I grew up in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, in a comely little town called Roing. To its north and east lay an arc of hills. They were ancient as all hills are. But they looked especially grave and grandfatherly because their cheeks were thickly wooded. A mostly leaden sky domed those hills and our town; rain lurked in some corner of it always. Often, sometimes several times in a day, like some brazen bandit, this rain rode upon dark stallion like clouds and came swooping down upon the land.
On some days, alas, they seemed so far apart, the rain did not raid the land. I remember we used to rejoice then. The washing would finally get a chance to dry, and I to frolic in the backyard, to build my castles and to explore my strange continents where even stranger peoples lived. On such days Baba and I took a walk in the evening. We generally walked down the road that led one to the southern limits of our town. It was a pretty road, even for a pretty little town. Much of it was flanked on either side by gulmohar and amaltas trees. As we walked past those little houses and a line of shops, I quizzed Baba on everything that was of pressing concern to me then, from how hot it is on the sun to why the leaves are not purple. He, on the other hand, would quiz me on the books or comics that I might be reading. Sometimes, I would say, “You know, if I get the chance to, I can make magic better than Mandrake.” I do not recall that he ever showed any disbelief.
The house in which we lived will appear strange to a plains dweller. It was wooden and rose above the ground on stilts of cement, each about four feet high. The teak planks that made its floor showed a few faint cracks at places. I knew all of them by heart. But to me they were not mere cracks but mighty canyons and valleys. They never posed a problem to me however, for I was a giant and could leap across them as one leaps across a rut in the earth.
Winter clothed most of the year. Winter flung its cape upon the land by the end of September, its hem hung in the air till the end of April. But no matter how long the wait, winter gave way to spring. It always does, everywhere.
Spring rode on many signs, more colors, more birds and buds on the boughs of trees. But for me the most inevitable augury of spring was the smell that preceded it. Each season had its smell for me and so did spring. One day, while the far away peaks will still be swathed in snow and the earth and the naked trees slumber beneath the cape of winter, will waft in a gust of wind bearing that smell. I cannot describe it and have no name for it. But for me the smell was the oracle that foretold that in some days the grass beneath my feet will no more be a pale, sickly yellow but change to a brighter shade of green, that the sun will show up more often, and that, soon, once again, there will be beetles and grasshoppers about. The coming of spring also meant that the river which flowed past a gaggle of hills on the northern margin of our town will no more be a faint trickle. The snows melted upon the peaks filling it with water and Deopani gurgled and chuckled loudly as he ran down to meet his brother Brahmaputra. Spring was also when you rolled in the new grass and let your skin smell of it. I did. Besides, there was something else to look forward to. It was the season when elephants walked down the street we lived on. No, they were not wild but belonged to the tribal chieftains who were in the lumbering business. The beasts walked back home in the evenings after a hard day’s work and I ran out to the veranda to gape at them. I dreamt of owning an elephant someday. Not because I wanted to be a lumber jack but because it seemed like a kindly, sagacious animal which will make for good company. Some unforeseeable day in the future, I wished to set forth to discover many a strange, exotic country upon the back of an elephant. There was especially one country that I wished to find.
In some corner of the world there was a country called ‘Magyar’, but I did not know where. It could not be traced on the map. This left me so frustrated. Those were the mid-nineties, pre-Google days, when a child could not be sure if a country was for real if it was untraceable on the map or in the atlas. Like all countries, this arcane country too issued postage stamps. I had a few of them; they bore the inscription ‘Magyar Posta’. Shashi had given them to me. He often gave me the postage stamps of countries which seemed to have evaded the cartographer’s notice. I possessed stamps of a country called ‘NOYTA CCCP’ which too, like ‘Magyar’, was not on the map. I wondered if these countries existed at all. But wherefrom did the stamps come then? It was all so bewildering.
It was Shiv who first began to collect stamps in our class. We were in the seventh standard then. In our tiny town of about ten-thousand folks not too many received mail from abroad. So, acquiring exotic stamps was not easy. But Shiv persisted and built a fair collection within months. I think he took the trouble to befriend Padam Sharma, the town postman. Often, he paid a visit to the town post-office after school to enquire the health of Padam bhaiya. His collection grew steadily. Shiv, Dibakar and I were fast friends and bench-mates. Inspired by Shiv, Dibakar and I too decided to be philatelists. I did not have a stamp album and did not know where to buy one. So I decided to make one myself, I ripped some pages out of my mathematics notebook – they were plain white – and stapled them together. I was not very satisfied with my ersatz album, but it served the purpose. The first few stamps of my collection were donated by Shiv. If I remember correctly, he gave a few to Dibakar too.
Within days I was a passionate philatelist. Unlike Shiv, who had a large collection of European stamps, I mostly had Indian and Nepalese ones. The latter were colourful as butterflies and much prettier than our own. My Nepali friends, whose kin wrote to them from their homeland, supplied me with those. However, no matter how pretty they were, Nepalese stamps, being from a country next door, were not foreign enough for me. They carried images of mythological heroes I was all too familiar with, or of sacred hills, temples and sadhus. None of these motifs carried the enchantment of strangeness. Naturally, I yearned to make more exotic acquisitions for my collection.
There lived a boy in Shiv’s neighbourhood who was rumoured to have the largest collection of stamps in the town. He was a year junior to us in school. Shiv’s younger brother was his classmate and best buddy. Shiv knew that my collection was not growing as fast as I wanted it to. One day, he told me in school that the lad is ready to trade stamps for comics. I jumped at the idea. We decided to meet in the playground during recess. Shiv was to mediate the negotiations. When we met, and the colloquies began, the boy turned out to be a hard-nosed businessman. A stamp for a comic-book was his demand. I was outraged and tried to put some reason in his head. As a comic-book is so much bigger than a stamp physically, I should get at least half a dozen stamps for one, I argued. A valid enough argument it was, both Shiv and I thought, but he was adamant. I gave in, as I was desperate for some exotic specimens. The next day was a Sunday and he promised to deliver the stamps in the afternoon at our house. I barely slept in the night and woke up very early to a gloomy, overcast Sunday. By noon the rain was pouring down in sheets. I was fearful lest he not turn up. But turn up he did around three in the afternoon. He had on him four tiny United Kingdom stamps, all alike, badly soaked. United Kingdom has always issued the drabbest postage stamps, bearing nothing but the Queen’s profile and the denomination. I was speechless with disappointment. I had expected some colourful Czech or Rumanian issues. But it was too late now and I had to keep my part of the bargain. He selected four of the most exciting comic-books from my collection and left.
The disappointment was indeed bitter and I was morose for the rest of the day. Baba noticed my muted spirits and I told him what had happened. I think he saw the injustice of it all and promised to have a word with Padam Sharma when he came to deliver the office mail. I could not have asked for more. A couple of days later, upon returning from office, Baba put in my hand a stamp from Oman. Padam Sharma had sent it for me. I was beside myself with joy. Soon, it became a frequent occurrence. Padam Sharma, if he happened to have any, passed on to father a foreign stamp or two. Upon returning from work, Baba handed them to me. My collection was growing at last. But I was still not satisfied. No collector ever is. I had a fantasy, a particularly wild one. I wished to discover a trove of stamps somewhere in our backyard. One day the fantasy materialized, just like that! By then I had moved on to the eighth standard. The winters had set in and the half-yearly examinations had just ended. Every year during the winters we grew some vegetables in our backyard. That year too we had planted some beans, cabbages and potatoes. One day, upon returning from school, I was taking a stroll amid the cabbages when I discovered that the earth beneath my feet is strewn with stamps. They had apparently originated in the strangest of lands, some bore the name ‘Magyar Posta’, some ‘NOYTA CCCP’, a few were from some country called ‘Deutsche’, some others from ‘Nippon’. They were all for real, at my feet, waiting to be picked up. That day I knew that joy numbs too, too much of it. I was numbed to the extent that I could begin sticking them in my rough-hewn album only next morning. But whence had they come? As it turned out, Shashi, who lived next door, had had them for quite some time. His father worked with the Department of Posts. Apparently, he had been removing postage stamps, particularly the exotic ones, from envelopes and parcels for some years and giving them to Shashi. But Shashi was not keen on philately. One day he decided to get rid of, what were for him, these useless bits of paper and dumped them all in his backyard. Some gust of wind must have blown them into ours – it is likely, for our backyards were separated by only a wire fence. From that day on, till the day I left home after finishing school, Shashi fed my collection along with Padam Sharma. He also did what Padam Sharma could not. Shashi helped me plan trips to the countries whose postage stamps I possessed, chiefly the ones I could not trace on the map. Looking back I realize that one of them could not have been visited, it had ceased to exist by the time I began my collection. That is also why it was not on the map. I realize this as I know now that ‘NOYTA CCCP’ is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics abbreviated in Cyrillic. As about the rest, I have found them on the map. I know today that ‘Nippon’ is Japan and that country called ‘Magyar’ is Hungary. But this has shorn so much enchantment off their postage stamps. Knowing, especially if it involves finding lost countries on the map, does leave the world a dull place.
Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. Saumya’s monograph Becoming Hindus and Muslims. Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal. 1342-1905 was released in 2015 by Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi.