Chapli Kannan’s age is a consequence of his moods. In a matter of hours, it can vary from 70 to 90, and his moods, from jocular stoicism to a grumpy, acrid version of the same. According to him, his age now is one where the banality of numbers does not exist. He isn’t sure of precisely how old he is, but he says, “You can call me an old man, that’s what matters.” That’s how he often concludes his anecdotes: with a nonchalant “athu thane kaaryam”. “That’s what matters”.

Chapli Kannan lives with his wife Meenakshi in a decrepit two-room house at Kanakkayamkudy, a settlement of the Hill Pulaya tribe in Kanthalloor panchayat. A fracture in his leg last year still hasn’t healed; he walks with a stick.

He is believed to be the only living anchalottakkaran (mail runner) in Kerala. From his early teens to when the anchal services were absorbed by the Indian Postal System on April 1, 1951, his job was to collect and deliver postal articles from and between the post offices of Marayur—now a very small town renowned for its sandalwood forests—and Kanthalloor—now a picture postcard farming village with a reputation as a tourist haven and cinema location. During the time, they were two remote villages in the Anchunadu valley of what was then the state of Travancore; presently, they belong to the district of Idukki in Kerala, bordering Tamil Nadu.

Kannan married his wife Meenakshi because Madurai Meenakshi is his goddess, and “that’s what matters”. He took up the job of an anchalottakkaran in his youth because he thought he needed a job. He has no regrets about leaving the job after eight tireless, joyous years because all those hours of running had by that stage rendered him virtually crippled. He is happy that he was born in the mountains because their very presence has always been a source of comfort, and he spends long hours pining for those eight years of his mail-running-life.

Because those were the best eight years of his life, and, of course, “that’s the only thing that matters”.

Chapli Kannan’s working hours started at 6.30 a.m. when he would leave for Kanthalloor post office, eight kilometres from his kudi. He would collect postal articles and, carrying them on his head, would run to Marayur post office, 16 kilometres from Kanthalloor. After delivering the articles, he would collect those to be delivered at Kanthalloor post office and run back. He would be home by 6.30 p.m.

The routine was repeated six times a week, Sunday being the “off day”.

As if the task was not taxing in itself, the mail runner had to further raise his endurance levels to account for the harshness of both terrain and climate. The forest is dense and the path between the two post offices, though now part of a highway, is still a dizzying network of serpentine curves. Monsoon rains are usually torrential and violent. The winters are frigid and chilly. It’s not surprising then that the sheer physical demands he scaled on a daily basis have now become a source of considerable pride for the old man.

Thirty-two kilometres of running and 16 kilometres of walking, day after day, and week after week.

“Thirty-two kilometres of running and 16 kilometres of walking, day after day, and week after week,” he says. “Not everyone could have done that job. I am happy that I could.” His sense of satisfaction permeates his recollections.

The mail runner was provided with a two-foot long wooden staff to which was strung a set of small bells. The chiming of the bells was meant to alert those on the route to make way for the mail runner: “Like a kind of horn”, says Chapli Kannan. Everyone was bound by law to not obstruct the mail runner. “They were not only supposed to stay away from my path: if there were any hindrances on the route, it was their duty to clear them too. All I had to do was run, and be on time.” The anchal runner was supposed to cover a distance of two miles every hour. Those who were late had to pay a fine of one chakram. For “express mail”, the fine was doubled.

His wooden staff served two purposes. It worked well as a running aid, helping the runner to negotiate steep inclines and jagged curves. It could also be used for self-defence if the runner encountered an assailant—in animal or human form.

In Kerala, systemic arrangements for the transfer of postal articles from place to place is considered to have started in the erstwhile state of Travancore during the early part of the 18th century, when the state was under the rule of Marthanda Varma. It was strengthened during the period when Colonel Munroe was the resident. The department was called the anchal department. The word anchal in Malayalam means fear or anxiety. A more popular, but unverified, etymological explanation for the department’s name suggests that it might have been derived from the word “angel”, the mail runner being an angelic messenger.

In 1770, following the footsteps of neighbouring Travancore, Kochi set up an anchal department. During this period, anchal services were restricted to government functions which—in addition to transferring letters pertaining to matters of the palace—included the task of bringing flowers for use in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, and vegetables for the palace kitchen.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the department was opened to include private services with a fixed fare. Registered post was introduced in 1865. In 1881, a new postal act was established, and Travancore, under the rule of Visakham Thirunal Rama Varma, initiated reforms in the anchal department. In 1888, under the rule of Sri Moolam Thirunal Rama, anchal stamps (one chakram, 2 chakram, 4 chakram stamps) and anchal cards (1/2 chakram) were introduced. The money order system was introduced in 1901.

In 1903, 150 anchal offices were established and 179 anchal letter boxes were installed. In 1921, insurance business too was brought under anchal services. Shortly after Independence, the states of Travancore and Kochi merged, and so did their anchal services.

On April 1, 1951, the anchal services were absorbed by the Indian Postal System.

It was through a teacher who ran a single teacher school in the region that Chapli Kannan found his way to the anchal services. Kannan is illiterate, but used to hang around the school in the kudi, helping the teacher, whom he fondly calls Aiyar Sir, with various chores. He says he never liked to hang around the settlement, and used to spend most of the time in and around the school.

Kannan was not interested in learning. When the teacher asked whether he wanted to take up the job of a mail runner, he did not think twice.

“When Aiyar Sir explained the job to me, I was very excited. But I realised how difficult the job was on the first day itself. Slowly, I started enjoying the challenges. I never had to pay any fine, and I was never once scolded by my superior officer,” Kannan says. The two aspects of the job that gave him the greatest contentment were the power that he enjoyed—“everyone had to make way for me, and I could do anything with my wooden staff”—and the amount of time he had for himself.

“I never liked being around the kudi all the time, chatting and working with everyone I knew. Most of the people in the kudi would run away when they saw someone from outside. I had no such problems. In fact, I wanted to go out and not stay in the kudi all the time. This was a job where I was alone, and it suited me perfectly.”

Kannan’s salary was perhaps the most significant incentive. He says he was paid Rs.1 for his services every day. “I used to get my salary for the off day too. Rs.31 for one month was a big, big amount then; nobody in my kudi could even dream of such an amount!”

He thinks the Rs.1 of those days must be equivalent to a Rs.1,000 now, and insouciantly shrugs when asked what he used to do with all that money. “You can always do a lot of things with money.”

His wife Meenakshi, however, wonders where all that money has gone. “I know it was a big amount then, but he has not done much for the family. If he had, I wouldn’t have had to stay in such ramshackle houses all my life, or still work in the fields to feed us,” she says. It’s difficult to make out whether she’s being playful or bitter.

Kannan mostly delivered official mail. The region was a prominent estate area—nearby Munnar being a major tea-producing region—and had a large number of officials from the UK and various parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala posted there. It isn’t clear if there was a postman in the post offices to deliver the postal articles to the addressee, because Chapli Kannan’s accounts are not always consistent. On one occasion he says there was a “supplier” who delivered the mails. Another time, he says the addressee had to collect the articles from the post office since there was no one to deliver them.

I knew my time was up. I could not have carried on with
that job.

Years of running took their toll on Kannan. His legs would frequently swell up and his bones hurt so badly that he feared he would soon be immobilised. So when the anchal services merged with the Indian Postal System in 1951, leaving him without a job, he was neither surprised nor rueful. “I knew my time was up. I could not have carried on with that job,” he says.

Meenakshi says Kannan should have made sure he had documents to prove he had worked as a mail runner. “He has nothing left with him to show that he used to be this and that. Even then, I used to tell him to collect some documents, but he never liked to listen.”

Meenakshi never seems to miss an opportunity to take a jibe or two at the delusions of grandeur her husband always seems to be immersed in.

Sixty-five years after the anchal services ceased to exist, and many communication revolutions later, the post offices at Marayur and Kanthalloor are still busy places. Neither V. P. Jacob, the present postman (the official designation is GDSMD—Grameen Dak Sevak Mail Deliverer) at Marayur or U. Sivalingam, the postman at Kanthalloor, have met Chapli Kannan but they think the nature and travails of their job are not too different from that of the extinct mail runner.

Both Jacob and Sivalingam are not permanent employees of the Indian Postal Service. They are part of the ED—the Extra Departmental wing of the postal department started by the British during the second half of the 19th century. As the name would suggest, the employees of the Extra Department are considered to be “second class citizens” of the Indian Postal Service. Jacob and Sivalingam earn about Rs.9,000 (as time-related continuity allowance, or TRCA) for a month’s work, while a regular postman earns around Rs.26,000 for the same. They are not eligible for any pension benefits.

The government still doesn’t recognise them as civil servants; a case which was filed in 1977 is still being fought. In theory, ED employees need to work only five hours a day compared to the eight hours that a regular postman needs to clock, but both Jacob and Sivalingam say they end up clocking eight, if not more, hours on a daily basis.

More than 80 per cent of ED employees are posted in rural areas, where moving from one place to the other is still a laborious task. In Marayur and Kanthalloor, some of the adivasi settlements are so deep inside the forest that they are called “No-Dak areas”, or no-post areas. “We try to reach as many places as possible, but in a place like this there is only so much that we can do,” says Sivalingam, who also runs a small shop in Kanthalloor.

Mobile phones and the Internet might have, for all intents and purposes, already consigned the inland letter and the postcard to the realm of nostalgia, but the postman has sill a lot to deliver. Like the mail runner, he too now deals mostly with official stuff—letters from banks, insurance companies, and various organisations. Sometimes he also needs to read them out to the illiterate addressee.

Of late, he has had to deliver a lot of telemarketing products which, according to Jacob, has become a real headache. “These people, whenever they see something on TV, they just order. The postman has to carry all that to their houses, but then they refuse to accept it. We then carry it all the way back. What else can we do?”

Unlike the mail runner, the Grameen Dak Sevak Mail Deliverer does not enjoy the licence of unhindered movement. Both Jacob and Sivalingam find it amusing that their most ancient predecessor used to enjoy a privilege that they don’t even dream about. Their dreams are far more modest: to be paid the same salary as regular postmen; to be recognised as civil servants; to be given pension benefits.

Life has not been kind to Chapli Kannan since he ceased to be a mail runner. For someone who was never fond of farming or the traditional livelihood options of adivasis, eking out a decent living was always going to be a struggle.

It didn’t help matters that every job except one that involved running bored him to death. Nor did his frail health or a tendency to spend time reaching into the wonderland memories he created from recollections of “those eight years”.

Kannan’s rickety house is situated on government forest land. Meenakshi still goes out for work. “Otherwise we will starve to death,” she says. She thinks if she can still work, her husband can surely help her out, but Chapli Kannan laughs her off. His life’s job has been done; why toil now? It is an attitude that Meenakshi constantly berates, but he pays her scant attention. He still prefers to remain lonely, often wandering around, mountain gazing.

Chapli Kannan does not believe in the sort of miracles that would bring him a pension for having once been a mail runner. He also does not regret his lack of government documents. “It was not why I decided to be an anchalottakkaran. And in any case, I didn’t know that such documents existed or that I would need them in future.” His only regret is that he never went to school.

Sometimes in the evenings, when the fields he roams in are transformed into gardens of fireflies, he wonders how different life would have been if Aiyar Sir had asked him to join the school instead of asking him to become a mail runner. “I could have written letters myself if I knew how to read and write. People could have written to me,” he says. He pauses, and adds: “Maybe then I would also have been tempted to read all those mails I was carrying!”