Indian Antarctic Expedition —Philatelist’s Guide : A Review
‘When I saw the first iceberg, draped in the evening sun and glittering like gold on the vast expanse of water, I decided I will definitely write a memoir of my journey to the forbidden continent. It never happened.’ Abhai Mishra sums up the surge of emotions on his first glimpse of Antarctica, and his failure to record them, in the introduction to his book, ‘Indian Antarctic Expedition —Philatelist’s Guide’.
Think how many of us have been face to face with the ultimate of Planet Earth, baked in solar radiation dancing about the snow-clad plateau, buffeted by katabatic blizzards clocking more than a hundred miles per hour? How many of us have seen the sun and the moon transfixed together in the evening sky? What it may feel like waltzing in miles and miles of eternal ice and posing for a group shot with a platoon of penguins? I am afraid it must be easier to be overwhelmed to silence instead of trying and pinning and penning it all down in a memoir. But if you are a methodical scientist who is also a passionate philatelist, you can perhaps kill two birds with just one stone like the author of the book has done. Perhaps, the feat has been not as lame as that phrase may make it sound —it has taken him ten meticulous years to patiently glean the artefacts of a culture cover after cover, card after card, stamp after stamp, expedition after expedition, ship after ship, station after station, and arrange them in a temporal symphony. It is a compelling masterpiece, or ‘a guide’ as he rightly calls it, of thematic philately woven meticulously with the postal trails from all Indian expeditions to the land of permafrost.
Fittingly enough, the author begins with the tragic account of Captain Scott who decided to race to the South Pole spurred by the Indian Government in 1911. The expedition ended grimly and bodies of Captain Scott and his mates were discovered in a tent on November 11, 1912. The seven Himalayan mules summoned by him from India were put out of their miseries by shooting them one by one. Someone else had conquered the South Pole. ‘The worst had happened.’
Time takes a leap of forty-eight years as the story turns to Dr Sirohi who became the first Indian to reach South Pole in 1960 with the help of U.S. Navy to conduct a research on ‘biological clock’. Cancelled covers bearing cachets of ‘Operation Deep Freeze’ adorn the pages along with the account of his movement on the glacial expanse. Thus begins a chain of rare postal stationery, letter heads, covers, labels, cancellations, cachets, post cards and view cards in the compilation.
We advance to Dr Sehra who was the first Indian to ‘winter over’ in Antarctica in 1973 as a member of the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition. Thereafter, first to thirty-second Indian Antarctic Expedition are scanned one by one in what is a treasure trove of philatelic confetti. Evolution of various Indian stations and their lives is presented in crisp detail as we follow the valorous accounts. The twenty-first Antarctic expedition of which the author was a member is accorded special mention, along with the fateful story of Magdalena Oldendroff, the ice-breaking vessel that was forced to winter over in glacial freeze with a skeletal crew of seventeen scientist aboard.
A remarkable feature of the work is its inherent encyclopaedic nature. ‘Though it is beneficial, yet not necessary to read each and every chapter in the book. The reader can jump to a particular chapter and find out what cachets/cancellations were used in that particular expedition.’
Philately’s sun is not exactly on ascendant in a world besotted with electronic mail, instant messengers and Facebook. When was it that you last received a letter from a friend or a loved one through the snail mail? That said, postal departments and philatelic societies world over have been striving their best to keep the fire going. Commemorative stamps are being launched and first day issue ceremonies are being organised oftener than we may realise. Then there are the gremlins of postal world too who choose to murder a bunch of stamps with a mere ball pen.
All is not hunky dory among the exclusive clubs either. When the US Postal Service unleashed a volley of Harry Potter stamps complete with his friends Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, and a bunch of monsters from J K Rowling’s magical saga, the American Philatelic Society cried itself hoarse in protest on the cheap commercialism.
‘Indian Antarctic Expedition —Philatelist’s Guide’ is more the valiant effort by the author in this light, in the times when the charm of philately is on the wane. Even if you are not consumed by the ‘King of Hobbies’, it is a rabbit hole worth falling in for the chronicles of Indian Antarctic expeditions till date.