MY EXPERIMENTS WITH THE CUSTOMS
In 2004, we spent a fortnight in Singapore at the invitation of my brother-in-law who works and lives there. We were on a shoestring budget and traveled by economy class of Tiger Airways, the budget airline of Singapore. I had, however, earmarked a few dollars so that I could buy the allowed quota of moderately priced liquor when returning to India.
The first words Ranjith uttered after opening the door to his apartment were, 'If I do not do this now, I might forget!' So saying, he opened his bar and pulled out a bottle each of Yamazaki, Glenmorangie and MacAllan Whiskeys and a bottle of Grey Goose Vodka. Putting the exotic stuff in a sturdy bag, he said, 'This will not be allowed as hand baggage. So pack them well in your suitcase so that they do not break in transit.'
The holiday in Singapore was very enjoyable, but all good things must come to an end. Towards the end of our stay, we were informed by the airline that our flight had been cancelled and we had been re-routed via Colombo. There would be a layover of five hours there and we would travel from Colombo to Trivandrum by Mihin Lanka, the budget airline with whom Tiger had tied up.
That was fine with us. The touchdown at Colombo was at 9 am. The scheduled time of departure of the Trivandrum-bound flight was 2 pm but it was delayed. Initially, they said an hour, which went on to two, three, four and so on. As neither carrier had made arrangements for refreshments or meals and we had a lot of time on our hands, we went round the airport, reading all the signboards and tourism literature and nibbling at doughnuts and sandwiches. During the course of our aimless meandering, we reached the duty-free shop.
We purchased some Toblerone chocolates, Bhawani's favourite. A poster announcing an offer that was placed near the exit caught my eyes as we came out. Three bottles of Chivas Regal (12 years' vintage) for the price of two. And a nifty carry-bag to boot. We came out and pooled together the money that we had. Between Bhawani and me, we had enough to buy that.
Deal done, we had some grub at the KFC Counter and waited for the announcement.
Finally, when the boarding happened, it was 1130 pm. It was past midnight when we landed, bleary-eyed, in Trivandrum. Before landing, the air-hostess had distributed the forms we had to sign, declaring the dutiable 'goods' we were 'importing' into India. Bhawani and I spoke in hushed tones and not eager to be caught lying, we decided to declare that between the two of us, we had seven litres of alcohol with us - which is three litres more than what we were entitled to carry.
After the immigration formalities, we walked gingerly, lugging our suitcases. There were just two of us headed towards the red gate. Our co-passengers looked at us wistfully as they breezed past the green channel, perhaps wondering what contraband the suitcases of this ageing couple would be holding.
There was no official manning the red channel. On seeing us, a woman in white uniform came to us, told us, 'This is not the route,' and asked us to go through the green channel.
I protested, 'But, madam, we have some dutiable goods with us,' trying to hand over the declaration.
Not giving the paper as much as a glance, she proceeded to ask me, 'What is it? Gold? Or, electronic goods?'
When I told her that I was carrying the golden liquid, she did not seem impressed. She pointed towards a gentleman in white uniform and asked us to meet him.
I found him sleepy and drunk. Sozzled, with alcohol sloshing in his belly. The small black plastic name board on the flap of his left pocket proclaimed his name: P RAMAKRISHNAN.
'Good morning, Mr Ramakrishnan,' I greeted him and extended my declaration to him.
Blame it on the poison he had, he was puzzled: how does this guy know my name? Do I know him? Have I met this guy earlier? If so, where? I could see these questions on his face.
'Good morning, Sir. What can I do for you?'
'We have seven litres of alcohol with us and we know that only four are allowed. We would like to pay the duty and take the additional three bottles along,' I replied matter-of-factly.
There was a look on disbelief on his face. Here's a man volunteering to pay the duty on three bottles of whiskey!
'Seven litres? Three bottles of which brand?' he asked me, lapsing into Malayalam.
He pronounced 'Ezhu', the word for seven, as 'yaazhu', the way only those in Palakkad district can.
Ramakrishnan jotted something on a piece of paper, punched a few keys on his desk calculator, and informed me, 'The duty will be hefty, Sir.'
While he was at work, I ventured some small talk. I asked him, 'Mr Ramakrishnan, which part of Palakkad district do you hail from?' and then, opening my wallet, I queried, 'How much would it work out to?'
'I am from Aalatthur,' he informed me, adding, 'Rs 1,200,' with an air of finality.
As I was counting twelve Rs 100 notes, he asked me, 'Sir, I suppose there is a wedding in the family and this is for the reception.'
As my sons were both eligible bachelors then, my response, a feeble 'Yes' was not entirely untrue. The fact that a timeframe had not been specified either by the interrogator or the respondent helped.
That was when he saw my wife who was behind me. Looking at her and me alternately, Ramakrishnan said, 'A marriage in the family and madam before me - how can I be so heartless as to impose a duty?' He tore up the declaration and put it into the waste paper basket. Needless to say, he was looking for an excuse to let us off the hook. And he knew one when he saw one.
As we walked towards the exit, Ramakrishnan called out to us, 'Do not forget to invite me for the reception, Sir!'