GPO Stands Tall Though Digital Communication Rules The Day

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GPO STANDS TALL THOUGH DIGITAL COMMUNICATION RULES THE DAY

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

Letters may be a dying form of communication, but the GPO is bustling with activity.

Snapchat and Instagram have enabled us to communicate at the speed of light. I can share food photos with friends across the globe and get dinner suggestions from my globetrotting mother in a jiffy.

But some things don’t change.

Like the smell of freshly printed documents, sealed in an envelope, the loud thump as the clerk stamps it. Or Mrs. Liu from the Student Affairs Office at my grad school who demanded all transcripts be physically signed and sent by mail. It seemed like a ludicrous request then. Today I mean to thank her for leading me to one of the most glorious buildings in Mumbai: the General Post Office.

If letters are a dying mode of communication, post offices are modern-day haunted houses. The dilapidated red letter boxes that once stood sentinel in nooks of every Mumbai street have all but disappeared. And spotting a ratty, old red door – the portal to the post office – in any district is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Unless, of course, you are talking about the century-old Mumbai GPO.

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Running, literally, from pillar to post to send documents to my post-graduate school, I was directed to the largest post office in Mumbai. I was amazed at how big and efficient it is. One hour at the GPO reformed my impressions and allayed any fear that the digital world is rendering the Indian postal services into a dead letter office. This, the biggest postal house in all of South Asia, was bustling with people. Reminiscent of the stern functionality of the typical Indian bank, the periphery of the large common hall in the centre is segmented into a series of small windows each tagged with its purpose – Philately, Speed Post, Stationery, Deposits, Air mail, etc.

The structure was designed by British architect John Begg who eschewed the Gothic affectations of the GPO’s neighbour the CST. He chose an Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, modelling it on the Gol Gumbaz in Karnataka. Begg used local materials, basalt and black stone for the structure and yellow stone and glistening white stone for ornamentation. As a result, more than a century later, the ethereal hall rises gloriously upward into a dome 120 feet high, its pillars and walls showing no sign of decay. The flooring is as it was, a set of intricate mosaic patterns, the teak wood arches and furnishings perfectly offset by the deep red that is the signature of the Indian Postal Services.

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As I watched people at work in this time-honoured building, I imagined the generations changing guard as the tap-tap-tap of the stamps on one side, the smell of the glue on the other and the Raj era fans overhead all remained constant. Even the sense of space (the halls are twice the size of the average football field), so uncommon in cheek-by-jowl Mumbai, whispers of another time.

A self-proclaimed townie, I’ve spent nearly two decades loafing through these streets, the southern most precinct of Mumbai. I don’t know how I missed this magnificent, palatial structure bang in the heart of the old city.

But I’ll have to go back to see it again. It’s far too big for an Instagram frame.

GPO, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Area, Fort, Mumbai 400 001.

 
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