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Posting in Mumbai

Tags: parcel

In England, I like sometimes to send a Parcel of T-shirts and books to my nephews in Italy. I put the stuff in a small cardboard box, wrap it in brown paper, take it to any post office, sign a small customs chit, and pay the postage. From home and back again the operation takes ten minutes.

But here in India, it’s different. Here, on my first occasion of trying, it took me half a day…I kid you not. Not for the last time was I to be astounded at how involved and laborious certain processes can be in the sub-continent.

The first puzzle arose at the local Post Office. They didn’t like the brown paper I had wrapped the parcel in. The paper? I said. What’s wrong with the paper?
It has to be a “special wrapping”, said the counter-clerk stubbornly – and she refused to allow me to send it.

An Indian friend and I scoured the stationery shops. Everyone, from friends to shopkeepers, was confused by this “special wrapping” demand, and, very unsurely, I eventually settled on some laminated paper.
No, said the counter-clerk again, that’s not it. Her description of the wrapping and my ability to understand what she was describing clashed.

So I decided to try the main Post Office in the centre of Mumbai – the one next to CS Railway Terminus.
The Mumbai GPO is a huge, imposing Victorian building with a giant dome on top. It is as big, and with as many nooks and crannies, as Notre Dame Cathedral – somewhere in there it is quite possible an Indian Quasimodo lurks. It is a monument to Trans-National Communication. It is gloomy and it makes one feel small, and it has floors to which No Unauthorised Person is ever allowed. And, in the main foyer, there are over thirty counters – so, someone in some part of this impressive building must sell this elusive wrapping. Surely?

As soon as I arrived outside the GPO I was under surveillance.
Someone like me is a dead give-away to the practised eye of the Bombay hawker.

Wondering doubtfully which massive entrance I should take (and a little concerned that I would even be allowed in, as the security guard was eyeing me suspiciously), I was halted by a man who had run across from the other side of the street. He took my parcel from me.
He knew what I wanted: Wrapping, right? For an international parcel, I said. Of course, he said.
At last!

He led me across the busy road. Under the shade of a huge banyan tree, and directly facing the GPO, were a dozen men, each seated at a small table. These, I gathered, were “package-wallahs”.
My man sat down at his table, expertly folded down the cardboard on my parcel, and grabbed a length of thin cotton cloth sacking, which he measured out around my parcel.
This was the special wrapping. Who would have known?
(And what was so important about it?)
I was about to thank him and pay for the material, when he pulled out a large sewing needle… and proceeded to sew the cloth tightly around the parcel.
Sew? I was dumbfounded.
Is sticky tape disallowed? Is sticky tape illegal maybe?
But, in Mumbai, you don’t question anything. There is a reason for everything. You may not know it - or ever know it – but there is a reason.
He made large looping stitches, and pulled them tight.
He handed the wrapped parcel back. Thirty rupees, he said. I paid up.

Now – you’d think the day was over. All I had to do was take my correctly wrapped parcel to a counter, and all would be done. In a trice, maybe, I hoped.

The help desk in the GPO was vacant. Of the thirty counters, half were also vacant, and the rest were pressed with anxious jostling queues. But then, a man who was staring at me said – next building, third floor. This was, as it turned out, good advice.
(One thing I have discovered about Mumbaikers is that, if they offer advice, it’s worth listening. But don’t ASK them for advice; that will only lead to confusion. I’ll explain that conundrum another time.
Conversely, in London, if someone had offered me advice, I would have been suspicious immediately.)

But following the advice one gets is not always easy.
For, in Mumbai, signs are an optional extra. The Indian way is to ask for directions, time and time again, gradually narrowing down to your search until you reach your final destination. It is a good way of meeting people, and is a demonstration, if one needed it, of just how friendly Mumbai folk are. Of course, this method may mean a few wrong turnings, but then the signage method is hardly perfect either, is it?
Fifteen minutes later, having explored many of the inner bye-ways of the GPO labyrinth, and having made my way up three flights of dirty and dingy stairs, I was in the ‘Foreign Parcel Export Department’. Piles of packages (all in “special wrapping”, which reassured me) lined long ancient wooden tables, the sort of tables that seem to be a part of all post office delivery rooms all over the world.

I was directed into a high steel cage in which were a number of desks, at which sat my next interviewers. A ‘Customs Postal Appraiser’ – I presume, for so it said on the nameplate over the door into the cage – gave me a customs form to fill out, in triplicate.
But he was most puzzled by my parcel. “The wrapping…?” he said. Of course my heart sank. Not Again.
But, no. This was a different problem.
“Why is your parcel wrapped? How can I see inside it when it is wrapped?”
Well, it was a good question, and I had no answer.

He explained patiently, as to a child. As a customs officer, he had to examine the contents of the parcel.
But, couldn’t he just, well, believe what I told him was in it? I asked in a small voice. He smiled grimly.
A man was summoned (there’s always a man to do these small menial things) who sliced along the stitching with a knife. The customs officer pulled out the T-shirts inside, and then stuffed them back again.
I got dejected. How would I get the parcel stitched again?

OK, he said, and he stamped the customs form. As I turned to leave with my wrecked package, he looked puzzled again. Give it to the man, he said, he will stitch it again; you cannot send it like that! He was finding my behaviour as bizarre as I was finding his. Sure enough, the man wordlessly stitched the whole thing up again.
In the meantime, the form had been passed to the desk opposite my officer’s, where my officer said a woman who wasn’t there would examine it.
I was asked to sit.

In this intervening period of rest and relaxation, I pondered why the business was being conducted inside a cage. I supposed suspect packages must be stored in it at night, but it seemed impolite to ask.
What was strange though was how filthy and dusty the place was. The small windows, seemingly unwashed for years, admitted only a little grey light, and on the horizontal bars of the square grilles that made up the cage were thick dust-balls. The desks and the people were clean enough, and the place seemed well used, so the dirt remained a mystery.

As time passed, and we waited for the woman who wasn’t there, the whole experience was beginning to seem like a story dreamed up by Kafka. I wondered if I might wait for days.

Ten minutes later the woman who wasn’t there arrived, and, after a conference, the form was approved. The form came back to my officer who signed the parcel – and then stamped it for good measure.
I got up to leave. He shook his head. No – not yet!

The wrapper-man returned, and took out a long knife and scraped a large blob of an ugly, black, shiny tar-like material onto its end. Staring at me, he then heated the mass over a flame, which was burning thickly at the end of what looked like a Roman candle firework.
I watched. What would happen next? Torture…?

But instead, he started to wipe portions of the black-stuff, now hot and plastic, onto the corners of my parcel, onto the parts where the stitching had been ended off. That done, he picked up a metal stamp, and impressed its image on the cooling but still viscous tar. He looked at me.
My parcel was now completely, officially, and Without Question, securely wrapped. Using a method ten centuries old.

I think I was so impressed by this procedure, I must have appeared a little nonplussed. So the man thrust the parcel in my hand; indicated to me to pick up the (stamped) forms, and pointed me to the postage counter in the next department. He hadn’t said a word the whole time.

The man at the postage desk was by contrast very friendly and smiled a lot at what I said. It became clear he didn’t understand my English, and even less my baby-Hindi, but then what difference did that make? He knew his job anyway!
Carefully, he noted the address that I’d written on the customs form. He slowly transcribed it onto his computer’s database.
He weighed my parcel.
He sought a barcode from the computer, which then dutifully printed a barcode label.
He stuck the barcode label to the parcel.
He signed the parcel.
He stamped it.
He charged me 470 rupees for the postage. As I handed him the money I noticed my hands were sooty-black, from accidentally touching the tar blobs. He politely tried not to notice.
I asked him, after he gave me the change, what else I had to do? He smiled, shrugged his shoulders. What else could be done?

So it was over. An hour from reaching the GPO, I had finally got my parcel into worldwide transit. A triumph!

I seemed to need rest at this point, so I sat down by the only other person in the room, a woman who was trying to send packages to Australia.
“What,” I asked her “is the purpose of the men who sat outside the Post Office at tables wrapping the parcels… if one only has to have them re-opened for Customs?”
She obviously pitied me, but said she knew nothing of the “package-wallahs”. She had had her parcels sewn here, in this office. What else would one do?
Where was I from?, she asked. I told her I came from a place where it took only five minutes to send a parcel. I don’t think she believed me.


There are more questions than answers in Mumbai, though it is a mistake to think that there are that many fewer answers. There are quite a lot of answers; it’s just that it takes a while to get at them.
And, in the strange way that India gets to you, the whole meandering process of trying to discover the answers, not to mention the lanes it will take you along and the intriguing people it will put you in touch with, is one of the most enjoyable things you can undertake here.
With that in mind, I resolved to go right back to the package-wallahs and get some answers.

Then I thought: I’ve been sorting this out since 9am - and it’s now 1pm.
And then I thought: Maybe I’ll see them tomorrow.
Tomorrow will do.

My brother emailed me a couple of months later to say he received the parcel. “Loved the packing”, he said. “The kids loved it too. We couldn’t quite believe it when we saw it. But, you don’t need to go to all that trouble, you know.”

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This post first appeared on An Englishman In Mumbai, please read the originial post: here

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Posting in Mumbai


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