And Now For Something Completely Different
The iconic Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV show that aired in the ’60s and ’70s promised viewers towards the beginning of each of its comedy sketches before it set off on its wonderfully crazy path, “And now for something completely different.”
I am reminded of this slogan as I try to describe the rigmarole that my husband David and I went through when posting parcels overseas through India’s postal service.
Making Work For Idle Hands
On the face of it, the Indian postal service with 155,333 post offices is the most widely distributed post office system in the world.
That statistic notwithstanding, however, we got the feeling that the elaborate method for preparing a parcel to be shipped overseas also provides more work in a country where unemployment and underemployment is rife.
Local Ambience At A Varanasi Post Office
To give you a flavor of the area where post offices can be found, here is the street in Varanasi where a branch post office is located:
Using Cloth And Sealing Wax
Now to describe how a parcel must be prepared for shipping overseas:
First, the parcel must be covered with substantial white material like cotton or linen. Once the box in question is wrapped up, the material is stitched snugly all around to the box with a needle and thread. When this sewing is completed, the seams are sealed with red sealing wax.
Finally, the addresses of the sender and recipient are written on the material with permanent marker.
The process takes about half an hour from start to finish. On the two occasions that we used the service, it cost us 100 rupees (about £1.20 or $2.25).
This packaging ensures that parcels mailed overseas will not be opened and tampered with en route to the recipient.
Interestingly, the people who prepared our two parcels in this way were not post office workers. They were simply people with their own businesses, offering their services to anyone who wanted to send a package out of the country.
Posting, Rajasthani Style
For example, in the city of Udaipur in Rajasthan in Western India, we were directed to a little stationery store a short distance from Udaipur’s main post office where the owner had signs advertising his service in the entrance to his place.
As he talked with us amiably about his wife and daughter and their and his academic backgrounds, he completed the work and then we asked him to hold it up to photograph:
Selling Paan In Front Of The Post Office
In Varanasi, our rickshaw driver pointed us towards the man who could help us.
We spotted him near the trees with some men around him since he was selling paan, which he himself chewed continuously.
If you look to the left of the seated man (who just happened to be resting in the area at the time) and in back of the standing motorcycle and bicycle in this photograph, you will see the makeshift stall with the ingredients for paan:
Are You Curious About Paan?
In case you are wondering, paan is the Hindi word for the betel leaf with various fillings that is traditionally chewed in India and South East Asia. The concoction is chewed for various reasons, including to cleanse the palate, to freshen the breath, and to help with digestion.
As you walk around the streets and roads in India, you will see many dark red stains where paan chewers have spat out the mixture after exhausting its flavor. Paan is also offered to guests and visitors and at social events – where spittoons are available.
The most common types include betel leaf filled with tobacco and a range of other fillings including the nut from the areca palm, coconut, dried fruit, rose petals, and fennel seeds.
Back To That Package Of Ours
Taking time off from selling his paan, the man who helped us made our parcel suitable for posting overseas can be seen in the sequence of photographs that follow.
In the first photograph, he considers how much fabric he needs for the box and wraps it accordingly:
In the second photograph, you can see that he has already stitched up the material all around and he has started pressing red sealing wax along the seams of the box:
In the third photograph, our completed parcel is now ready to be sent overseas – that is, minus documentation which we later completed and which was attached to the box before its final dispatch:
And there you have it: The whole kit and caboodle of what it takes to send a parcel overseas from India, the 21st century notwithstanding.