Sher Singh is a 49-year-old employee of the Department of Posts. And if you were one of the 650 or so inhabitants of Chitkul, a small Himachali village just shy of the border with China, you’d be very grateful for his existence.
Singh is a dak runner, one of the 150-odd men still carrying post long distances on foot in parts of India hard to access any other way. For over 20 years after he walked into a post office and was offered a job, Singh worked as a Grameen Dak Sevak in Bhabhanagar, Kinnaur district. In July last year, he was recruited by the postal department as an official dak runner. Almost every day since then, he has briskly covered the 12 uninhabited kilometres between Raksham and Chitkul on foot, in fair weather and foul, to bring the little village its mail—and then taken outgoing mail back to Raksham, from where it is taken, by another dak runner, to Sangla, and then out to the world. Though he isn’t privy to its contents, he appreciates the value of the sealed bag of mail he carries, sometimes weighing 15 kilograms, for six hours a day. There are pension cheques in there, he knows, letters of admission; things for which people are waiting, avidly.
In Delhi on the occasion of the launch of veteran journalist BG Verghese’s book Post Haste—dedicated to ‘the Dak-Runners of India, who still connect us contemporaneously and with our past’—Singh seems somewhat bemused, if not weary, of the same barrage of questions asked of him by journalist after journalist fascinated by his profession. He is eager to venture out, despite the alien heat, and see the Red Fort for the first time with his 22-year-old son, who is in the second year of his BSc. Not that he doesn’t recognise the import of his profession. “Dak aur rail Hindustan ki reed ki haddi hain (The railways and postal system constitute the backbone of India),” he tells one interviewer. Seen in the context of Singh’s daily beat, though, post is as much the connective tissue of the country as its spine.