers. They had festooned the outer walls of the carriage with dozens of garlands. When I entered my coupe with a heavy load of garlands my co-passenger asked me incredulously “who are you?”, very young as I was. I do not think a Sr. Superintendent ever got such a send off for a long time before or after me.