Sometimes my cultural conditioning kicks in and I find myself getting impatient with unimportant details like expecting the post office to open at nine just because the sign says it will. This morning, with my packet of speed post letters (an Indian oxymoron to be sure) in hand, I hurried down to beat the afternoon crowd at the post office.
At 9:10 the doors were still closed, so I headed across the street for a cup of a tea and watched the Laitumkhrah neighborhood wake up. A skinny boy with a red ski cap pulled down over shaggy hair sipped a cup of tea. Another young man in a leather jacket leaned against the counter. Most of the patrons looked like they had been awake all night and were on their way home to sleep for the day.
At 9:50 the post office doors opened, and everyone slowly began getting ready for the day. At 9:55, the speed post clerk ambled in, a great bear of a man with furry eyebrows that met over his nose. He moved like he was walking through water and there was a strange beauty to the motions in such a large man. Unhurriedly, he sat down. Flexed his knuckles. Switched on the computer. Unlocked the drawer and opened it. Closed and locked it. Unlocked it again. Rearranged the pencils. Closed and locked it. Silently stared at his hands for a few moments. Neatly re-stacked the papers on his desk. One by one. Then did it again. The line continued to grow. Finally, he gazed up placidly at the man in front of the line who handed him two letters.
Then it was my turn. I gave him my four letters, going to various parts of India. He held the top one up, peered at it in the light. Turned it over. Then turned the others over. One by one. “I’m sorry madam, but you have sealing wax on these. You must purchase gum.”
I thought if there was one thing I’d finally gotten right it was the ropes of the Indian postal system. My first postal expedition literally drew blood, but I learned about the importance of tailors and sealing wax, white thread and white cotton. Post office errands could go on for days. But I thought I had it finally figured out. Apparently, not when it comes to gum vs. sealing wax on letters. “India is well known for its tolerance,” I try. “Can’t you let these letters go with sealing wax?”
“I’m sorry, madam, but you must purchase gum. We don’t accept red wax on the envelopes. Only on packages.”
So I trotted down the street to the stationery store. Post Office Buddha handed me a form and asked me if I’d make a few copies while I was at it. The kind clerk at the stationery shop seemed familiar with this kind of problem. He handed me a glue stick to seal the letters and made copies of the forms for the post office.
I rushed back and handed Buddha the letters. Then the power went out.
He glanced up and calmly said, “The current has gone, madam. You’ll have to wait.” He leaned back in his chair, put a little paan in his mouth, folded his large hands across his belly and stared at the ceiling. And I thought this man is the most mellow civil servant I’ve ever seen in my life. He would be eaten alive in a big city somewhere, but he’s found his place. This burly Buddha with the red and blue #2 Phat Farm jacket seemed part of the chair, the counter. He seemed utterly in the moment and at peace with the day.
Power outages in Shillong can last anywhere from two minutes to two hours. I decided to follow the example of Post Office Buddha, so leaned against the counter and stared at the wall. Forty minutes later, Buddha, sat back up in his chair and said, “The current is back on, madam. Please give me your letters.”
And all around the Laitumkhrah neighborhood continued to shake the morning out of its eyes.