Now that we live in the future, with electric cars, drones, the internet, Donald Trump and whatnot there are some facets of yesteryear that have been all too readily forgotten.
Standing on The Mall in the famous, curious, ex-British Himalayan town of Shimla you cast your gaze hither and thither viewing architectural features that are more akin to a Victorian England. This is no surprise as that’s exactly what they are. The parade ground on The Ridge is perhaps, Sandhurst or Dartmouth Naval College airdropped onto a mountaintop. The alpine backdrop is dramatic, incongruous, ill fitting the scene in the foreground.
A walking trail around the town notes and celebrates railway buildings, the post office, churches, a command house, the sanitarium. It’s a uniquely preserved military/government base. It’s certainly a destination for modern Indians who flock here, definitely an escape from the intense, unrelenting heat of the plains to the south and west.
As the Channel 4 series Indian Summers – set here in 1932 – creator Paul Rutman noted:
“Shimla was an entirely British invention. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Brits who were out there decided to build the town in their own image. It wasn’t a holiday destination; it was a summer retreat, somewhere where people could go to crash out. I would compare it with Ibiza, because in a way it was a party town. The other half of the story is of a town where a lot of work got done, of ruling and administrative stuff.”
Consider this: at its peak, this small, uber remote, twee town was the governmental centre for a fifth of the human race.
All this nostalgia leaves me with a sudden urge to send a postcard.
Standing at Scandal Point, the post office (1883) is but a few steps away. The dilapidated building is open for business. Within seconds – much to my surprise – I have a clutch of stamps in my hand. Then normal “service” resumes and the operative reverses into the back office to retrieve some change. Far be it than a customer counter to have a cash float. In the following lengthy minutes I watch as she visits various desks and drawers. Ancient cash drawers are accessed and shrugs offered. Eventually we conclude our transaction and I am the proud owner of 56p worth of stamps.
Now, for some picture postcards. (Before you ask, yes, this was queried in the Post Office. No, IndiaPost doesn’t offer such collateral. Now please move along.)
Context: we are in a tourist town, with – apparently – not a single shop that is for anything other than frivolous visitor spend. Yet can I buy a postcard? Of course I can’t. In fact we enjoy a breathless – it’s at altitude – magical mystery tour of this remarkable architectural, cultural relic with a cheery battle cry: “Do you sell postcards?”
And nobody does. And really, why would they these days? It’s a dying, specialist market.
Consider this: in 2018 who do you send a postcard to?
Mum (obvs). Nan. An elderly friend/neighbour. A collector. That particular friend who you’ve a running theme with. And… Forgive me, but nobody else gives a shit. Instagram et al has simply removed the need for them. The kids are likely to be 99.9% unimpressed. We could have purchased any number of selfie-sticks, phone chargers and smartphones on our quest. Of course, it’s not just postcards who’ve been left behind. I spied a specialist camera shop whose facia and staff shared a shabby, forlorn look. I expect they can remember the day when they last sold a canister of 35mm film (to someone who wasn’t a bloody hipster).
We end up – a day and a half later – in a charming bookshop (ironically) 50m from the post office. (Sixth largest publish nation in the world they say, India is the second largest English-language print book publisher with over 9000 publishers. Looking ahead, more than 70 per cent of publishers in India have digitised their content to produce eBook versions. After all, everyone has a smartphone…)
Guess what they sell? Cue an unseemly scrabble to purchase their last remaining books of postcards before an inevitable rush. (As if.)
Settled into a cafe minutes later we are faced with another dilemma. What to write?
Pithy, relevant, contextual one liners that are uneditable and solitary. That is the demand of the small blank space on the left. It’s like a Tweet with no reply function and 2 week lag between pressing send and the reader logging in.
“Weather’s here wish you were beautiful.” No.
“oOoooh, I think I left the gas on?” Niche humour, but no: you had to be there.
We end up with the consoling thought that the lovely image on the picture side says it all and simply sign “with much love” or similar.
Input phase completed. We march up to the Scandal Point postbox and deposit a clutch of ‘cards. They clunk to the bottom of a seemingly empty receptacle. Immediate questions: when will they arrive? Will they arrive at all? Writing this some days later: where are they now I wonder…