< There are some who have waited patiently for me to finish so they can start reading. For them, I say, tsk tsk, but here it is, the final installment of the series that started with Part 1 and then went from Part 2 to Part 3. It continued with Part 4 and ground on with Part 5. We then careened into Part 6 which saw some racing heartbeats, cooled by Part 7. >
The last day of my life dawned dull and grey. Someone had reached up and turned down the sun, or at least hung their shirt over it. The light was distinctly grey and thick cloud cover covered the sky. I sat in the coach heading for the airport, wild thoughts rushing through my head. There was a part of my brain developing a story, a part that had little men running around screaming at the top of their voice and another was repeating a mantra I had learned during my experimentation with Transcendental Meditation.
We all got off and went into the terminal which was crowded on all sides. The clouds were even lower now and in fact the entire airport was covered in fog. All flights were grounded. My enthusiasm went up a notch and fell half a notch. If confusion reigned, I thought, it would be easier to squeak through. On the other hand flying through the greatest mountain range in the world in thick fog wasn’t very appealing. I’m not a praying man. I’ve always found the job of finding a patron god from the millions available in the pantheon too much of an effort. This was the ideal time to start, but I didn’t.
I sat and wondered. Then I saw the board go up, “DELAYED”. I got up and wandered over to the stores. I idled through the store, gravitating naturally and smoothly to the book shelves and picked up a copy of “The Bonfire of the Vanities“. Next to this store was the Duty Free Shop. I’d never been to one before. I was running low on cash.
This was in the days when the Indian economy hadn’t heard of credit cards. Only a lucky few had these magical pieces of plastic. My soon to be arriving second son loved going to buffets “because you can have anything and you don’t have to pay!” Many people feel that way about credit cards too. However, I digress.
I checked my wallet and found I had just enough to buy a bottle of sherry and the cab ride home from the airport. So I bought a bottle knowing that My Beloved Bangalan and I would love to share it of a winter evening. If I was ever to get home. If not I hoped that somehow, somewhere she would learn that I was thinking of her even in these quietest and most tumultuous moments. The opaque blue bottle went inside a carton and the carton inside a brilliant yellow plastic bag with “DUTY FREE”. I wandered away and found a quiet corner and settled down to read the book.
An hour later, nothing had changed. I was well into the book, wondering at the American propensity for using surnames as first names and apply them to girls. Graham Mackenzie was a very, very good Australian fast bowler I remembered from my early days following cricket. To see a young girl with the first name of Mackenzie was a very odd feeling. Of such thoughts is my brain made.
Another hour went by and the fog lay thick upon this little heaven in the hills. I was reminded of this song from one of the first rock shows I did not see. Yes, they toured Calcutta in 1979/80. I was too poor to afford the price of the ticket. Just replace “Singapore” with “Calcutta”.
As 11:30 am rolled around, over 2 hours after the scheduled departure, a new announcement was made. All those on the “plane bound for the sun” were going to be given lunch. For that, “Please have your boarding passes and head back out to the coach. We shall go back to the city for lunch and wait for the weather to improve”. And off we went back to a big hotel with a swimming pool. After a nice buffet lunch I propped myself up on a lounge chair by the pool, my yellow Duty Free Bag by my side, “Bonfire of the Vanities” thoroughly engaging my wits. Another couple of hours later another rush was felt. There had been a distinct change in light. It was getting brighter. Soon we were back into the coach and racing back to the airport.
Once there we were told that only two flights would be leaving, because there was break in the weather coming our way, and the Delhi and Calcutta flights would be leaving within 10 minutes of each other to take advantage of the break. We had to move fast, because the break wouldn’t last and if we didn’t make it all bets were off for the rest of the day.
By now, I’d become accustomed to the rush of boarding in a confused and mad rush. Soon we were seated and the pilot was revving up even us he came around to line up and we wasted no time in racing down the runway and then we were airborne on this the last day of freedom.
Even now, you are wondering about the donkeys, aren’t you? You’re thinking, wheels up from Kathmandu, he’s off safely, so where are the donkeys? Bring on the donkeys? Are there donkeys? Are you sure he doesn’t crash somewhere and have to ride into town on a donkey?
I have to disappoint you. There’s only one story I know of of someone riding into town on a donkey with the crowds chanting Hosannas. I was not to reenact that scene. The donkeys were 1 big red herring. And no, don’t try to work your way through it! It’s a futile waste of time. A mere stratagem to expand the length of this post.
It was after dark when we landed at Dum Dum or as it known now, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose International Airport. Don’t even attempt to say it quickly. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. As we walked through to the customs lounge, I held my yellow duty free bag a little higher and little more conspicuously.
< At this point a little history lesson may be in order. This whole sordid story occured during the days when the Indian economy was a closed economy. Foreign exchange was scarce and you had to jump through hoops to travel to foreign lands. Other than Nepal. If you bought an airline ticket to go abroad, you had to go through stringent form filling as only Indian red-tape can bring to the table. You had to have your income tax file scrutinized and all manner of officialdom wanted to know why you were spending the nation’s scarce foreign exchange. Correspondingly, bringing anything in back with you was guaranteed to send customs officials into major apoplectic fits and you would end up pay exorbitant duty. I mean more than 100% in some cases and endless forms to fill up. Government red-tape was perfected in India and has been honed and polished into a fine diamond.
Also, Indians ( males, overwhelmingly ) are crazy about Scotch Whiskey. At that point in time, beer all very fine and the preserve of younger people, wine was unknown, Vodka hadn’t yet been discovered as an odourless blessing by those who had to go home and explain where they had been, rum was for the soldiers. Gin was restricted to the effete club-going upper classes who were all keeping up the English traditions gin and tonic in the afternoons in the cool confines of the clubs the English had left behind and which they had inherited.
Sherry was not likely to be recognized by the average Indian. >
The very first officer on duty was quick to single me out.
“Scotch? Duty lage ga!”, he said. Duty will be applied.
“It’s not Scotch”, I said.
“What? It must be. What is it?
I showed him the carton. He took it and read it all over, looking for something that said Scotch. He took the bottle out and checked that as well. He had obviously never seen sherry and could not comprehend an Indian male in his early 30s carrying something that was obviously alcohol, but was not Scotch whiskey.
He gave it back to me.
” I don’t care what it is, but you have to pay duty”, he pointed me to another officer.
He saw me approach and immediately said “Duty on Scotch is 140%”. <Or some such exorbitant figure. 140 is not far fetched at all and isn’t an exaggeration>
We went through the same thing again. Not Scotch? How can it be? It must be Scotch. It isn’t, I’m telling you. I don’t care, you have to pay. But it isn’t Scotch! Show me where it says it is Scotch. I have the receipt and you just checked the bottle inside as well.
Ten minutes of argument and he brushed me off.
“Talk to my supervisor. You’ll find you have to pay.”
I had my suitcase, my briefcase with me and no attention was being paid to anything but the yellow duty free bag and the weird guy with the weird bottle. I stood aside as the rest of the passengers went through. Forty-five minutes, I waited. Then this shortish, wiry guy came out of the office and walked over to me.
“You are carrying Scotch whiskey which is a dutiable item. Please pay”, he was to the point.
“It isn’t Scotch as I’ve already explained to the two worthies there. They checked it many times. They’ve looked it up in the books and they didn’t find anything. Anyway the Ind-Nepal trade treaty…”
He cut me off, “The Indo-Nepal treaty allows you to travel without a visa. You still need a passport and you cannot import anything duty free. And Scotch, especially, not a chance”.
I stared at him. He stared back. It was a standoff.
I reached for my wallet, opened it and showed him. I had less than Rs 100 in it. Duty would be more than Rs 400. He looked at me and I saw the first faint flicker of defeat in his eyes.
I pushed home the advantage.
“Look, I don’t have the money. You can allow me to make a phone call and my wife will have to come all the way here from New Alipore. You know that it’ll take her almost 2 hours to get here. You really want me to make her go through all this?”
“I don’t care”, he said, “you have no choice, you figure it out. Stay here while you do”. He strode back to his office.
I waited 5 minutes and strolled over to his office.
“Look, we have a couple of options since I can’t pay duty. I can leave the bottle with you or you can let me go. Realistically, these are the only options that are feasible”.
“Wait outside”, he said.
I went back, picked up my suitcase and my duty free bag and moved to one side. All the other passengers had left. I waited another 10 minutes. Then he came out again, saw me and stopped.
“You still here? Go, go now, go away!”, he waved me away angrily.
I didn’t wait for him to change his mind. I had my suitcase, my duty free bag with the bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry safe in it’s carton and myself through the gate and out into the taxi stand before you could say “Scotch”.
I slammed into the taxi and said the words I’d always wanted to say to a cabbie, ever since I first read Conan Doyle.
“Fly, fly like the wind. Don’t spare the horses”.
The last bit is untrue, of course, folks. I had to speak to the guy in Bengali. The rest of the story is perfectly true, every detail of it. My odd odyssey was over.
I went back to the plant a few months later for the system installation. This time, I took the overnight train from Howrah Station to Ruxaul near the border and went through customs sitting in a three-wheeled cycle rickshaw while talking to a officer standing on the curb halfway across the bridge from India to Nepal.
I did have a passport that time.