It’s a grand old building, the General Post Office (GPO), Lahore, with its two minarets surrounding a clock tower that juts above the main administrative building. Entry is through the scarcely barricaded (I remember this entire patch of the Mall being divided into a main road and a service road entry to the GPO, in harsher times) Gate 1.
Gate 2, located where the McLeod Road crosses the Mall, is where the mail comes and goes from.
The Chief Post Master’s (CPM) office is up a wooden set of stairs under the clock tower, which is not telling the correct time, and past an iron bell that says ‘Made in 1860.’ I ask the CPM’s aide if it still works. He pulls on and strikes the ball and it goes tong, just as it would have 150 years ago.
A poster on the wall outside the CPM’s office informs me that the present-day GPO building was completed and occupied by the postal office in 1904. The first ever post office itself, in Lahore, was established in 1849, near Tolington Market.
The presiding CPM is a woman named Zubaida Khanum. She has a pleasant disposition but is rushed for time as she explains the various tasks and functions of the three major buildings inside the GPO complex. The Post Master General is here from Islamabad; he has called a meeting to get a half-year report on goings-on.
Khanum’s right hand man, Muhammad Aslam, is the Senior Postmaster Mails and Delivery Officer. It’s his job to do the rounds of the complex, two to three times a day, and make sure everything’s running smoothly.
He tells me the total staff strength at the GPO is 597; a number that surprises me, because of all the tales of incompetence and unreliability associated with Pakistan Post. I was expecting the city’s postal headquarters to be severely understaffed, not thrumming with activity.
The GPO complex is essentially divided into three major blocks — the Domestic Mail and Financial Services, the International Mail Office (run by the controller IMO who was also meeting the Post Master General), and the Delivery Service, where bulk mail is stored, sifted and sent on.
The domestic mail counters are where the people can deposit or claim mail. There’s a souvenir stamp seller in one corner. He shows me stamps of a bygone era that cost 20 paisas. Now the basic mail stamp costs eight rupees. The commemorative stamps, like Pakistan’s silver and golden jubilees, are adorned with heroes of the past; Iqbal, Jinnah, Aziz Bhatti.
In the other corner is the treasury department, of three people who keep balance sheets of all the stamps coming and going.
There are two types of counters in the domestic mail service — registered mail and unregistered mail. Registered mail is simply that mail which was posted inside a postal office, at any such window, while filling out a form and paying the minimum registration fee of Rs20. Alam recommends registered mail for any parcel, any insured article, any article containing a cheque, banknote, bill of exchange or the like. Registration ensures that your mail is tracked from the post office it’s sent from to the eventual destination it goes to.
Unregistered mail is any article that was posted via postal box or sent to a post office with just the stamp paid. This is where the chances of getting lost are highest. “We get bulks of unregistered mail without any tracker or form behind it, sometimes the address is written wrong, sometimes we can’t find it, sometimes the writing is blurred out or illegible, and many times it just gets lost in the bulk of mails that come in and go out,” explains Aslam.
He admits that sometimes mail is irretrievably lost, and the lack of any tracking method is why it remains in limbo for months, sometimes even years, and why people are so irate with Pakistan Post.
Without that registration, he adds, we can’t assure that your mail will reach its intended destination. He doesn’t look particularly embarrassed about the reputation they have outside, “I know, I know what they say. It’s nothing like that. Even now by far the biggest bulk of mail we get are unregistered letters and articles. So the common man trusts us still, over these private delivery services.”
Pakistan Post’s urgent mail delivery is also advertised as next day delivery.
Aslam and I take a walk towards the delivery office. It’s empty now, exhausted workers sleeping on the same benches they must have been working on, not two hours ago. Mail shipment comes in at 6:30am sharp, and everything has to be sifted for distribution by 10am.
Then the afternoon consignment arrives at 1pm and these slumbering workers are given a shot of caffeine and the sifting starts again.
GPO’s jurisdiction extends from about Urdu Bazaar, Anarkali, in the north west to Lahore Gymkhana towards the south east.
The International Mail Office is pretty much the same in design and in spirit. They deal a lot more in remittances, money orders and parcels. There’s a Western Union booth inside the post office and a special administrative branch dealing with parcels.
Finally, we arrive at one of the most overlooked services that post offices provide: the financial services. This building has different counters for postal pension, military pension, even Capital Development Authority pension (yes, Islamabad’s CDA), while other counters offer Postal Life Insurance, a Postal Savings Bank, and a booth where you can pay your provincial taxes on up to 1000cc vehicles, and on all your licensed arms and ammunition.
By the time we are done with the tour I’m dizzy with an overabundance of information, and Aslam is not lacking in perception, so he offers me a seat back in his office and cold refreshment in the form of a juice. He doesn’t know when the meeting with the Post Master General will be over but he’s confident that the Lahore GPO has more than met its performance mark. “Our Postal Life Insurance is doing particularly well,” he tells me. Somebody sitting behind me quips that anybody mailing through Pakistan Post might as well get life insurance, “Who knows how long it will take?”