a postal odyssey

Article published on Feb. 8, 2012
Article published on Feb. 8, 2012

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Official acts like asking for a receipt, buying a train ticket or posting a parcel can take hours in India. However, this isn't always due to the laissez faireattitude of the Indians, lovingly called shanti(peace) by the natives. Most of the time, Indian bureaucracy is to blame for the deadly delays. That is why an act as simple as posting a parcel can become a nerve racking odyssey.

9.30 am Although a sign in front of the main post office in Mangalore announces in bold letters that the counters will open at 9.30 am every day, no one of the employees is to be seen when I get off the rickshaw. Three glasses of chai later, I've finally made my way to the counter where a grumpy post office employee explains to me that I have to get my parcel sewn up by the tailor next door. This is because in India parcels aren't sent in paper boxes but as neat little bundles of cloth. After searching up and down the street for a while, I finally find the tailor shop which is still closed, of course. The man in the shop next door is busy arranging a couple of skirts and tells me off for waiting in front of his display.

10.26 am "Namasté!" A chubby little man carrying a briefcase jumps off his scooter and walks towards me with a big smile on his lips. Even before he has sat down behind the counter, he starts a lively debate about corruption in India. "It is really impossible! Everyone is corrupt, politicians, doctors and most of all the police!" To become a policeman, he explains to me, you have to pay around 50 lakh rupees (about 76 310 euros) in bribes which is why most aspiring police officers take out a credit. It's quite hard to pay this back taking into account that a policeman only earns 15.000 rupees (about 230 euros) a year and therefore all officers are corrupt.

10.55 am While the tailor bewails the state of India, I have a good look around his shop and am surprised to find that he not only sells sewing machines but also all kinds of kitchen appliances and bric-a-brac. As I cannot see any cloth whatsoever in the shop, I take advantage of a short break in the conversation to ask when he could sew up my parcel. Without batting an eyelid, the shop owner sips his tea and says, "I'm not a tailor. That's the man next door."

11.00 am Annoyed, I again try to speak to the wrinkly little man in the shop next door who tells me in his incomprehensible English that I should wait. Why he didn't tell me right away that he was the tailor and sent me to the wrong shop instead? These kinds of questions had better not be asked in India.

11.05 am When he has finally revamped his shop, the tailor almost grabs my plastic bag. With a few precise stitches, he transforms the whole thing into a round parcel. It's a matter of seconds and costs 30 rupees (45 cents).

11.12 am Back in the post office, the mood of the woman behind the counter hasn't changed for the better. After endless discussions, she hands me a form that I have to fill in. Just as I begin writing, she pulls back the paper and hysterically admonishes me that I should “xerox” it first, which means “photocopy” in India. So I set out in search of a copy shop which I finally find in an alley nearby.

11.27 am When I present myself at the counter again, the post office employee complains that I didn't get enough copies. While I'm still deliberating whether I should slam the parcel on her head and just leave it, I apologise politely and run back to the copy shop.

11.35 am Relieved to have finally got it right, I fill in the first form and hand it over to the woman behind the counter. She then tells me to complete the remaining seven forms with the exact same information. When I ask her, not only slightly annoyed, why I couldn't have filled in the form first and then made the photocopies, she pretends not to understand my question. As I write my parents' home address for the eighth time, my pen stops working.

11.56 am After I've finished writing the address on the parcel, the woman starts fumbling it and pulls a face. For whatever strange reason, she seems to think that I want to send a bottle of whiskey to Germany and gives me a withering look. Suspiciously, she checks the address on the parcel and on the form and pretends it's not the same. While I try to convince her, feeling more annoyed by the minute, that the names and zip codes are all matching each other, a quotation from Shashi Tharoors The Great Indian Novel comes to my mind. "Bureaucracy is simultaneously the most crippling of Indian diseases and the highest of Indian art-forms. Every official act in our country has five more stages to it than anywhere else and takes five times more people to fulfil; but in the process it keeps five more sets of the potentially unemployed off the streets."

12.00 am It takes about just as long till I have persuaded her to accept the address of my hotel as the sender’s return address. Finally, she prints out the stamp and sticks it onto the parcel.

12.14 am After having paid 1055 rupees (about 16 euros), I leave the post office and buy a chai first thing to calm my nerves. If Kafka had been Indian, his novels would have been just as impressive. Drinking chai while waiting for a queue to dispel or for someone to emerge from his office is an integral part of this country. But to be honest, what would India be without the terribly long delays? At least I have assured today that five more Indians are earning their bread and butter.

Four weeks later, the totally unexpected efficiency of Indian bureaucracy is proven yet again. My parcel arrives safe and sound in Germany which I didn't really expect anymore. As the Indians say in Hindi: Saab kuch milega! Everything is possible!