Thursday, July 08, 2010

Parcel for United England

One of the joys of RUHSA is a post office just opposite my room and although I failed to take full advantage of it my first trip, every time I go now, I take a long list of people to whom I should have written but have been too busy and, between crazy village visits or knitting, I catch up on my letter writing. This time, I also decided to send some parcels. Last visit I also sent a couple and although I remember it exercising the sub post master general somewhat, I did not remember it being quite as spectacularly Indianish as this time. The time taken to undertake the whole thing was gargantuan. I should have brought my knitting.

The sub post master general is a distinguished looking man with a toothy sidekick, who is less distinguished, but sees more jokes. The sidekick roared with laughter when, after telling me to write my return address "Madam, small, small" in the corner, I started writing in letters barely bigger than the width of the pen nib. He laughed and laughed (I was doing a bit of smug chortling myself) and with several "Saar, saar"s encouraged the SPMG to join in the gaiety. He was not impressed. Chastened, I wrote it in normal writing.

The SPMG, despite having an enormously broad, smooth upper lip with barely a crease for the philtrum between nose and mouth, has one of those moustaches that was almost as fine as my writing. In fact it is so thin, that I didn't notice it at first, but when you are sitting looking expectantly at the same face for over an hour, these things start to filter in. It is the mark of a pedant, I would suggest, who can be bothered to meticulously shave every hair from his face apart from the bottom line of single hairs along his upper lip. But not to let them grow. Oh no, that would be frivolous. They too must be kept in check and not allowed to stray beyond 2mm. Scintillating. I spent much of the time wondering how long it took him, what happened if his hand slipped, how long was too long, was 3mm outragously hippy-ish, did he every ring the changes and do the penultimate row above his upper lip? Sadly, I'll never know the answers as the subtleties of shaving are beyond the scope of his English comprehension and far beyond the bounds of my 6 words in Tamil.

Two of the parcels were to the UK and one was to the US. Well, that caused confusion number one and we had at least a 10 minute conversation about which parcel was for the US or UK, despite being clearly addressed as such. And once it was cleared up, the round of clarifications started again. Everyone joined in enthusiastically, including the sidekick and wandering locals coming in for a bit of entertainment. Gesticulating to parcel number one. US? Yes. America? Mmm-hmm. USA? Yup. United States of America? Yes, yes, head wobble, pointing, pointing at address, the works. Ah, OK. Ding, ding, round 2. Parcel 2. US? No. UK. Ok. United States? No, United Kingdom. Not America? No. Ah Ok. UK? Yes. Ah Ok. You get the general picture. Carefully, the SPMG puts the two for the UK on one side and the one for the US on the other. Then, they are weighed and the weights written on the back. During this process they are shuffled. My heart sinks. The round of discussions re the parcels eventual destinations starts again. I'm getting better at it now so it is resolved quicker.

In order for the SPMG to give me the correct stamps he has to telephone the higher eschelons of Postmastergeneraldom to find out the postage for the weight of the parcel. This is when the fun really starts. It becomes clear that the entire conversation about whether the parcel was for the US or the UK was merely a theoretical discussion because no-one actually knew what UK meant. This subtlety eluded me til about 20 minutes into the phone call, during which all I can hear is a stream of Tamil, with occasional familiar tamil numbers, then either US or UK repeated, repeatedly. Sometimes he turns to me, points to a random parcel and says US? or UK? depending on his whim. Reading the address I confirm or deny the answer. I hear him saying "Serie, saar" (OK, sir) or "No, saar" (No, sir) throughout the conversation. But there is no real sense of progress until he turns to me and says ""UK, is United States?" Er no. United Kingdom. Realising perhaps a little more clarification is required I say "Great Britain? England?" "Aaaah, Uk, United Eng-eland, saar" A few more serie saars, a couple more United Engelands for good measure then unexpectedly he hangs up. I sit waiting, wondering what to do whilst he gets on with some general SPMG stuff and pays no attention to me. After the furious and prolonged interchange of moments before, the quiet is disconcerting.

The phone rings. Phew. The God of PMGdom has spoken and the prices are duly written down. Expensive compared to seamail, but worth it for the pleasure given to small godchildren and nieces at receiving a parcel from India. 542rs for the heaviest and 397rs for the lightest. You have guessed it. The largest stamp available is 20rs which means that each parcel has to be literally covered in at least 20 stamps, especially as I buy him out of his stock of 20rs stamps and the next largest denomination is 10rs. Luckily, at least two of the parcels are quite sizeable and there is space, but the heaviest is also the smallest and there is only just room to fit all the stamps on. In times of old, the stamps used to have no glue on them, so you had to stick them on with cheap-gloy like paper glue which usually just made every surface soggy and semi-tacky, but did not really confer proper adhesive properties onto the stamps. Nowadays, the stamps do have glue, but the prospect of licking the backs of over 60 stamps with glue made from god-knows-what was daunting and made my mouth pucker, so when they offered me the glue pot (clearly they did not believe in new fangled technology like stamps with glue on them) I gratefully used it covering myself, the parcels, the sidekick and luckily also the stamps with glue. The whole process took a mere 65 minutes and we all had a jolly good time doing it. I am going to bring an even longer list of people to send presents to whilst I'm out there, I can't wait to do it all over again.

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