A couple of decades ago, when the air outside this gigantic structure was still fragrant with the smell of champa trees and the cobbled streets held but a few rusty Premier Padminis, Dilip started working with about twenty of his colleagues outside this GPO. He would lend an ear to a largely illiterate India, penning letters on their behalf to be dropped into the red letter box.

The letters would then make their indefinite and, most likely, laborious journey by truck, train, ship, camel, donkey, either to the next state or across many time zones to places that you and I can’t even begin to envisage.

An ailing father and dwindling finances brought Dilip to Mumbai. “I was fascinated with this city,” he says, easing into the conversation, reclining in the chair, crossing his legs at the ankles and intertwining his fingers over his stomach. “Mumbai tells you a new tale every day; it speaks, this city. Of people who are stumbling as they learn to walk, or those who have learnt to talk its talk. But nobody learns to breathe here,” he smiles, both wistfully and wearily. “If you stop for a breath, you will die of hunger. Gourishankar told me this the day I arrived in Mumbai.”

After a two-day journey from Varanasi, Dilip spent his first few nights with a relative’s friend, Gourishankar. He hailed from Dilip’s home town – a burly, large man with a hirsute chest and a vast mouth that curved downwards, who had developed, by osmosis, the disposition and mannerisms of Mumbai.

He took Dilip under his wing and gave him impromptu lessons on letter writing. He took him around the circuitous GPO, pointed out some influential people who got the post offices running; made him admire the city’s deep, dark underbelly; narrated the great epic of how to handle clients depending on their backgrounds, brief with ex-criminals, tart with daily-wage workers and chatty with government office peons.

He painted the canvas of letter writing in a few simple strokes: “Listen, write two lines for one word and do not forget to write ‘Missing you’ at the end of the letter. It makes the wives and lovers happy and the senders, in turn, happier.”

“The railway, postal services . . . would be but shards of broken glass in this massive country, divided by great rivers and mountains, if it wasn’t for the British. India owes the British a lot,” he declares, launching into a monolithic monologue on how good the British were for the country, lightly rubbing the thicket on his forearm as he speaks, as if congratulating himself. After the British set up India’s modern postal network in 1854, they introduced professional letter-writing services outside the post offices, allocating licences to the letter writers.1

“Gouri told me I could be popular as a letter writer because I knew a lot of languages. I could read and write in English, Hindi and Sanskrit already and, while I was in Mumbai, I quickly picked up Marathi from newspapers and locals,” he reminisces. “I read cartoons in local newspapers, heard the Marathi channels on the radio every morning for an hour.”

Over the years, he established a work ritual that involved arriving early in the morning, feeding the pigeons swarming the square outside the GPO, offering a short prayer to the idol of Ganesha placed on his office desk, and taking in his first client at nine in the morning while sipping a thimbleful of tea from a chaiwala stationed outside. Life for him started emulating a recognisable, comfortable pattern, until things started changing in the year 1995.

“Somehow, the city just became bigger and we became smaller,” he mumbles, his gaze dull and fixed in a faraway stare. Bright lights illuminated the sky, the stars were losing their shine and the fireflies were vanishing. Cars moved inch by inch on the roads outside and people were flipping each other off at every intersection. The post office was declared a heritage site and the entire letter-writing squad was relocated across the street.

Sunlight trickles through a fissure in Dilip’s tent this morning; dust particles floating in the rays briefly reflect off a tin box that lies below his table emphasizing its existence: the lid is cracked at the edges and coated with rust. Following my eyes, Dilip puts the box on the table, cracking it open to reveal its contents – folded sheets of yellowed paper, envelopes and used nibs. He takes out an old letter, a single sheet with writing on both sides, devoid of lines, margins, texture or print.

“I had written this for a client, a love letter for his girlfriend in Sholapur, and penned some lines from Hemant Kumar’s songs, my favourite.” He sports a hesitant smile, his eyes trained on the letters in his hand.

Dilip sometimes saves drafts like these, of the letters he writes for his clients, particularly the love letters to their girlfriends. “The ones to the wives were simpler, with directives like ‘Pay the rent’ or ‘Take care of my mother’. Like this one.” He places an unpretentious, soggy blue paper before me.

It is double-sided like a book, the kind that was sold at post offices in those days. The handwriting, taut and wiry, has melted into blue waves over time. The letter “f” resembles his physique – straight, lean, slightly bent at the shoulders; the “g”s and “y”s are rendered with a loopy end.

An idiomatic vitality – with large lettering and simple phrases – keeps the writing light and easy, a style worked upon to simplify it for his readers across the countryside. “All kinds of people came in to have their letters written here.” He makes a sweeping movement with his hand, presenting his humble street-side office to my scrutiny: a battered briefcase and obsolete calendars stacked against the walls with newspapers in various languages. A cat cosies up on the wall that is used as support to build the tent, graffiti painted in red announcing, “Do not pass urine here”.

Excerpted with permission from The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions, Nidhi Dugar Kundalia, Random House India.