Mrs. Radha Krishnamurthy landed in Chennai with her one-year-old daughter, Seema. She sucked a binky, comfortably resting on her mother’s left shoulder. Mrs. Krishnamurthy had already picked up her two suitcases and stood in line for Customs clearance.
A Customs officer, an elderly gentleman, clad in khaki uniform, felt sorry for her with the child and signaled her to move forward.
“Can I see your passport, please?” The officer smiled. His voice was pleasant and friendly.
Mrs. Krishnamurthy handed her US passport. The officer, with eye-glasses perched on the tip of his nose, carefully scrutinized it, page by page, back and forth.
“Mrs. Radha Krishnamurthy, I see. You are coming from States, I see.” He smiled.
In India people address others in authoritative position, “Sir,” and it makes a big difference. All the social and economic inequalities, racial prejudices, religious fanaticisms and age old inbred customs evaporate as soon as one uses this honorific. The person so greeted, feels elated.
“Mrs. Krishnamurthy, you stayed in Singapore for a day, I see.”
“A few hours, sir.”
“Did you buy anything in Singapore?”
“No sir, I stayed at the hotel and dozed off.”
“Open that suitcase, please,” he pointed as he handed the passport back to Mrs. Krishnamurthy. She placed the suitcase on the table and tried to open the suitcase. She had four keys and tried all of them on the lock turning clockwise and counterclockwise. When it didn’t work, she shook the lock, rather violently, in the hope it would somehow open. It didn’t budge.
The officer had seen such scenarios every day. In spite of his casual appearance, he did not miss a thing with his hawk-like eyesight.
“Mrs. Krishnamurthy,” he said, “maybe, it’s not your suitcase. The name tag reads Mrs. Usha.”
“Oh My God! Thank you, Sir. It’s jet lag.” She promised herself that she would paint her suitcases bright yellow, like that of a fire engine, so that she could spot them even in a dim light. She hurried to the baggage claims area, with Seema on her shoulder enjoying the ride. She dropped off Mrs. Usha’s suitcase, picked hers and returned to the customs place.
The officer pulled the different things from Mrs. Krishnamurthy’s suitcase. He looked suspiciously at a few nasogastric tubes that she was carrying to her friend’s father who was paralyzed and had to be fed through such a device. He picked up another small item, looked through its lens and asked, “What is this?”
“An otoscope head, sir.”
“Auto Scope? To check cars? How do you use this?”
“No sir, this is an otoscope head. Otoscope is for checking the ears.”
“I see. You need to pay tax on this.”
“My doctor friend here had lost this part and I’m taking it as a gift for him.”
“I see, Mrs. Krishnamurthy, you may sell and make a profit on it. So you have to pay tax.”
“Who will buy a head? That too, it’s an old piece. I don’t want it. You can throw it.”
The officer scrutinized the piece and dropped it in the suitcase.
He picked up a camera, thought for a moment and said, “You have to pay the duty on this.”
“Sir, I’m going to take it back. You may enter that in the passport.”
“Okay. I need the serial number.” He looked at the front, back, top and bottom of the camera. “Where is it?”
Mrs. Krishnamurthy also searched for the number. She even detached the lens and looked on the rim but couldn’t find it.
“Madam, did you buy it in a reputed store?”
“Why are you asking me this, sir?
He shook his head. “Some smuggled items won’t have serial numbers.” He lowered his voice and said, “It looks like a cheap camera. I won’t enter this in the passport.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now, since you stopped in Singapore, did you buy any biscuits?”
“Yes, sir. I did.”
“Ah, ha! Let me see. You may have to pay a lot of tax.”
“Oh, No.” Mrs. Krishnamurthy put her daughter down and searched her purse. She picked up her passport, toothpaste, brush, makeup creams, comb, powders and gum packets and placed them on the table. She looked in the child’s bag and after some searching fished out a half-empty Parle Biscuit packet. She placed it on the table as well and stood straight.
“Here it is. I can’t believe you’re levying tax on these biscuits.”
Immediately, the officer guffawed, his fat belly moving up and down. Mrs. Krishnamurthy was flabbergasted.
“I’m sorry madam, for laughing. Excuse me. I meant whether you bought Gold biscuits, but not Parle biscuits. You can go now.” He helped her to pack. “Enjoy your stay in Chennai.”