| An elderly resident checks out his turn on the list of names hung up at Santoshpur post office. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
Santoshpur post office, 4.15 am. In the semi-darkness, a few shadows stand huddled on the pavement. Others sit on the solitary step at the post-office door that won't open till 10 am.
'We have often been questioned by policemen on patrol,' admits 71-year-old S.P. Bhattacharjee, who was drenched to the aching bone by a recent dawn downpour.
The elderly in the area do not have a choice but to brave it all as they wait for hours in front of the Santoshpur post office. They are, after all, in queue to collect their source of sustenance ' the interest from the postal department's monthly income scheme (MIS).
This is the sorry saga of the superannuated, the army of MIS dependants. 'The man at the counter can process at best 15 passbooks in an hour. With the counter closing at 3 pm, no more than 70 people can be attended to in a day. The turnout is at least 120. Hence, there is this rush to turn up as early as possible and get ahead in the queue,' explains 73-year-old Santosh Chatterjee.
There is seating arrangement for about 20 in the post office. The room is so tiny that hardly 10 more can stand. So even after 10 am, the aged and ailing have to wait outdoors, in rain and shine, to collect what is often their sole steady source of income. 'Sometimes some of them are taken ill here. What can we do' asks a post office employee.
The post office covers Jadavpur station in the north, Bagha Jatin in the south, some areas of Dhakuria in the west and Mukundapur, off the Bypass, in the east. It does try its best to cope with the MIS pressure, sometimes even extending hours, unofficially.
'The post office was set up around 1980. Think of the population explosion in the area since. This is a sub-post office and we are acutely understaffed,' says postmaster Pradip Kumar Bachar, busy manning one of the counters.
The geriatrics have devised a method for some respite from the wait. 'We maintain a chronological list of people reaching the post office,' explains P.C. Lahiry, 67.
The morning MIS list is a scrap of paper hung up on the letterbox. It bears the signatures of those who have registered their presence and then dispersed, only to return after 10 am, going by the 15 people-an-hour calculation.
But of late this system too has come under threat. 'Sometimes a latecomer, frustrated at finding his serial number way beyond hope of collection, tears up the list. There have been days when I have posted my name at dawn and after a few hours returned home for breakfast, thinking I was comfortably placed. But then the list has been scrapped and the queue formed anew,' complains 68-year-old M.K. Bhattacharya.
Still, the majority swears by the list. Sutapa Sen, who shifted to Malda a few months ago, takes the Gour Express on her collection day to reach Sealdah at dawn and signs up on her way home.
'There is a lady, bent with age, who comes on the 5th of the month from somewhere near Garia. Sometimes she reaches at 3 am and stays on, with a few biscuits for company,' says Bhattacharya, keeping vigil at 6.30 am, armed with the serial number 59.
Computerisation is the only answer and the machines have arrived, reveals the post-master. But it will take a while for the new-age balm to ease the vigil of the old.