It was the stench emanating from the room that alerted the neighbors. They gathered outside, mostly the men, covering their nose and mouth, trying to contemplate the source. Everyone knew in their heart that it indicated the worst but it’s human nature that only when we see with our own eyes that we believe the truth. But here, more than the confirmation of their theory they were waiting outside the door to see the who and how.
Room 24 of the chawl in the Koliwada area of Mumbai was an enigma to even the close-knit families residing there. Hardly anyone saw the occupant of Room 24, let alone knowing him or talking to him.
This stranger had come to stay in the chawl about a year ago. A young man in his late twenties, he kept to himself. People had seen him leave for work early in the morning and come late in the night. On weekends, he was hardly seen outside his room. If someone knocked on his door to invite for tea or to get to know him better, there would generally be no answer. After a few attempts, the residents had given up on him.
It was when the police arrived and opened the door that they all got a glimpse in the life of Babu.
“Another sack has come today. Here we haven’t finished sorting the 20 old sacks and they keep sending these new ones every day. I don’t understand, even in today’s day and age, who is writing so many letters,” grumbled Mrs.Kamble, as she let out a sigh of exasperation and got up from her seat to grab a glass of water.
Mr.Tambe, who joined her at the water cooler, commented with a wink, “Madam, why worry when Babu is here. He loves this job more than us. We will shift most of the sacks to him. I am sure he wouldn’t mind.”
Housed in a small dingy room, with musty smelling walls, peeling paint, four tables and chairs thrown about randomly, some Godrej almirahs, and numerous sacks of letters scattered around, which became fodder for the rats from time to time; was the Returned Letters Office also known as Dead Letters Office. A small department under the Mumbai G.P.O, irrelevant to the general public, was this morgue of letters. Those which had neither the correct address of the receiver nor the address of the sender. Letters that had nowhere to go, just like Babu.
So, it was here that Babu used to work as a decoder. And it was here that Babu found the letters.
An orphan, dropped at the doors of an orphanage when he was three, Babu had been brought up there till he was 18. Basic education, food, donated clothes, and a roof over his head were enough for his physical sustenance but the love and adoration craved by an innocent soul wasn’t provided for by the orphanage. The place was teeming with kids his age who had accepted their circumstances and would befriend each other, who made their own families within themselves, but Babu was never a part of any of them.
Born deaf and dumb, unable to communicate with others, he was always left alone, slowly turning into a recluse.
The DLO* was another place which had left Babu to his own means. They were a team of four people, overworked due to the number of letters flooding in daily. All of them bent over blue trays sorting and opening the letters, mechanically going about their drudgery, they rarely had time to communicate amongst themselves, let alone Babu with whom communication meant uncomfortable signs and a waste of time.
So, it was his job which became Babu’s escape. Reading the letters was part of Babu’s job as a decoder. Finding additional information from the letter which would help the G.P.O. to re-direct the letter at the correct address or back to the sender was Babu’s main responsibility. But, for him these letters were the peephole which gave him a peek into the lives of people, into lives he never knew existed, the lives he now aspired for.
There were letters from long-lost friends, trying to reconnect again for inviting one another for their children’s wedding, letters from ex-lovers who had lost touch and wanted to understand if they still had feelings, letters informing someone of a job interview; all of them telling him a little about the world that was an enigma to him. While reading these letters he experienced emotions hitherto unknown to him. He had only known melancholy and loneliness, but these letters introduced him to love, hope, happiness, and at times fear too.
The letters became Babu’s place of solace. A wonderland where he could lose himself, feel like someone else, be someone else. The letters had found his way to him, hadn’t they? So they were his. In his heart, they were addressed to him. Yes, he was the friend who was missed dearly for his jokes, not the Babu who had no friends. He was the son who had not visited his mom for years, still better than Babu who had no mother. He was the borrower who had not paid the bank’s loan, not Babu who had no need for a loan. He was the person whose insurance premium was due, unlike Babu who had no one for whose future he would invest. He was all this and more, when he read those letters. No one understood his reason to take on more letters to sort, no one knew that he had created his own world of acquaintances, friends and family among these letters.
The letters had always given Babu a sense of belonging, of hope that someday this make-believe world that he had created would become a reality.
But for some time now, these same letters had brought in a sense of desolation and hopelessness, as he started realising his own inanity; until the day he read her letter.
It was the handwriting that caught his attention first. Neat, precise, curvy, small hearts dotting the ‘i’s, the ‘t’s with wavy stroke, the whole letter was like calligraphic art. Addressed to God, the content of the letter was a poem; of longing, of asking for acceptance, of asking to be loved. The words of the poem touched the chords of his heart. The poem was accompanied by a letter to God, requesting him to shower her with love, to be benevolent, to send a life partner as soon as possible.
Babu’s heart now knew, there was another soul who was as alone as him, who had the same pangs of solitude, who too sought another heart that would understand, love and accept. The letter resonated with the desires within him which had recently raised their heads in his consciousness.
Babu’s heart once again reasoned that the letter was a sign, that this letter was meant for him, that it was God’s indication that this person was his soulmate, that he had to find this person.
Sanyukta. The name at the end of the letter.
Days had passed and Babu did everything in his capacity to find Sanyukta’s whereabouts. The letter did not have the sender’s address nor did it have any last name for him to cross-check with the directory. With his limited communication ability he had also requested the other two decoders to help him in his search. But both of them had shrugged him off.
“Why is the letter important? Even the sender would not be expecting it back,” Mr. Tambe had mouthed and tried to explain to Babu with his hand gestures.
“Arey.. you know, the letters to God are the first ones to be discarded. Why are you wasting your and our time?” Mrs. Kamble had not even bothered to look beyond the envelope.
Exasperated and dejected Babu did not know where to begin his search from. He would have called all the ‘Sanyuktas’ in the phone directory, had God not been merciless at the time of his birth.
The only way forward which he could see was to visit the post office whose postmark was on the envelope. But once there what would he ask? How will he communicate what he wants..? Even if he did find some information, how will he go looking for her? How will he recognise her? Such questions and more haunted Babu day and night. He did not want to give up. Yet, the road ahead seemed like a dead end.
A frenzied fervor engulfed him, one which did not let him do anything else but look for Sanyukta.
“Mrs. Kamble, Mr. Tambe, any news on Babu?” asked a worried Mr. Sawant, the manager of DLO.
The two of them looked at each other through the corner of their eyes, like errant school children caught creating mischief. “No Sir, you know his issue.. so we generally don’t talk much. But lately he had been spending extra hours in the office with one particular letter. He has been taking leaves too often.” replied Mr. Tambe, looking at Mrs. Kamble for her approval on his answer.
“Hmmm.. He, off-late, has looked a little tired and seems to have lost a lot of weight too. Maybe, we should go and check on him,” said a worried Mr Sawant. Babu was his best employee, sorting most of the letters, unlike these other two who would shirk their work often.
“Sir, recently he goes missing for a day or two, as you know, but then he returns. This time though it has been longer we are sure he will come back. Already due to his absence, work has piled up … where is the time…?” Mrs. Kamble chimed in this time, sensing the additional work that might entail on visiting the handicap person.
“Hmmmm.. Maybe you are right. If he doesn’t return for another few days we will go visit,” said a tired Mr. Sawant, rubbing his eyes.
When the door to Room 24 was opened, Babu’s life came undone in front of their eyes.
What lay in front of them was a floor covered with letters and envelopes. All the letters were addressed to one Sanyukta, but the envelopes bore different addresses. A directory in the center of it all. All letters had a poem in it asking whether it was written by her, whether she was the one who wrote to God?
Why had he not posted those letters till now would always remain an unanswered question.
And there lying amongst that pile of letters was an emaciated body, an empty heart, a tired soul, clinging to one letter in particular. The letter in which Sanyukta wrote the poem;
Loneliness wraps its arms around me,
Though love is what I plea,
Like the shores await the touch of sea,
I wait for love to drench me.
Surrounded by people I find me,
Yet lost I am, no one searches for me,
Rainbows at the end of rains people see,
But the grey clouds never part for me.
Emptiness gnaws the insides of me,
My life devoid of happiness and glee,
I yearn for the touch that sets me free,
To gather the nectar of life, like a bee
O lord, I seek thus from thee,
A soul with strings attached to me,
A heart that beats to the laughter in me,
A love so pure that accepts me as me.
*DLO = Dead Letters Office
The story is very loosely inspired from the following article that appeared in Indian Express
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