I do not know how many people recollect it but when I was a child (and that was late 1960s, early 1970s) this was one of the highlights of a fairly humdrum existence in Mylapore. In those days, “mobile” had an entirely different connotation. I would wait for grandmother to finish writing her letters and then rush off to drop them at the mobile as it was known. A part of the excitement was whether I would be able to reach it on time. A quick walk down Veeraperumal Koil Street and Karpagambal Nagar would have me arrive at Luz Church Road, huffing and puffing. The mobile would be standing under a tree just outside the Mylapore Club, its interior brightly lit.

Details of the Mobile PO dating to 1959

Though it was just a van, seen through my young eyes it looked very roomy. Painted red on the outside and bright yellow inside, its interior was all hustle and bustle. Clerks sorting and bagging mail meant for various destinations; the steady thud thud of the postmarking; and the answers to various queries as the clientele lined up to drop letters. The last named was a very simple task – you had to shove your packages/missives into a wide slot that jutted out like a lip from the van. The exciting bit was watching the letter slide in and be received in a bag at the bottom. It was then scooped out by the staff who read the address and put it away with others meant for the same city.

If on the odd day grandmother wanted something to be bought from the mobile van, the adrenaline rushed in that much more. It was pure thrill to stand in line at the sale window of the van, which was at the rear and from where you got a full view of the goings on inside. When your turn came you asked for so many inland letters, postcards and airmail envelopes and went home clutching your precious purchases. On some rare occasions, grandmother would want cash transfers through Money Order. An elder – a cousin or an uncle -was always entrusted with this, but I could go along.

Everything about the mobile postal van was an experience, even the greyish gooey glue that smelt absolutely foul and stuck closer to you than a brother. For those who did not want this, there was a small trough of water just abaft this muck. You could dip your finger, apply it on the rear of the stamp you wanted to paste and presto, your task was done. Orthodox grandmother did not encourage my licking of stamps, and definitely not envelopes that contained wedding invites or formal letters addressed to the Acharyas of Sringeri.

But enough of personal reminiscence and lets get on with the hard facts. The mobile post office was the brainchild of Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, who in 1947 became India’s first minister for communications. The service was first introduced in Nagpur in 1949 and within a short while became operational in Madras. The success of the service here meant mobile post offices were soon introduced to other metros and later to B category cities as well.

The mobile had several advantages – it operated on all days of the week, Sundays and postal holidays included; it began its service after counters at the various city post offices had closed; it brought the postal service closer home. The van set out from wherever it set out from at 4.15 pm and then moved to several places en route to the airport. There were two routes in the city, one north to south and the other more north and west. A schedule dating to 1959 that is in my possession reads as follows:

Mobile PO No 1

Ripon Buildings – 5.00 to 5.15 pm
Rattan Bazaar – 5.30 to 5.45 pm
Marina – 6.00 to 6.30 pm
Luz – 6.45 to 7.15 pm
T Nagar – 7.35 to 8.05 pm

From personal memory I know that the Luz stop was outside the Mylapore Club. From the writings of CS Lakshmi (Ambai) I can see that the T Nagar stop was just outside Panagal Park.

Mobile PO No 2

Mint – 5.00 to 5.15 pm
Roxy – 5.25 to 5.55 pm
Dasaprakash – 6.05 to 6.30pm

From the last stops the mobile vans went directly to Meenambakkam – for a key factor in the success of the service was that it connected to the Night Air Mail. The sorting was all done en route. The letters reached destinations a day earlier than scheduled as the time they spent at post offices was eliminated. Can you beat that for efficiency?

Given that the post office also had savings schemes, the mobile was put to good use during special campaign periods to encourage thrift among the general public. High profile inaugurations with MLAs/MLCs and ministers extolling the virtues of saving took place at specific locations and then the van did the rounds of various localities where people came, saw details of the various schemes and invested.

As mentioned earlier, the Night Air Mail Service was important to the mobile post office. Letters from the four compass points of India converged at Nagpur from where they were redistributed to their respective destinations. Dakota aircraft ferried the mail each night to Nagpur, which emerged as a cargo hub. The idea was that daytime flights could focus on passengers and those at night on cargo (and that included mail). With the coming in of larger planes that could handle both at all times of the day, the Night Air Mail was discontinued in the early 1970s. There were attempts to revive it till the 1980s but they were all futile. With that, as a Parliamentary Debate paper noted, the basic purpose behind the mobile post office also ceased to exist. But the service continued right up to 1986 when it was finally closed down. It was perhaps the first to go among the many communication facilities that were rendered superfluous owing to technological advances. The telegraph ceased to operate in 2015 and the Money Order went a year later.

But the basic necessity and advantage of a door-to-door service was perhaps forgotten in the winding up of the mobile van. After all, it was a precursor in a way to what Amazon or Flipkart claim to be doing now. It is therefore heartening to note that a mobile postal service was reintroduced in 2017. Operating from the St Thomas Mount post office, it had a route comprising five stops, all at the newer localities of the city. There is no news on how it fared or indeed if it still is in operation. With the Multimodal International Hub and Airport at Nagpur (MIHAN) project taking off, we may see a revival of the old mobile. But can it compete with the modern mobile that offers everything at the touch of a screen?

This article is part of a series on lost and barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read earlier episodes here.