Friday, October 19, 2012

Monkey Mail!

In all the years I've been married, we've hardly ever had a postal address with a house number or a street name.

Our address has always been 'c/o' (husband's designation), followed by the name of a tea garden, a Post Office, and a district name. A bit like the Phantom, who sends a man to collect 'any mail for Mr. Walker' from the Post Office in Denkali, a tea garden manager has a 'dak wallah' who goes to the nearest post office every morning to drop off and pick up letters.

Couriers don't come to our doors but leave their dak or mail and packages at the nearest town.

So when my sister Viji in Mumbai sent me a package with things that our brother Bala had handed over to her in Chicago for our mother Maiji and me, she was worried that I never acknowledged receipt. Viji called me on the 28th and said the courier office there told her that the parcel had been collected on the 25th by one 'Surit Nandi, peon'. I called my husband Mohan and told him at once. Mohan said Surit Nandi was not a peon, but he was a garden chap all right. 'Who is Surit Nandi?' was all I could think of.

They found him. He was questioned by Mohan and the head clerk. Surit denied (stoutly? perhaps) that he had taken any parcel from anywhere. The head clerk, or Bara Babu as we call him, told Mohan he would follow things up.

Viji called with more news. The parcel was on its way back to Mumbai, according to the courier, DHL. This was terrible. Bala had sent, among other things, the video of his son Kartik's wedding.

I told Mohan the parcel was heading back, and he told Bara Babu. Bara Babu rang up his friend, the proprietor of Sree Krishna Stores in Hamiltonganj and told him what had happened. 

Sree Krishna's son swung into action. He stormed into the DHL outpost in Hamiltonganj, thumped the desk and hollered at the clerk there. Why, he asked, had they not alerted Sree Krishna Stores when a package arrived for Mr. Mohanakrishnan?  That was all they'd had to do. Sree Krishna - and son - would take all responsibility from then on. The clerk apologised. It was a terrible mistake, he agreed. He promised to make enquiries.

A further call from Viji said the courier was not DHL, but DHC. Right. After we had - well someone had, on our behalf - made a ruckus at DHL.  I felt sorry for the chap who'd been threatened. But he hadn't protested. He'd apologised for a mistake he'd never made. It must be a tough life out there in Hamiltonganj.

I asked Viji what DHC had to say. Once again, the suspect's name cropped up. Surit Nandi. He had signed for the package on the 28th, not the 25th. Who is Surit Nandi, I asked Mohan. He is the school bus driver, said Mohan. He drives a bus into Kalchini and Hamiltonganj everyday, ferrying the workers' children to and from schools there.

This was spooky. A bus driver had pulled Maiji up into his vehicle after Kartik and Danielle's wedding and she'd hurt her knee. Now, a bus driver had made their wedding video vanish. 

I decided to go to the DHC office. It was a little shop, not an office, which turned out to be in Kalchini, not Hamiltonganj. It had a Xerox machine on one side and the courier's desk on the other.

'DHC?' I asked in a chilly voice. 'No, Madam, this is JaYshree courier service'.
Silly me. I felt even sillier when both men behind the desks stood up and directed me in polite voices to the right place. 

I went outside in a hurry. Our driver brought someone to the car. A sweet-faced plump chap who smiled and gave me a 'Namastey'.
'Memsaab, this is Surit Nandi', said the driver. What! This man! But he didn't look like a thief! Surit Nandi! He was still smiling.  
One thing was clear. I wasn't going to let this Surit Nandi get away. I asked him to get into the car and come to the DHC desk with us.

This time I made sure I saw a sign that said DHC before I opened my mouth. I took out a piece of paper on which I'd scribbled the docket number which Viji'd called out on the phone.

'Do you have this package?' I asked the man at the desk, putting the piece of paper in front of him. Very business like.
He had no smiles for me, and he matched my aggression with a 'So what?' kind of defensiveness. Here's how it went.

He: 'Yes, I received it.'

I: 'Where is it now?'

He: 'I made so many calls to the telephone number on the packet. That person said he would come. I rang up five or six times. He kept saying he would come, and he never came.'

I: (dripping with sarcasm)'Oh! Is that so? Let's talk to him now.' (I dialled Mohan on my phone)

He: (quickly) 'But he was in Alipurduar'. (I cut the call)

I: WHO was in Alipurduar?

He: Actually it was my brother who rang him up from Alipurduar. My brother isn't here now. 

I: I want to check when your brother called on my husband's number. 

He: He should have come to collect it.

I: I have come to collect it. Where is it?

He: Company rules say that if a package is not picked up in three days it has to go back to the place where it came from. But I know you are from a tea garden. That's why I asked him (pointing at Surit Nandi) to sign for it.

I: What! You gave him the package!

(Here Surit Nandi piped in: I don't have any package! I didn't take anyone's package!)

I: (frantic) Then where is the package? When will it reach Mumbai? What did they say?

He: I have it.

I: WHAT!! You have it here??

He: I didn't want it to go back to Mumbai. But I couldn't break the rules. That's why I took Surit's signature and informed the company in Mumbai that it had been collected.

(Short silence)

I: Will you give it to me?

He: Yes.

He went in and came out with a parcel. I couldn't believe it. It had my name on it. It had Viji's name on the other side, spelt Vigi.
I smiled. He smiled. I said thank you. He asked me what my name was, and wrote it in his receipt book which I signed. I asked him what his name was. Ajit, he said. He smiled and said thank you, and I smiled and said thank you. 

Oh the joy of coming home and opening the package! I took out the wedding video and we all watched it as soon as we could.

At dinner time, Mohan had something to report. 'Halla has broken out among the garden workers that Surit Nandi is a bad man and a thief, and that he stole a parcel belonging to the Superintending Manager.' Oh, oh.

(Published in The Statesman annual, 'Festival 2012')

'Human Laboratory' in Hamiltonganj

Monday, October 15, 2012


Bittersweet the taste of cold weather in the morning air, bittersweet the taste of these sweet limes, mussami, harvested yesterday.

 Mussami juice was something that figured on hospital diets when I was a child. For years my mother associated it with illness! Whenever Dr. Hingorani visited and prescribed juice, it meant mussami juice. There wasn't anything more fancy - packaged or unpackaged - available in those days. Those fruits weren't like the hybrids we get today; they were full of fibre and seeds, just as God made them.

It was a chore to extract juice from them. For some reason, wedding guests used to get them in traditional goody bags or Thamboolam. Those days, the mussami -saathukudi in Tamil - used to taste more bitter than sweet. Our eldest brother-in-law was the only person who really enjoyed drinking that juice.

 Now I find all my childhood tastes reversed. I've started liking home-made white unsalted butter. When we were children, home-made butter was such a punishment, while Amul Butter was so yellow and salty and so desirable!! Mohan and I are enjoying this bittersweet tough old juice from our home-grown mussamis much more than the smooth juice made from bought fruit. We're growing up? Or old?

  The gardener is ready to harvest the fruits of his labour. Bittersweet was the goodbye I said to the garden I loved for so many years, but how sweet it is to savour what someone planted many years ago in the garden I love today.  

Bittersweet, all these fire ants on the tree? I don't know and don't want to find out!