54-year-old Shakil Ahmed spends his working day sitting under a blue tarpaulin, right across the road from the general post office building in South Mumbai. He packs parcels and fills out money order forms to be sent through the post. Eight years ago, he was working in the same spot…. but doing a different job.
“The work was different in the early days. People used to send money through the post office and they would send letters along with the money. That’s why I used to write letters in those days.”
Illiterate migrants would queue up in front of his stall, asking him to transcribe letters for their families and friends back home. Ahmed had many clients as he’s fluent in Hindi and English. “Most of the time my customers came from the North of India – UP, Bihar and Bengal. But there were all types of language writers here – Gujarati, Tamil, Kannada, and there were people from Kerala, who wrote in Malayalam.”
He has been writing letters for clients for the past 40 years. “There was a lady. Her husband brought her here….and he made her work as a prostitute. That poor lady was so upset. She would come to me and send her money back home. She would tell me all her problems. In her letters, she would never actually say what she was doing. She would just say she was working in an office.”
But Ahmed says secrecy is one of the most important professional codes of conduct among letter writers. “We don’t tell others what people are doing. This lady is doing such and such… that man works there – we never say anything. We even give our address to their relatives – the post office address. Even if their relatives or acquaintances come here and ask for their whereabouts, we don’t say a word.”
Nearly a decade ago, there used to be about 20 letter-writers right here. But today there are less than half that number. Ahmed’s young colleague Dilip Panday laments the changing times. “Now, 99 percent of the time people don’t want letters written…... There was a time when people here used to fight to have their letters written first. That was 10-15 years ago. After 2008, everything changed.”
Srinivas is a driver for a multinational company in Mumbai. Originally from Andhra Pradesh, the 29-year-old has been living in Mumbai since 1997. His family is back in his native town, about 50 kilometres outside of Hyderabad.
“In the olden days, we had to queue up outside the general post office to send money back home. It used to take half an hour or an hour. We had to hunt for a nice guy to write the letters. Sometimes it was hard to communicate through them, you can’t tell them everything, can you?”
But those days are long gone. Today Srinivas speaks to his wife and two kids at least three or four times a day. “Now I just load up some money on my mobile phone and talk for half an hour, an hour sometimes. Initially, we had to try and remember and think about what to write in the letters back home, but not anymore.”
India is the largest growing market for mobile phones. More than half of India’s 1.3 billion people already have a mobile connection. And Dilip Panday says this has meant a drop in demand for letter writers like him.
“Earlier people had to pay 0.08 USD to make a call, even incoming calls were charged. Not anymore. Now there’s a lot of growth. Now if someone wants to send a letter, it costs him 0.08 USD, but if he makes a call for a rupee, he can speak for 1.5 to 2 minutes.
Back to Shakil... he’s now dealing with a new customer. With no letter writing to do any more, Shakil now makes his living packing parcels to be sent via the post office.
“Today, there’s no real income. I get 1.65 USD to 6.61 USD on a good day, otherwise just 1.65 USD to 3.2 USD. That’s it. Ten years ago or so it was much much better. I used to have three people working for me. I used to have no spare time. I am living on of what I saved in those days. I will continue working here as long as I can. I don’t want my kids to get into this. I will be the last generation that does this.”
Hundreds and thousands of professions like Shakil’s are dying out. In the race for modernisation in India, there are both winners and losers.