Sonali Verma reports on the strange after life of letters that don’t get
delivered and the people who deal with them.

The Dead Letter Office or Returned Letter Office (RLO) on the second floor of the Jhandewalan Post Office, New Delhi, appears obliterated and neglected at almost all times of the day. Except on Monday when it comes alive as a stack of the weekend mail arrives. Piles of undelivered, dust-laden parcels scattered on every corner add to the supineness of the not very large room. One can’t help but notice one of the huge parcels in a corner addressed to one Mr. Gustavo Aguzzi of Argentina in a bold red marker, the rest of the address almost completely illegible.

The RLO houses hundreds of letters, parcels and along with it news, hopes, promises and love that couldn’t be delivered. It is the lost-and-found section of the Indian postal system, where all letters and articles which do not reach their destination and can neither be mailed back to the sender are kept. The few middle- aged employees sit with a tray of envelopes and papers, verifying if the letters can indeed not be sent to the recipient or the sender. The undelivered letters are stored for three months before they are destroyed. The ones which have some valuable material content are kept for a year and then deposited in the UCR government account. The undeliverable parcels however are kept for a year before they are auctioned to the public. Items like clothes are sold off for as low a price of Rs. 100.

The middle-aged manager of the RLO has been working here since 1978. He proudly proclaims that they are the only ones entrusted with the authority to read a letter. “We can even read a letter addressed to the PMO if it reaches here”, he says with a grin.

Although he concedes that in his many years of working here, he has come across so many unusual letters that he doesn’t feel amused by them anymore. He has read letters addressed to God, asking him to grant their wishes. He has received parcels containing drugs smartly hidden at the back of the sculpture of Lord Ganesha, in a hole made at
the centre of a thick novel, in the collar of a shirt and even inside the footrests of a motorcycle. These parcels are sent to the narcotics department.

Among the plethora of envelopes, there lie some hundreds of identification cards of people from all over the country. Apparently, as one of the female officials puts it, there are two kinds of pickpockets- the good ones and the bad ones. The good ones (after they have stolen all your money and valuables from your wallet) are kind enough to drop your identification cards at a nearby post box. These I.Ds are eventually sent by the regional post offices to the RLO. Today for instance, some 108 I.Ds have arrived. These were probably stolen over the weekend. Apparently this is a small number compared to the three to four hundred I.Ds that arrive everyday.

The officials at the RLO send these I.Ds, by unregistered post, to the owners’ address as printed on the ID card. The stolen PAN cards are mailed to the address printed at the back of it. The passports and original documents are sent by registered post. “We know how important the IDs are and we try to dispatch them on the same day as they are received”, says the manager of the post office who wishes to stay anonymous. Foreign IDs are sent to their respective embassies. It’s often a thankless job, so when their efforts do get some sort of a validation, like a thank you letter from an embassy, it’s a matter of pride.

Out of the lot received today, one of them belongs to a Baljeet Singh of Delhi Police. Makes us wonder that even the law and order is not spared by these cunning pick-pockets; but let’s cut this one some slack for being kind enough to return the I.D. If you ever get pick-pocketed, which we hope you don’t, all you can do is pray that the thief is kind enough to drop it in the post box.

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