Recently, I came across a fellow traveller who was sending a “travel postcard” to her childhood friend back home. Surely an anomaly in this age of social media. “It’s been a ritual for many years now,” she said. My journeys are incomplete too if I don’t buy a travel-postcard. However, I don’t post the card to anyone but to myself.
I fell in love with travel postcards when I was ten years old when my father went to work in the Middle East. It was the first time we were apart. I missed him. But I missed our dinner-table conversations more. It was over rice and fish curry, pappad and pickles that my father would regale me with tales from faraway lands. Few, he had visited; many, he wished he had.
His stories about kings and queens, forts and secret tunnels, pirates and piranhas, Siberian landscapes and tall pyramids, ancient rituals and exotic women were always riveting.
My mother must have mistaken my pining for these stories and ticked off my father. “Do something to wipe away your daughter’s pain or come back,” she told him. My father who knew me well, instead, began sending me travel postcards. Thus, began my dalliance with these palm-sized picture cards. Once in 10 or 12 days, I would receive a card from my father along with a hand-written note; he called them “Travel notes.
I still have many of those cards tucked away in a box. One of my favourites is a 3D postcard — ‘Made in Japan’ but sent from Arabia. It’s has a picture of a group of horses galloping over dunes. In the background is a blue sky with white clouds hemming the horizon. Few horses, in the foreground, are running in one direction and the rest in another.
My father’s note reads: “In the desert runs the legendary Arabian horses. A long time ago, after a lengthy journey, Prophet Mohammed let loose his horses when he saw an oasis. The thirsty horses raced towards the water. But, to test their loyalty, the Prophet called out for the horses to return when they were a few yards away from the much-needed drink. Only five horses returned. And he named these ‘loyal’ five Al Khamsa. The famous and sturdy breed of Arabian horses is said to be the descendants of the Al Khamsa. These Arabian horses became the protectors and the mainstay of the Bedouins in the desert.”
I cannot vouch for the veracity of the story — my father was a great spinner of tales, but it captivated me. From that day on, I dreamt of walking with the Bedouins and caressing the Al Khamsa progeny.
The postcards not only connected me to my father who was physically far away, but it also enabled me to travel vicariously to places that I might never visit. These postcards gave me ‘travel goals’ in life.
The cards also encouraged a sort of community bonding. The postman too began travelling by proxy. We would spend a few minutes exchanging “travel stories” while mum brought him a glass of buttermilk which made his job under the scorching Chennai sun a bit more bearable. The box of postcards would often come out during family gatherings and house-parties. They made for good conversation starters and fillers. I even remember lending my box of cards to a couple of young mothers in the colony who wanted to keep their children busy during the summer months.
Postcards, per se, have been in existence since 1840. The first card was published in Austria. However, the commercial journey of the postcard began in 1861 via Lipman’s Postal Card in the US. These cards were plain cards with borders. Soon pictures began to appear on postcards. British seaside towns, scenes of indigenous people and their culture, especially India and Africa and famous landmarks were few of the favoured themes. Though there were postcards of different kinds and for every occasion, it was the travel postcard that became the in-demand souvenir for a traveller. Until fridge magnets made an appearance. Today social media has made travel postcards ‘endangered’ specimens.
For a traveller, both social media (especially Instagram) and travel postcards serve the same purpose — sharing a slice of one’s journeys with others. Strangely, on Instagram, the very act seems impersonal, pretentious and “flaunting”, while it becomes an intimate and thoughtful gesture on a postcard. The latter seems to say ‘I was here and I was thinking of you’. Or ‘I wish you were here to share this marvellous experience with me’. Travel postcards speak the language of intimacy eloquently than social media. Therein lies the reason why some of us still can’t abandon the postcard.
This was published in The Tribune, March 25, 2018