Demonstrations were breaking out all over the city, and the Calcutta riot police were beating back the protesters with tear gas and billy clubs. I kept my distance from the melee, sticking to the back alleys as I made my way to the city center.
The trouble had started when the Joint Committee of Trade Unions in Banks, Insurance, and Financial Institutes (or J.C.T.U.B.I.F.I. for short) called a strike to protest bank privitization and payroll revision. As always in India, the strike had grown to include nearly a dozen other unions, everything from disgruntled postal workers to the rowdy Calcutta Seamsters Union.
Soon I was encompassed in a frenzied mass of sweaty bodies. The impassioned river of discontent carried me as far as the main branch of the Reserve Bank of India, where protesters were throwing lumps of asphalt at a handful of security officers in front of the door. I slipped beneath an unfurled banner and liberated myself from the crowd.
I made my way to the American Express Office on Old Court House Road. The liberal sprinkling of asphalt nuggets near the entrance suggested the protesters had already paid the office a visit, and I feared it would be closed. I needed it to be open. A week earlier, I had called my travel agent in the States to have her UPS an airline ticket to the office. I was to pick up the ticket at the office today, and fly home from Calcutta tomorrow.
But the Amex office was closed, a chain and padlock drawn across its door like a metal rosary. I went around the back of the building and banged on the delivery door. As I resigned to leave, the door swung open and a middle-aged gentleman greeted me.
“You are looking for American Express?”
“Yes, I thought you were closed.”
“And we thought you were one of them,” he said, alluding to the mob I had encountered earlier. “Please, come in quickly.”
American Express offices around the world have a well-deserved reputation as bastions of efficiency in the midst of chaos. They provide a variety of useful services to travelers, including poste restante, and are generally more reliable and less chaotic than foreign banks and post offices. The air-conditioned Calcutta office was no exception. Despite the strike, it was staffed by a skeleton crew handling international accounts and general enquiries.
I explained my situation to the Amex mail clerk. He carefully searched the mail drawers for my ticket. Nothing. He searched again. Then he checked the manifest. “I’m sorry sir, your mail has not arrived,” he said sincerely.
My situation was looking bad. I had left all the ticketing arrangements up to my travel agent, so I had no idea the airline, flight number, time or route of my next day’s flight. I called all the major airlines, but none had a booking under my name. I had to find that ticket.
“Is there a UPS office in Calcutta?” I asked the clerk.
“I think not, but perhaps there is a company that acts on their behalf. I suggest you check with the post office.”
The helpful clerk gave me directions to the nearby post office, which was a large Colonial building surrounded by an irate mob of picketing postal workers. Nevertheless, it was open, and only marginally more chaotic than usual. I shoved my way through the masses to the barred window marked “General Enquiry,” and hailed the postal clerk sipping tea behind the counter.
“Do you have a business directory or phone book I can use?” I asked.
“No. What are you looking for?”
“I need the address for United Parcel Service.”
“No. I do not know the address.”
“How can I find the address?”
He tilted his head, the Indian equivalent of a shoulder shrug.
“How would you find the address?” I persisted.
The clerk pointed to his co-workers, “I would ask him and him and him.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if somehow the four of them had memorized every address in Calcutta. The clerk asked around, but his co-workers only tilted their heads.
“No. We do not know that address. You must look in the phone guide.”
“That’s what I asked you for in the first place.”
“No. You asked for a phone book,” he replied smugly. “No matter. I do not have one anyway.” He added that I might find a phone “guide” at the Central Telegraph Office nearby.
The Calcutta Central Telegraph Office was a warren of offices housed in a decaying multi-storey building. Employees idled behind monumental piles of paperwork, sipping tea and discussing whether or not they should strike. The Office of Information, a blatant misnomer, assured me that there was no current phone directory for Calcutta. Their representative explained that the entire Calcutta phone system was being revamped and numbers were changing daily.
“There is no current phone guide,” he advised, “but you can call the information number.”
“Yes, of course,” he said, obviously shocked by my ignorance. “Calcutta now has an information service. Dial 197.”
I gestured to use the phone on his desk, but he apologized that it was, like most of the phones inside the Central Telegraph Office, “not working today.” He escorted me to the bank of yellow pay phones outside the building that he proudly touted as “the most reliable public phones in Calcutta.”
I approached the first phone and deposited a five rupee coin into the slot. One, nine, clunk. The number seven button fell through the panel. The next phone gave no dial tone, and two others appeared to have buttons missing. Of course all of the phones accepted coins, but none returned them- payphones, it seems, are Calcutta’s most reliable source of income.
I walked down the street in search of a private phone booth to make the call. Most of the strikers had retired to the shade as the midday sun had made the asphalt too sticky to throw. I found a call booth further down the street and dialed the number for information.
“Information. Namaste.” answered a lady.
“Hello. Do you speak English?”
“Yes, I speak perfectly good English,” she replied a little irritated.
“Good. I am trying to find the phone number for United Parcel Service.”
“United Park Service?” There was a short pause. “I do not have that number.”
The glass booth felt like a blast furnace. Sweat streamed off my brow and soaked my shirt.
“United Parcel Service!” I shouted before the lady could hang up.
“What? United Bus Services?”
“No. Parcel, with the letter ‘p.’ You know, l-m-n-o-p.”
“No. Parcel, p-a-r-c-e-l.”
“There is no such word,” she replied curtly.
“Would you please check anyways.”
She sighed and put me on hold. Beggars pressed their faces against the glass booth, extending their blackened hands through the doorway to tug on my shirt. “Baksheesh! Baksheesh! (Alms! Alms!)” Their chanting grew louder and louder, pushing my patience to the brink.
The lady returned. “No sir, there is no such company.”
“What company?” I inquired suspiciously.
“United Elementary School.”
I grit my teeth. “Listen,” I said articulating my words, “I want the phone number United Parcel Service. Parcel- with a ‘p’ as in ‘please.’”
“‘b’ as in ‘beast.’”
“No, ‘p’- it’s the 17th letter in the goddam’ alphabet!” I screamed as I lost my cool.
The lady paused. Sensing my sarcasm, she responded firmly in a frank tone, “No, I am afraid you are mistaken sir. The 17th letter in the goddam’ alphabet is a ‘q.’” She hung up.
I slammed the phone down, and upon recounting the letters of the alphabet, bellowed in frustration. The beggars outside my booth roared with laughter. My actions only seemed to solidify their desire to harass me. “Meester! Meester!” They assailed me from all sides as I left the booth, provoking me if only to get a reaction. And I complied, flailing and gyrating halfway across Calcutta.
Sheer luck led me to the office of Elbee Couriers, the Calcutta agent for UPS. With tenacious persistence I convinced the staff to check their manifest for a package under my name. Nothing.
As evening approached in India and morning broke in the States, I managed to get a phone call through to my travel agent back home.
“I’ve got a big problem,” I lamented. “The ticket for my flight tomorrow hasn’t arrived.”
“I’m so glad you called,” she replied, “I had no way to reach you and tell you that I didn’t send your ticket.”
“I figured there would be problems getting the ticket to you on time, so I booked a flight for you later next week. The ticket should arrive in two days. I hope you’re not upset.”
Cam has spent the past five years traveling across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. He now lives in the Pacific Northwest.