To Exile and BackT. SHER SINGH
Friday, July 27, 2012
It was 1976.
I was in India for a 3-month long holiday, traveling to places I had missed out on while growing up in the country. New Delhi, where I was staying with my in-laws (then), was our base.
It was an interesting time to be in India. Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” was in full effect. That is, she had suspended democracy, and was running the country as a dictatorship. Her son, Sanjay, was ruling the roost. I was told that corruption had been eradicated, and that the whole country was walking the straight line for the first time in history.
Most people I spoke to said they liked it. I knew, having grown up here not too long ago, that Indians generally envied Pakistan. “If only we had a dictatorship …!” you would hear all the time, when lamenting the corruption that plagued the land.
One day, I asked to be dropped off at Connaught Place in the afternoon to do a number of errands, and to catch up with some necessary shopping.
Around 6:00 pm, I walked by a post office. A sign outside it announced that you could make “trunk calls” from there - long-distance telephone calls, that is.
It was, of course, an era before the advent of cell-phones. The telephone system in India was still very primitive; making any phone calls, local or long-distance, were a chore. Long-distance calls also were very expensive for the local populace, charged exorbitantly by the minute.
I stopped outside the post-office. Since I was in town, I might as well make a much needed call to a friend in Patna. We had only a few weeks left, and I wanted to see if we could get together before we headed back to Canada. Making the call from my in-laws wasn’t a problem. But I felt reluctant to dip into their generosity - I knew they would not let me reimburse them for the cost of the call. And, I thought, calling from the post-office might even improve my chances of getting through.
I stepped into the post-office and approached the “trunk-call” counter.
The man on duty explained that I would, a) have to book the call: that is, give them the number to be called, and then wait for my turn; b) deposit Rs 500 cash in advance, which would be applied to the call - a decent amount of money for then, I might add); once the call was made, any amount left would be refunded; c) there was a wait of at least 2 hours, considering the current “traffic” at the telephone exchange.
I decided I’d book the call, and then spend a couple of hours loafing around the market, and then come back and wait. I gave him five Rs 100 bills and all the information he needed; he instructed me to take a seat. I told him I’d be back at 8:00. He nodded.
Walked around a bit. Stopped at Gaylord’s for a coffee. Returned at 8:00 pm. Things weren’t moving fast enough, I was told. Could be another couple of hours, but a good chance they would get to me by then.
I had nothing better to do. No problem, I said, I’ll come back at 10:00 pm. Took advantage of the 2-hour wait by heading off to Khan Market and gorged on their wonderful Amritsari fish fare.
Got back to the post-office just before 10:00. Not much progress. They said the “line” had been “down”, but maybe in another hour or so.
Now that I had already killed four hours, I could handle one more hour. So, I waited; took a seat inside the post-office and read every sign, poster and loose shred of paper within reaching distance.
At 11:00, I walked up to the counter. It was a different person on duty. He looked at his log-book, said ‘still no luck‘, still more delay, not sure how long.
I decided to call it a day. I said, fine, please cancel my booking. Fine, he said, and scratched off a line on the register in front of him.
Can I have my deposit back, I said.
He looked at the register and looked back at me. What deposit, he said.
The Rs 500 I gave when booking the call, I said.
There’s no mention of any deposit, or any Rs 500 here, he said.
I explained what had transpired at 6:00 pm and pointed to the sign on the wall which said that a deposit was required to make a trunk call booking. You have my booking noted on your register. Which means I had to have given a deposit. I want my deposit back.
No note on the register of any deposit, any Rs 500. Sorry, he said, I can’t do anything.
I’m sure my voice was getting a little louder by this time. A few other employees gathered around him. I asked for the manager. The one skulking behind the lot reluctantly identified himself.
I re-told my story. He looked at the register, and nodded - “He‘s right, Sir. There‘s no mention of deposit here.”
I got angrier. All of them remained calm. Finally, one who had remained quiet through all of the kerfuffle, piped up.
“Sir, did you give the money to this man?“
“No,” I said, “it was someone else at the counter then.“
I looked around the room. He was nowhere to be seen.
“He’s not here. Don’t you have other employees? Where are they?“
The man was quiet for a while. He then consulted with the others in whispers, and turned back to me: “Sir, I think it could have been Sharma ji.”
“Good. Let me speak to him, then.“
“But he’s not here, Sir.”
“Where is he?”
They consulted with each other for a bit. “He’s gone out for dinner, Sir.”
“When will he back, then?”
“He’ll be back on duty at 12:30, Sir. After his break.“
I’m quite certain my voice went up a few more decibels.
They came out from behind the counter and surrounded me. The man at the counter stood in front of me, face-to-face, and angrily said: ”Sir, did you give ME the money?”
No, I said, shaking my head.
“Then, please don’t get hot with me. When Sharma ji comes back, you can get hot with him!”
How could I argue with that?
It was close to midnight by now. I could go home and forget about the money. It wasn’t much in dollars but, I said, it’s the bloody principle of the thing! I decided to sit it out.
At about 1:00 am, Mr Sharma appeared and sat down behind the counter.
I walked up to him. “I gave you a deposit of Rs 500, didn’t I?”
He looked down at his shirt breast pocket and deftly pulled out with his thumb and forefinger, a wad of Rs 100 bills. Five, to be exact. And handed them to me.
I took them, but was already spluttering: “Why didn’t you note the deposit in the register? Why did you put the money in your pocket? … You’ve wasted hours of my time …!”
A number of his colleagues appeared out of thin air and again stood around him.
The reasonable one spoke again: “Sir, you asked for your money back from the person you gave it to, and he has given it back to you promptly. Now, why are you getting hot, Sir?”
I stood there speechless for some time.
Then, turned around and walked out.
He was right. They were all so logical, so rational, so reasonable. And I had come ‘this’ close for being beaten up for being unnecessarily hot and unreasonable.
That night bothered me for a long time. Added to it the traumatic train journey I had experienced on an earlier visit. And a dozen other situations I had found myself in on this trip, each time due to no fault of mine, but always coming close to a flare-up, and the possibility of violence even.
I could think of nothing I could have done, or could do in the future, to avoid such scenes, other than surrender at the very first intimation of a problem.
I blamed myself.
Here I was, one of the fortunate ones who had been blessed with an opportunity to escape from this hell-hole of a land, and stupidly, like an imbecile, I came back every year or two. Why? Was I suicidal? Was I a masochist?
By the end of the trip, when the year ended and a new one began, we headed back to Canada. I made a vow never to come back.
I kept the vow of self-exile for 30 years. I can’t deny the truth; it did not require much of a sacrifice. It was easy for me because all of my close family were in Canada. I had the luxury to be able to not go back. I never went, never had a desire, never even applied for a visa.
Until five years ago.
Out of the blue, I had this indescribable, inexplicable urge to go to Amritsar, to go and spend some quiet time in the Darbar Sahib. It invaded my dreams, it haunted my waking hours.
So I went.
India has changed, I was assured by one and all. It’s not the same anymore.
Good, I said.
I took a flight to Lahore, spent some time with friends. And then walked across the Wagah border.
Into the Indian side.
The Indian immigration officer looked at my passport and my visa for a long time. Flipped through every page. Once. Twice. Thrice. Closed the booklet with a sigh, put it beside him, and said: “Are you carrying any money with you?”
“No,” I said.
“No money? How can that be?”
“I spent all of my money in Lahore. My friends here in India will look after me here,” I said.
“But you must have something? Some dollars?”
“No, I don’t.”
“One hundred dollars. Only one hundred dollars.”
I knew exactly what was happening. No, India hadn’t changed. It was still the hell-hole that I had last seen 30 years before.
“Here’s what I can do for you?” I said. “I can see from here that my friends are waiting outside to drive me into Amritsar. I think one of them is DSP (Deputy Superintendent of Police) Mr ---------. He’s here to give me a ride. I’m sure he has some dollars on him. If you let me call him in, he’ll be glad to …“
The immigration official turned red, and then purple. He leaned a bit to the side to look past me. Yes, he could see the uniform …
He pushed the passport through the wicket. I picked it up, put it in my pocket. And ended my self-exile.
Conversation about this article
1: Yuktanand Singh (USA), July 27, 2012, 5:00 PM.
I had an urge to respond yesterday but was too busy. I miss India, its sunrises and sunsets, its breeze in its fields and its farms, its flowers and fruits, not to mention the gurudwaras and the gurpurabs. The memory of its dark side is dim now. But my father, when he was in India, had to say too often that he knows now that Hell is real. You asked, "Could I have done something at any stage to save myself this harrowing experience?" The answer is simple. I have not visited India since I left it in 1969.
2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 29, 2012, 7:59 PM.
Sher ji, despite your friendly immigration officer at Wagha border trying to improve his foreign exchange balance, you would be happy to see the report card. No country got an "A". The least corrupt country was the Netherlands, closely followed by Belgium, Germany and Japan. At the bottom: Argentina, UAE, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Mexico, China and Russia. India is trying hard to improve its rating, except for Anna Hazare who is a bit of a nuisance despite a summer of protests amidst power shedding.
3: Raj (Canada), July 29, 2012, 11:11 PM.
I could write a book about my experiences with corruption in India, but the following incident tops them all. This is when I was leaving India almost four decades ago, then Delhi airport was called Palam airport. After clearing all necessary formalities, I was to take a ride on a bus to board the plane. I was leaving the old building for good when I was suddenly stopped by a man with a big gun and a loud question. "Do you have any Indian currency? You should know that it's illegal to take currency of this country without some papers". From the looks, he seemed like a perennially mal-nutritioned guy who could barely carry weight of his own mustaches; even uttering this order seemed to have exhausted him. He had a bin next to him with a hole at the top, much like a smoker's bin we find outside on the sidewalks here in the west. I was a few steps from my permanent freedom, so I was not going to let this bhaiyya ruin it. Not to mention that I had coins of every denomination for my nephews and nieces in London who had asked me bring them as they were into collecting coins of different countries. All this currency was packed in a transparent plastic bag and couldn't be more than 4 or 5 rupees. As I stopped to digest his order, which he repeated again with much more vigour. This was when my mischievous side took over me. I took money out of my pocket, then gave him a look from tip to toe look and asked him, "Why should I put it in this waste bin?" He said it's law of the country. I replied, "No ... No ... why should I waste this money by putting in this waste bin, when I can just give it to you instead?" His demeanor changed like he was my long lost friend, he gave me the biggest smile and said, "Ajee Sardar ji, kya baat kar rahey ho?" Expecting a big payout, he put his hand out like a beggar in Chandni Chowk. I grabbed all the change in my pocket and put it on his hand and walked right into JAL bus, which was waiting for me. After, I sat on my seat and waved at him, he had a most pathetic look on his face. I had bought his zameer - integrity - with no more than 4 or 5 rupees of change (10 cents).