Posted by: gdevi | January 17, 2014

Postcard from South Africa

Earlier this week, I got my first postcard from South Africa from friends in Lock Haven who had traveled to Johannesburg to attend the funeral viewing and celebrations of the life of President Nelson Mandela. I was thrilled to receive the postcard. It was also my first stamp from South Africa. When I was a kid growing up in India, I collected stamps. I don’t collect stamps now, and what remains of my old stamp collection is in India with my parents, somewhere in my old room. I showed my daughter the stamp from South Africa. It looks nice, she said, and moved on.

To me, some of the finest moments in the Coen Brothers film Fargo are the scenes with Norm Gunderson, played with tremendous quiet charisma by that fine actor John Carroll Lynch, amateur artist and husband of the very pregnant detective Marge Gunderson, who has entered his duck painting in the Duck Stamp contest. At the end of the movie, we learn that Norm’s duck painting will go on the three-cent stamp, while another artist’s painting of the blue-winged teal will grace the prestigious first class stamp.

It is to the credit of the Coen Brothers as directors and artists themselves that like so many of us who love postage stamps they saw and knew and made room in their film to portray the considerable artistry, aesthetics, culture and history that make up the world of postage stamps. Growing up, I never found out who drew the incredibly beautiful, delicate and minutely detailed images that made up the postage stamps in India.  Every nation must have its Norm Gundersons.

Our postage stamps encompassed every aspect of our culture and history: the leaders of the Independence movement, political leaders, philosophers and thinkers, the infrastructure of the nation, its buildings, bridges, the flora and fauna, the art forms, the musicians, the dancers, writers, actors, actresses and film directors.   Once in a while, the Indian Postal Service would issue postage stamps of non-Indians. I remember many Indo-Soviet stamps, a beautiful stamp of Charlie Chaplin, Ho Chi Minh, and one special commemorative  issue of the Danish chemist and engineer Holck-Larsen who founded the Larsen & Toubro Limited company in India.

I lived in Trivandrum, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and in my small community of stamp collectors made up of friends and cousins, we often had to trade and barter postage stamps amongst ourselves to finesse our collection. I wanted to expand my collection of stamps with architectural motifs (I love old buildings), plants and flowers, writers, musicians, actors and actresses. So, once, in order to get a prized stamp of the old Howrah Bridge in Calcutta, I had to trade one of my Gurkha Rifles stamp. Rifles were plenty; the old Bridge was rare.

Almost half of my family lived and worked overseas, mostly in the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and the Middle East. I had plenty of stamps from these countries, from letters and postcards that we received from kith and kin from far away. A cousin worked for the World Health Organization in Africa. I was the only person in my stamp collecting group who had a stamp from Malawi;  a strange and beautiful plant with light blue flowers blooming close to the ground.

I left India in 1990 to study in the United States. So when we collected stamps in the 1970s and 1980s, before the age of the internet, the stamps were semaphores to us signaling a whole catalog of information to us. Sometimes I went to the local library just to check out something I saw on the stamp.  Stamps told us things we did not know of countries and peoples far away. What was that yellow bell-shaped flower from New Zealand called? Who was Emma Albani on Canada Postes? That vivacious young girl smiling on that stamp from Amsterdam was Anne Frank who died in the Bergen concentration camp in the Holocaust. Every stamp had a story behind it.

In the days of emails, snapchats, of courier post without stamps but computer-generated barcodes and tracking numbers, I miss the stories that stamps hold within them. I miss the beautiful images, the colors, the perfectly scaled proportion of the Parliament building or the snout of the hippopotamus. So I want to thank you, Sharon, for sending me a postcard from South Africa. I am starting to collect stamps again.


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