Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The End of Sea Mail: A Lament

The other day when I was sitting in Harmony Books and talking to Rakesh, he mentioned offhandedly that he’d just heard that sea mail had been eliminated. I was stricken. I don’t know how many packages I’ve mailed by sea mail over the years I’ve been coming to India. Larger parcels of clothing and textiles, smaller parcels of books. Every single package I sent, I received, anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months later. Sea mail has never failed me.

And it was cheap. To mail 5 kgs of books cost about 300 rupees (and that’s with the recent price increase.) (300 rupees is about $6.50 or a bit less.) If you’re sending very dense paperbacks or hardcovers, that’s maybe 10 books, but if you’re sending lighter Western paperbacks, that could be 17 or 18 books. And if you have someone like Rakesh to pack them up and ship them for you, it’s even better (and worth every last rupee he charges, which isn’t much to begin with).

Shipping things from India is a bit of a chore, which might be the understatement of the century. You can’t just tape the box up and mail it. It needs to be sewn in white cloth, with sealing wax applied along the edges. (At many major post offices, there are white cloth and sealing wax-wallahs waiting outside for your business.) I still remember my very first time attempting to mail a package from India and overpacking it by approximately 100 grams. (The scale I weighed it on was apparently off.) The post office was unyielding, and I wasn’t prepared to pay for the next rate up (like the 20 kg rate for my 10.1kg package), so I had to unstitch the whole damn thing to take out 100 g worth of stuff and then have it resewn and sealed. I believe I cried.

For years after that first traumatic experience, I was spared the task of mailing my own packages. When I had a Fulbright, there were guys in the Fulbright office who would do it for a small charge. (The charge added up given how many packages of books I mailed, but no matter.) When I lived in Jaipur, our amazing assistant Awadhesh helped. But when I lived in Varanasi, I had to do it myself. (Rakesh mailed my books, but I also wanted to send a parcel of clothes.) Because I am a person who saves most of my email, I was able to find documentary evidence of what happened the last time I had to do it. Here is a slightly abbreviated version of the experience my friend Harriet and I had:

At first it seemed like we might be done in a few hours. We took a cycle rickshaw up to the GPO (which took about 40 minutes) and had our packages weighed and asked how much they'd cost to mail, and then some guy directed us across the road to a phone booth that doubled as a parcel packing place. For 55 rupees for my bundle of stuff (which was smaller) and 65 rupees for Harriet's, he sewed them up in white cloth and sealed the seams with sealing wax and gave us a thick magic marker to write our addresses with.

The first sign of trouble was that the guy at the post office asked for our passport numbers to write on the package, and Harriet didn't know hers. Meanwhile, an Israeli guy came over and told us that the guys at the counter might ask for baksheesh in addition to the money for the postage. We didn't have a chance to find out because the guy behind the counter flatly refused to take our packages without our passports. (Someone later said this was a sign that he was indeed asking for baksheesh, but I don’t know. He just said he couldn’t mail them without seeing our passports, and that seemed to be that.) But we had the customs forms, and he assured us that we could mail the packages from the BHU post office which is closer to Assi. (BHU is Benares Hindu University.)

So, we got back in the rickshaw (our guy had waited for us) and rode back to Assi, stopping on the way at my house and Harriet's so we could get our passports. And then we got to the BHU post office, which, of course, was much, much smaller than the GPO and very crowded. We went around to the back and went inside (the line was all outside, but our parcels wouldn't have fit through the windows), and eventually someone weighed our packages and wrote the weights on the parcels. Progress.

But at that point, they then attempted to send us back to the GPO to mail them. As you might imagine, we didn't think this was a good idea at all. We told them in Hindi that the GPO people had assured us that we could do it from there and we showed them that we had the customs forms (which they didn’t have) and they looked at the return addresses on our packages, which were both in Assi, and finally, they agreed that they would mail them. But in typical Indian post office fashion, there was one fellow selling stamps at one counter, one fellow dealing with a huge line of people waiting to mail things speed post and registered mail and needing their letters franked, and then one guy sitting there reading the newspaper. The guy dealing with the huge line of people was the one we needed. So, we sat for awhile, and Harriet kept making little protests that the line outside was never going to get any shorter, and one of the guys not doing anything said she should drink a cup of tea and relax, it would be awhile, and she said, in rather petulant Hindi, that she didn't want tea, she wanted him to do it right now, and they all laughed.

Eventually, the busy guy asked whether we were sending them airmail or sea mail and looked up the rates to the U.K. and the U.S. and looked at how much our packages weighed and told us how many stamps to get. Then we had to go to the other window and get these huge sheets of stamps and glue them onto the back of our packages and then we waited some more, and finally, the busy guy ignored all the obnoxious BHU students outside long enough to fill out the forms for our packages and carefully frank all of our many, many stamps, which we were then allowed to tape the edges of, to make sure they stuck, and then he carefully looked over our packages to make sure everything was okay and gave us our receipts and said, “Okay, now you can go, and they will go.” All of this, you might have noticed, without ever once mentioning our damn passports.

So we got back in the rickshaw (our same guy, still) and came back to Assi, the whole thing having taken 4 hours. I know that in my other life, you can just throw your stuff in a box and tape it and address it, and if there's a line at the PO, it might take 15 or 20 minutes or even a half hour, but it's hard to imagine any situation in the U.S. in which shipping two parcels abroad would take 4 hours. I was quite exhausted by the end of it, as you might imagine, and had to come home and take a nap.

Okay, so I’ll admit that I’m not feeling nostalgic about the actual process of sending something sea mail, but I’m sad that it’s not an option anymore. And I’m not the only one. Today, at Harmony, I got into a conversation with another woman at the counter about how sad we were about sea mail. When I first saw her, she had 8 books in her hands, but when she learned that she either had to mail them airmail (1400 rupees for 5 kgs!) or carry them with her, she put 4 of them back. I suppose I should be grateful that we had sea mail to bond over. We ended up talking for more than 2 hours in Rakesh’s shop and then for at least another hour on the ghats. (It turned out that we know several people in common, for one thing.) We exchanged addresses, and she has invited me to come visit her in Maine, and I just might do that.

In the meantime, while I’m glad that the end of sea mail may have given me a new friend, I still hope its end is not permanent.

Oh, and this is what happened when Rakesh attempted to weep about the end of sea mail. He did pretty well at looking mournful, but he was less successful about the weeping.


Kitt said...

Gosh, I don't know if I would ever have that kind of patience.

Sue Dickman said...

Once it got going, it all seemed sort of inevitable and inexorable. And once it had gone on for hours, to bail would have meant those first hours were completely wasted. Still, I'm very glad not to have to do it this time around! (And given the end of sea mail, it would be expensive as well as an all day affair.)

Derick said...

At some point in the 80s I saw an article "Adieu to the Pneu" -- I thought in the NYT but can't find it -- lamenting the demise of the underground system of pneumatic tubes that shot express mail around France at one time. See http://www.activesocialplastic.com/2008/12/postal_services_and_pneumatic.html

Derick said...

(this is really a response to the tweet that led me to this post)

Anonymous said...

My nephew in Hyderabad, India who was to mail me 7 kg box told me about the end of sea mail and I could not believe it, what the rationale might be. Does any one know?. He spent Rs. 2800 ($55) to Airmail the same package of books. I am still waiting.

A. Q. Rana said...

I was unhappy to hear about the sea mail being discontinued. a few years ago, i ordered a couple of books online. looking at the low sea mail cost, chose sea mail option. it took hell of a long time to reach me in canada, but i remember because of the low cost i ordered some extra books too. so discontinued sea mail for sure is some revenue lost for the book sellers online and many others.
I hope they start the sea mail service again.