They are called sampetra in Gujarati — the parcels that your nephew-in-law’s second cousin’s best friend and your colleague’s neighbour’s elder brother requests you to deliver to someone when you travel.
The Sampetra Syndrome works like this: as soon as you let it be known that you will be travelling, you get requests from sundry bhais and behens who just happen to know someone at your destination to whom they must reach a sampetra. So could you please carry and deliver it? The request is usually a formality. For, whatever it is the sampetrer wanted you to carry is already brought to you and plonked on your living room sofa or office desk.
Refusing is just not on. And carrying it can lead you to paying excess baggage charge to your air carrier, or other hiccups such as paying more to the coolie, causing discomfort to fellow passengers in a train, re-tying poorly packed sampetra or running around trying to locate the recipient’s address.
Even as a student in Calcutta, I had to work out strategies to avoid being loaded with a sampetra. I would sneak off without telling anyone that I was headed home to Bombay. But invariably, someone or the other would get wind of it. They would then turn up at the railway station to seek me out and load me with banana chips for Chanchal ben (equally good stuff available in Bombay), jackfruit (big as a bucket and odorous) or home-made pickle in mustard oil made with special limes “not available in Bombay”.
Jackfruits may be just as common in Bombay, but this one was special — it was from the tree in the sampetrer’s front garden at Dharamtolla. The pickle in the jar would leak and mess up the clothes in my baggage, and the railway compartment would reek of mustard oil throughout the 42-hour journey.
Once, at the railway station, Popatlal bhai sneaked up on me, carrying a potted plant. Since it was hot, he also left strict instructions that I water it a few times during the train ride. I made the mistake of following them to the core. Mud leaked out of the pot, and the floor needed to be mopped regularly. The co-passengers looked disgusted, the plant wilted anyway and the receiver said, “Ah soo? Ae toh sukaai gyu. (What is this? This has wilted.)”
It’s a global village now, with the Gujju diaspora spread out everywhere, from Amsterdam to Zanzibar. But sampetrers still hunt you down — at no cost.