The bedlam of the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections in Varanasi saw Hinduism versus Hindutva, piety versus politics, sants and mahants versus outgoing prime minister Narendra Modi (calling him Aurangzeb and anti-Hindu), and antiquity pitted against ideology. Yet there exists an island of efficiency and professionalism in the city, and it’s found in one of the oldest proficient government departments in the country: the post office.
In the heart of Visheshwarganj is the head post office, in a colonnaded colonial building with giant white columns and a wide portico. Inside the cavernous office is a warren of rooms, boarded and divided by wooden cabins from letter services, money transfers, mail sorting, speed post and other services. But it’s in the back of the office, in the parcel section, that postmen do a very special service.
Every day, the parcel section receives at least a dozen, if not more, packages, envelopes, bundles and packets in various sizes from across the country. They contain human ashes to be scattered in the Ganges waters. It is said that if a deceased’s ashes are immersed in the waters of the Ganga, their soul will go straight to heaven and forever escape the cycle of rebirth. Moksha is liberation from that dreaded cycle of rebirth, and Ganga, being the holiest of holy rivers, ensures the soul of ultimate freedom.
The dozen and more postmen sit at rows of wooden tables, their work space divided by little cabinets, sorting out their postal delivery for the day. For them, it’s just another routine task to be finished, all in a day’s work. In the city of Varanasi, famed for its many burning ghats on the banks of the Ganga, where the dead are brought in hundreds to be burned at the mass funeral pyre—death is hardly profound or weighty.
For the postmen too, weighed down by the burden of earning a decent livelihood, the parcels of human ashes are not formidable or spooky. But it’s also with a sense of obligation and religious commitment that they dutifully carry out their business.
Anshuman Rai, senior postmaster of the Visheshwarganj office, is effusive when he says, “Most of the packets of ash come in the name of the senior postmaster and we have a system we follow: the designated postman delivers the packet to the priests in Manikarnika ghat, one of the three famous burning ghats, who performs the rituals and then the ashes are scattered in the waters.”
Rai says the postal department is “devoted” to this service, and the postmen diligently follow customs and do all they can to make it easy for the family of the dead, to ensure a safe passage for the soul. “We even take the trouble of sometimes calling back the family to say the ceremony went off as prescribed by the religious texts,” says Rai.
In the parcel office, even as postmen sort their various packages, there’s a lot of boisterous chatter about the outcome of the polls with everyone taking turns to be the chief orator. Ramnath Choubey, who has worked in the post office for 16 years, is dismayed that most of the staff are on contract daily wages and have not been hired on a permanent basis. It leads to an uproar in the crowd about the lakhs of vacancies in government jobs which the Yogi Adityanath government has refused to fill to save on the salary bill, they chorus. They want Modi and Yogi out.
The packets come big and small, sometimes just a small pouch, at other times weighing almost a kilo. Says Ram Swarup, another postman, who has been fortunate to get a permanent position and has just been posted to Varanasi, “It depends on the cost, as the heavier it is, the more you pay. Quite often, the packets are broken and there’s ash all over my desk. It can be very discomforting.” He adds that nowadays, most of the requests are from south India as people from the north come to Varanasi themselves, or go to places along the Ganga, from Haridwar to Prayag.
Do they believe they are doing a sacred service for bereaved families: guiding and ensuring there are no shortcuts on the stairway to heaven? “How can we not feel happy that we have helped someone far away to fulfill their religious obligations to a departed member?” asks another. “It’s satisfying that we can do our little bit. It’s our dharm (sacred duty) and we also earn our karmic points,” he guffaws.
As the mail trickles in, the postmen of Varanasi deliver mukti and moksha in a packet.