Monday, May 25, 2009

A check for chai-paani

I didn’t know if Raj had actually meant to do it. Or it just so happened

But this is the way matters stood in the corporate world. Utter allegiance to Economic Value Added. As for Emotional Value Added, was that really an index? Who coined it anyway, some hippie on an Oregon commune? So when it came to choosing between an emergency meeting with potential institutional investors in Brussels on the same day as the date of the planned release of our shipment from Mumbai docks, it was a no-brainer. Raj was on the Lufthansa flight to Brussels, and I was in town clearing up the mess. As usual.

To be fair, he did try calling up the shipping agent to see if the shipment delivery could be delayed by two days. But the next possible date was two weeks later. Too long to wait. Except I had no clue what I had agreed to!

Midmorning, I stood in the dusty compound of the Mumbai Customs Warehouse, in my demurest long kurta worn over long linen slacks, waiting for the agent to show up. Beady eyed workers carted box piles on hand pushcarts, or generally ambled like somnolent chameleons, their grimy clothes blending into the background, age lines warting and creasing their sun burnt faces. I was glad for my dark glasses- I could pretend to be unaware of my surroundings, in it yet beyond it, goggled away into a different reality.

I waited and I waited. In that turgid heat, seconds expanded into eternities. I wiped the slow trickle of sweat with a white handkerchief, its diaphanous lacy edge crumpled like leaves in mid day sun. I picked out a pocket edition from my handbag, a miniature tome called The Big Secrets of Success, its blue ribbed cover the colour of what the sea beyond the dockyard warehouse might have been, had it not been for the refuse of the city, the exhaust slue of oil tankers and the general debris that accumulated within its watery confines. I opened to a random page. It said: ‘Learning is the raising of character by broadening of vision and deepening of character’.

By the end of the day, my vision would surely be wider than the backside of a Kaziranga rhino and my character deeper than one of those guerrilla-rebel plagued Assamese oil wells in neighboring Digboi.

A scuffle of footsteps announced the customs agent, Ram Prakash. He dragged his feet on the dusty ground, like thick bows scraping a battered violin and led me towards a tin gate, instructing me on how to speak to the customs official. His mouth was full of paan, “Mhatro Madam very tough, but I know her. You not to worry.”

We walked past abandoned boxes and a rusted car. The cavernous dimness of the warehouse was a respite from the blinding gaiety of the midsummer sunlight. Piles of boxes mushroomed across the giant godown. My crates, in thick American packaging and clear taped labels, looked at odds with the crumbly peat-like grime on them.

A stocky lady walked in, accompanied by two gangly men in khaki. Her shiny polyester sari rippled like a magical floral garden of pink and fuchsia and green in the desolate desert of dust-moils. Her bright pink lipstick, brightly staining her dark face, was like a neon glow, a hot pink lava lamp in a darkened room. Heavy gold chains jangled around her and thick gold bangles clinked as she moves ahead with a tattered file in hand. There was something about the sea air in Mumbai, the documents newly printed and sent by the overseas shipping company had acquired the antiquated patina of years in just a few weeks, their edges torn, the paper yellowed.

Mhatro Madam went through the list, randomly asked her two underlings to open this box or that, and check if the contents on the top matched with what was stated on the papers. There could have been something totally different buried three layers deep. The great impassive machinery of Indian Customs would have never known it.

Checked boxes were put aside on another side. It was slow work. An industrial grade fan billowed waves of hot air. I was wilting. Mhatro Madam took out a small old calculator and assessed the duty on imported goods, and handed me the amount on the calculator.

It seemed like steep penalty to me, but the woman said. “You seem nice lady, I give you concession.” She waggled fat gold ringed fingers. “See you have two televisions, two music systems. Why? Indian government allow one set per family. But I let you go easy, you only pay half duty. But full duty is must for alcohol. Two whole cases too.” She said accusingly.

“Just pay and leave, Madam.” Ram Prakash urged.

Did he have a cut on the duty? I unearthed my check-book and scrawled my signature against the steep amount.

Then Madam Mhatro, looking beady-eyed, pursed her plump pink lips and said, ‘No chai-paani money for my staff, lady?’

I simply wrote another check. I was only too glad to escape. 

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