Friday, April 18, 2008

Rites of Passage ..

... through the airport customs, in this case.

On my recent trip back to India from SF, I was carrying some stuff for people, including a macbook pro. I had my own laptop, and my camera+lenses. It has been a while since I have had trouble with the legendary Indian Customs folks, but this time I was a little bit apprehensive, as I did have stuff that would be over the legal limit. And sure enough, as I went to pick up my baggage from the belt, I saw the dreaded white chalk marks on both my checked bags.

This is how it works : They x-ray the luggage as it gets on to the belts from the plane, and mark anything they see as "suspicious" in terms of dutiable goods. These are white chalk marks, and savvy travelers are often seen carrying a damp cloth to wipe these off. I have previously had these marks, but have managed to situate my luggage on the trolley in a way that they were not visible to the folks at the customs counter. But there was no escaping this time, the marks were on both bags, and had been done shrewedly enough that there was no way to hide them.

Interestingly, other hangers-on (a multitude of people doing nothing is a common site at any indian govt institution) had also seen the signs, and I started getting offers of "help" ! This basically means that for a small amount of money, this person will make sure that the customs folks dont look too carefully at my bags. I have a slight aversion to these people, and the way they slimily operate, though I am not totally averse to the idea of paying some money to save me some hassle. I know the logic is impeccable .. but dont ask me to explain !

I rejected all these advances, and started walking towards the exit. I was almost through, when this one young fellow quickly spotted the marked bags, and asked me to get them x-rayed again. I followed him, and put my stuff in the machine. My first bag had my camera, and I told him so.

Him : "What kind of camera ?"
Me: "Its a SLR with 2 lenses. I have owned these for a while, and take them with me everywhere"
Him : "Hmmm !"

Then we got to the second bag. I told him that I had a small camera as a gift for someone, and a small pen tablet. I did conveniently forget about the 24" LCD monitor and the macbook pro. Well, I did pack my luggage about a week ago, and had had many a druken revelry since then. I think I had a legitimate excuse !

At this point he thinks he has enough to extract some money out of me.

"How do you want to handle this Sir ? The camera and lenses are worth quite a bit, and we will have to charge duty on them"

I should have left it at that, given him a C note or so, and gone my merry way. But again, I wanted to justify myself.

"How can you charge duty on a camera which I have had for a while, and will take back with me when I go ?"
"Do you have a shipping manifesto for it ?" (or some such crap)"

Not getting the easy money, he now asked me to open the other bag. And stuff started spilling out. As soon as he saw the macbook, his eyes lit up. To be fair, you are allowed to import one laptop. I had my own, which I would take back with me. But this argument would not cut any ice with him. He had seen the light at the end of the silver tunnel, and he was not going to let any logic come between him and salvation.

500 Dollars. Thats how much it would cost me to get my stuff through. Unofficial, of course. I told him I did not have that kind of money, and started opening my walled to show him. He quickly stopped me, and sent me to a shady corner with another dude. I had $175 on me. Dude2 saw it, went to Dude1. Dude1 looked at me, and made a sign saying "No Way !". They left me alone to think about it.

So now I started down a path which I hate taking. I started calling poeple I know. I put in some calls, and stood there waiting while they called people they knew. Now Dudes 1 and 2 got some hint that I was trying to pull one on them, and got a little antsy. So after 5 minutes, Dude2 comes back to me

"Do you have any Indian currency ?"
"No !"
"OK .. lets settle this at $175"
"Hmmm .. lets wait for 5 minutes now. I called someone to help me, and let me tell him its OK now"

Now you could see some desperation creeping into his voice. He could see the moolah slipping out of his hands.

"Well, you can always tell them later. You can give me the money now, and lets get you out of here"
"No. lets wait for 5 minutes"

Now I got a call back from a contact, and he said that he was sending someone to help me. Sure enough, a inner door opened, a senior offiical showed up, and just told me to walk out of there. I did not need to be told twice !!

When I reflect back on this whole episode, I find that it does not bother my conscience at all. Theoretically, I should have paid a duty of about $50 on the stuff I was carrying. My own laptop and camera (that I have owned for a long time) should not have been included in the inventory of dutiable items. If the officer had been honest and logical, I would actually have paid that duty. That was the reason I did not avail of any "help". But the officer saw a potential source of money and made life difficult for me. I would even have paid the $175. But he was greedy. So he ended up with a big fat nada.

Serves him right !

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bollywood Dancing

Niki's cousing Neeta (cousin Neeta from now on) is married to a german fellow, and they are living in Delhi as expats. Lovely woman .. always upbeat, and ready for anything (like clubbing till 5 am). This inspite of having 2 kids. Anyway, one day she invited us to go to a local club on the "commercial night". This is when they play hindi/bollywood songs. She was meeting up with some friends from her Bollywood Dancing class.

I showed up not quite knowing what to expect. There was this set of women, all non-indian, all dancing (quite well, i must say) to the beats of "Beedi" ! One chinese woman, one mongolian, and two others that I forget. It was amazing. On later conversations, I found out that all of them are expats (husbands are diplomats mostly), and they find this a great way to keep fit. I met them all on and off on various night outs, and kinda know them by now.

On Saturday, we celebrated a belated Holi at Delphine's terrace. Bhang and beer were in abundance, as well as "pukka" colors from Dehradun. Cousin Neeta and one of the bollywood dancing girls (Nevis) decided to show us some moves from the class. We were treated to a amazing coordinated dance, exactly as Saroj Khan drew it up for the sets. Poeple were peeping from neighbouring houses. There was a rumor that tickets were being sold to let people watch ! This was no amateur stuff, the moves were highly choreographed steps, befitting professional dancers.

Now I was intrigued. Cousin Neeta asked me and Cousin Gogi (both with nothing to do) to come to this class with them. So we showed up at this house in Vasant Vihar on a tuesday morning. Let me just confess that our motives were not altogether altruistic or curious. The beginners class was just ending, and I met all of the other dancers, some of whom I knew from before. I also met the obviously gay indian youth who was the teacher.

And then the class started. The initial few songs were ones that had already been done, just to warm up. It was amazing to see these dozen or so women, none of them indian, gyrate sensuously to the latest hindi numbers. The dances were all very peppy, and specifically meant for "extras" that dance along with the stars in these videos. There were variations in style (some of the women were dancing more "athletically", some were more "sensuous", and some were very close to the western concept of modern dance), but as a group, they were extremely attractive to watch. The moves in these dances (as i discovered) are not the slightly languid and delicate stuff that goes on when the main actors are serenading each other. These are power moves, with each beat dissected to cram the maximum movement, and the dancers were really sweating after just one number. A great workout, as they pointed out.

The only complaint Cousin Neeta had with the teacher was that the moves were too "manly" !!

Maybe I will join the beginners class. Atleast check out the women there. Can't beat a workout that feels like a night out at the club. But this is a secret. I would never live down the stigma of learning Bollywood Dancing.