Some friends of mine went on a cruise to Antartica recently and couldn't stop boasting about how relieved they were about not having to carry a single parcel. When it comes to lugging junk halfway across the world, we Indians are probably the most obliging folks on the planet. Check out the contents of an NRI suitcase and you will see precisely what I mean. I happened to be in line behind a guy named "Sailess" in Sydney and when the Customs official asked him to 'open up and show him everything', he produced the kind of haul you'd expect to find in the basement of a Gujarati looter.
In place of perfume and i-phones, Sailess was carrying farsaan, chivda, fafda, mithai, fourteen bottles of achar roughly divided between homemade and commercial, 8 packets of fleaseed husk (isabghol), 8 chuddies with string nadas, a plastic mug, 2 tongue cleaners and two dog-eared copies of Asian Babes. Just the basic essentials for holidaying abroad but the Aussies are absolutely fanatical about letting anything in down under, if you will forgive a dreadful pun. The customs guy was gaping at the chuddies and the nada and the look on his face reminded me of the escaped prisoner, Papillon, when he lands up at the leper colony and the headman offers him a drag on his cigarette. Yes, bewildered and a tad terrified.
I didn't stay long enough to find out how things turned out for Sailess, though I did advise him to try singing, "Don't check my bags if you please, Mr. Customs Man", on his next trip. But I'm a fine one to talk. Many moons ago, when I was young and foolish I carried a consignment of fresh meat to Madras for my mother. Bamburies had cleaned and packed it up professionally in heavy-duty plastic and I sailed through security with a merry tra-la on my lips. Unfortunately the scanner was on the blink due to a power failure and the security guy, who sported an ominous triple caste mark on his forehead, decided to investigate the contents of my hand baggage manually.
The next thing I heard was the sort of piercing shriek no human voice seemed capable of producing, even a post-operative member of the Vienna Boys Choir. It was a keening, ululating howl of terror which brought to mind the scene in "Godfather I", when the mafiosi wakes up to find the severed head of his prized racehorse on the adjacent pillow. It was clearly a moment to stand up and be counted, so I chose the sensible option and raced for the plane. As I made my way onboard, I could hear voluble protests from the guy who was next to me, but like Brer Fox, I lay low and said nuffink. He was a queue-jumper anyway.
Some years later, one of my confirmed bachelor uncles, X, decided that the time was ripe to find someone who would share his declining years. Since this was pre shaadi.com, several prospects were identified and rejected on various grounds: too short, too chatty, too much makeup…you get the picture? I felt the bar was being set too high, given that he wasn't exactly Leonardo di Caprio but again, as Brer Fox reminds us, silence is golden. Matters came abruptly to a head when his bossy sister shortlisted Yolanda, a comely lass of thirty summers, with all the right attributes plus a green card. X was scheduled to meet Y and see if their chromosomes matched.
Before this could take place, there was the delicate matter of protocol to be resolved: who should make the first move. Ardent swain is fine, I suggested, eager beaver is distinctly uncool. "You're the one who plays bridge with her father," I was told, "You fix it up." So, after being hounded for the better part of a fortnight, I took one for the family and decided on the parcel method. X could play the role of 'family friend delivering parcel' while checking out whether "Barkis was willing." The problem was that the father wouldn't cooperate; even after allowing him to win riches unto half my kingdom on the bridge table, the stingy old sod hadn't come up with a bottle of pickle. Oh Sailess, where are you when we need you?
There was only one solution: delving into the cupboard used to store recycled presents, I found an old ashtray. X duly delivered it in Poughkeepsie but the meeting did not go well. Apparently she was a charter member of the anti-smoking brigade and much before the peace pipe could be smoked, she hurled the offending 'gift' into the fireplace and smashed it to bits. X is still a bachelor, but on his frequent trips abroad the only song on his lips is Travellin' Light....