Postmen have been an intrinsic part of India's landscape. However, soon their khaki uniforms may give way to the brighter teal.
There was a time, not too long ago, when the khaki-clad postman with his satchel bursting with postcards and letters was the most popular visitor to any residential area.
Besides delivering telegrams to anxious recipients, and letters to families awaiting news from loved ones, the daakiya, as the postman is referred to in Hindi, was also privy to the secrets of many families, often having to read out letters to many of his illiterate customers.
The postman was a beloved figure in literature and popular culture too. In a short story by the chronicler of small-town India, RK Narayan, a postman held out on delivering bad news to a family so that a joyous wedding could go on without a glitch.
In Bollywood, postmen jauntily rode around on bicycles, and the trring of their bells drew people out of their homes to check if the mailman had anything for them. A popular song, Daakiya daak laaya, sung by Kishore Kumar, featured Rajesh Khanna as the beloved postman in the film Palkon Ki Chhaon Mein.
Today, the postman seems an anachronism, struggling to stay relevant in the era of WhatsApp, email and private courier services that offer overnight trackable deliveries.
That’s perhaps one of the reasons why India Post has decided to smarten up its postmen with a proposal to replace the old-fashioned khaki with a more appealing colour, which is most likely to be teal, or blue-green. As part of this makeover, postmen are also likely to be armed with smartphones and tablets during deliveries. All this is part of India Post’s efforts to be more competitive in a logistics market driven by technology.
But this is not the first time India Post has attempted a makeover. In 2004, when the Indian Postal Service completed 150 years in India, the colour of its uniforms were changed to blue. However, the change didn’t last long. Khaki uniforms were reintroduced in 2012 after postmen protested. They felt that khaki gave their profession a sense of importance, and taking that away was like erasing their identity.
It’s not clear if the latest makeover proposal has addressed that fear.
In any case, khaki wasn’t always the colour postmen donned. Even the design of postal uniforms has changed several times over the years with earlier mailmen wearing dhotis and turbans.
In a book titled The Post Office of India and its Story, published in 1921, author Geoffrey Clarke wrote how the uniform was a badge of honour for most postal employees.
“It adds a certain amount of dignity to him and, like the soldier, he is the better man for having a distinctive badge of office.”
“There [wasn’t] any uniformity even in each circle about the uniforms supplied by Government. In one town red coats and blue turbans were seen, in another khaki coats and nondescript turbans, while the men who supplied themselves with uniforms presented at times the most extraordinary appearance. The pattern of postmen’s uniform has now been standardized for each circle….”
Earlier, uniforms were more elaborate with mailmen decked in long, ink blue overcoats, red turbans and a belt.
In his book, titled Typical Pictures of Indian Natives (1897), Frank Morris Coleman wrote:
"The familiar ‘rat-tat’ of the English postman is unknown in India, possibly because there are no knockers, and in many cases no doors. But we hear in its stead the remark of the butler, as he brings us our morning dak or English mail. 'Chitti hai…Government provides the men with a good serviceable blue dungaree uniform, and a waterproof cape during the monsoon. Sandals are worn more often than boots, and, when the rains arrive, the trousers are exchanged for knicker-bockers."
In some parts of India, it was common to see postmen dressed in turbans and crisp dhotis. Over the years, the dhoti was abandoned for trousers and the turban gave way to Nehru caps. Now, if the latest proposal goes through, India’s postmen may soon sport baseball caps.