One day in the life of the... Head Post Office
You’ve got mail
The gamut of operations carried out with clockwork precision and the handling of 7,000 odd letters a day leave a stamp on Divya Kumar’s mind
I can’t remember the last time I felt so utterly clueless. I’m surrounded by several officials of the Anna Salai Head Post Office, and my head whirls as they rattle off information about the post office’s operations — banking, bill payments, parcel packing, air ticket bookings, international money transfers, coin exchange, speed and registered post, and the arrival, delivery and despatch of tabaals…
“Wait,” I say weakly, feeling increasingly bewildered as I struggle to jot the never-ending list down, “what’s a tabaal?”
They all stop and stare at me for a couple of seconds, and then A. Kuppusamy, Deputy Chief Postmaster (administration), says gently, “Letter. It means letter.”
My head goes into its whirling routine again when they try and explain the mechanism through which thousands of letters and packages make their way in and out of here everyday. Luckily, we’re informed that the mail van that comes every half-an-hour or so has arrived, and I dash out, reaching in time to see the jaunty little red truck being unloaded of several sacks of letters.
R. Manickaraj, the postal assistant, is doing what he’s been doing since he received the first truck at 6:10 a.m. this morning: noting the time of arrival, the number of bags, and overseeing their sorting (they’re carted off on red wheelbarrows to different departments, depending on whether they’re regular letters or parcels, etc.)
“I report at 5.30 a.m. and receive about 10 vans a day, with the last one arriving around 12.30 p.m. from the RMS,” he says with precision. (RMS is the Railway Mail Service, which is where mail for the city arrives, is sorted by pincode and dropped off accordingly to the right post office to be delivered.)
Photos: S. Thanthoni
Dizzying routine From the post box to your hands
After peering over shoulders, tripping over sacks and generally making a nuisance of myself during the unloading, I follow the sacks through the airy old building to the letter delivery section, where the tabaals are going to be sorted and given to the postmen to deliver. The first thing I notice as I enter the high-ceilinged room are two long, empty tables set alongside each other. This is where the sorting begins, and there’s a ceremonial feel about it all.
Some 10 men and women dressed in blue stand around the tables, waiting in reverent stillness as mail clerk S. Venkataraman checks that all the bags have arrived and then solemnly hands them over to one of the men to slit open with a knife. The letters begin to pour out on to the tables in piles, slowly at first, and then in a torrent as more and more bags are opened.
My brain feels like it’ll burst as four people try and explain the confusing three-stage sort process to me, simultaneously . I’m about ready to throw in the towel when Kuppusamy takes pity on me and intervenes; he tells the others not to talk all at once, and kindly runs me through it yet again.
First, the men and women in blue segregate letters depending on whether they’re regular or bulk mail and stack them in brightly coloured trays. Then, another group divides them according to which of the 30 delivery postmen’s beats they fall under. Then, they’re sorted by the postmen themselves streetwise for delivery (which happens twice daily, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., about 7000-odd letters in all). Phew!
Oh, and there’s the determined-looking lady in the corner who is stamping every one of the letters with the delivery date stamp in a rhythmic, drum-like beat that reverberates through the room.
The same process is repeated in other departments for the parcels, money orders and registered post, and I’m just starting to feel smug about wrapping my brain around everything when I’m introduced to the despatch operation.
Despatch? I wonder a little wildly; the letters were already despatched, weren’t they? But I’ve forgotten an important operation — collecting letters that are posted by people in the area under this post office’s jurisdiction and despatching them to their destinations. I trail behind one of the blue-shirted guys as he goes outside to unlock the four little red, green and blue letterboxes and collects their contents like he does six times a day (the contents of 28 other boxes in Chennai-600002 area are also collected daily). And then there’s more sorting (Oh gosh!) according to destination, more stamping (thumpity-thump-thump) and more little vans that drive them to the RMS three times a day.
To say I’m exhausted by the information overload is an understatement. “You could get a PhD on the subject now,” says Kuppusamy with an indulgent smile.
I don’t know about that, but I do know that this experience has given me a healthy respect for our city’s post offices; you won’t catch me whining if a letter or postcard arrives a little late!
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