The Letter Writer is a new take on the age old folk tale popular in India.
Despite all the disadvantages throughout his life, he was a jolly man. His ragged clothes and worn out shoes seemed brand new compared to his decade old skull cap that hosted a swarm of bees. He hobbled in a funny trait and was often followed and ridiculed by children whom he would chide playfully. Often responding to ‘Baba’, No one knew what his true name was. Yet he garnered respect throughout village second only to the Sarpanch and the Daroga. And why not he was the most popular Letter Writer in the village.
People said that if he had not chosen this profession of self sacrifice and peril, he would have been a very famous poet or an Author. Someone who has such deep knowledge of Languages ought to be a scholar, said the villagers. He had never charged a penny for his services either. Most of the uneducated lot viewed Baba as a godman.
At 64, He was still a busy man. His office was open to all from early morning till the afternoon, when he rested heartily after his heavy Lunch. Heavy because he always had some food provided by his customers in lieu of his services. Though small his office was the center of the village. The coarse sunlight was always a reminder that the roof needs to be permanent.Yet the cool breeze was a reason good enough to not have any windows. The Tree below which he sat was kind enough to provide ample shade when he performed his duties devotedly. After all, he was the village’s most popular Letter Writer, the only person who could read and write more than three languages in the entire district.
There were other, more competent, Letter writers too. But they charged too much and would be rude to their customers. As always, they had an air of superiority over the uneducated villagers. But Baba was diferent. He would not charge any fees. He would listen carefully to the woes of his customers and Often guided them to find a solution if incase there was a quarrel with their relatives. The villagers sought Baba’s help before approaching the Panchayat even if they didnot have a letter to send. In the evenings, returning workers from the nearby mill along with their families would gather at the Tree listening to short fables and bhajans that the old man sang.
Nobody could exactly tell why but every night the Baba would disappear and would appear late in the morning. When asked about it, Baba would often give a host of frivolous reasons. Sometimes it was his daughter who had marital issues, sometimes a sick friend who needed help. But again the Letter Writer would be found sitting under the tree the next morning.
Once it so happened, that the Daroga of the Village had an urgent Letter to Draft. It was late in the evening after the Bhajans were over that the Daroga sought Baba’s counsel. The daroga rushed on cycle hurriedly waiting for the crowd to disperse and requested the old man to hear him out. Someone from the crowd arranged chairs and chai for the Daroga Sahib.
“Baba, I need you to draft a letter for me.” The habit of giving orders all day was apparent in the Daroga’s Tone.
” But its late in the night and I am not feeling well.” was the instant reply.
” You don’t understand…Its quite Urgent. This Letter must reach my wife’s village tomorrow. I have also arranged the fastest porter in our village. The only thing we need is for you to draft the letter.”
“Brother, I am not feeling well tonight. I will surely write the letter for you tomorrow morning. Please don’t insist, I can’t really help you.”
“But you Must. I personally travelled all the way to seek your services. I could have sent a hawaldar just to get it done. I don’t see whats the issue in writing a small letter.” Offended at being said no, the Daroga was now a bit angry.
” I appreciate your coming to me. But as you can see, I am not doing well. Whatever you dictate, it will not make sense ….”
” What do you mean? You look perfectly alright. Its a small Letter, Why would it not make sense. Would the words that you write change when the Letter reaches my Wife. Don’t be so arrogant…I am done requesting you.” The Daroga was not completely fed up. He scrutinized the old up and down completely in the same fashion that policemen around the world are accustomed to scrutinize criminals. He sensed that there was something that the Baba was not telling him.
“I can’t lie anymore…Not to you at least.” Sensing that the Daroga wouldn’t take no for an answer, the Old man realized that he should tell the truth. If not the consequences will be dire and not at all pleasant. This is what happens when your customers are the whos who of the community, he thought.
” Lie about what?”
” I cannot read or write.”
” What? Don’t fool me. I will get you arrested. All I am asking you to do is write a simple letter and you….” said the baffled Daroga.
” Please listen to me Sir….I am just an illiterate old man. I hear to all the words that the poor villagers tell me and pretend to scribble on the writing pad….I can’t even sign my own name. This is the truth.”
” You are a funny old man. Are you telling me the truth? What about the people who are awaiting letters?”
” Yes Sir, No one except you knows now that I can’t read and write. I walk to the respective village and then again pretend to read out exactly what was been said. I promise sir that I dont even miss out a single word. I have a good memory. I just didnot know how to put it to use all my life till I became a Letter Writer….”
The Daroga now had a smile on his face. It was the same smile he had when he cracked a case. He looked at the old man who was terrified now that he had revealed his secret that too to the Daroga of the village. If the Daroga decided, he could make the old man spend the rest of his life in a prison cell. But there was one question that remained unanswered.
” But Tell me one thing. Why say no to me? I am the Daroga of the village. You could have lied to me and pretended to write the letter. Your secret would still have been a secret.”
“Sir, I may be an illiterate old man but I have always been truthful to my profession as a Letter Writer. I am saying the truth when I say that I am not feeling well. You see my foot, it is completely swollen. Since your Letter is urgent I will have to walk throughout the night and deliver the letter… I mean…recite your message completely. I know for sure that in such a state of pain, I won’t be able to recall anything you said tomorrow. This is why I said no, Daroga sahib. Please Forgive me…”
The Daroga now arose from his chair. He silently looked at the old man and left on cycle. It would be hours before the old man would fall asleep that night as he anticipated his fate. He dreamt of two Hawaldars dragging him to be taken to the court where the judge was eager to condemn him for Letter fraud. He could even see the Daroga’s smiling face as he was put in a cell. Everyone around him seemed to condemn him, even the hardcore criminals in the jail. Letter fraud seemed far more heinous crime than murder.
The next day, the people were amazed to see a strange scene. A crows of schoolkid gathered this time not to play with the old Letter writer but for something else. Even the regular customers stood at the distance wondering why a Donkey was tied to the tree where the Old Man was still asleep.
Hearing the commotion the, Old man woke. Still frightened from the dream, he could easily spot a paper tied to the Donkey’s neck. His hand trembled as He pulled out the Paper and handed it over to a little schoolgirl standing in front.
” Tell me.. what does it say?”
” A gift to the Letter Writer….Signed The Daroga.” read the little girl proudly.
The Letter Writer is a new take on the age old folktale popular in India.