Whenever I read of a bomb blast somewhere in Pakistan — which is every other day — I think of Asma Jehangir. I hope she is safe in her home with her family in Lahore. She is prone to be wherever there is trouble. She defies the government, cocks a snook at religious bigots and propagates friendlier relations with India. She has become an icon of Indo-Pak brotherhood. She is in and out of India in connection with her work. When she has time to spare, she drops in on me. I welcome her visits. I get the latest news of what is going on in Pakistan at first hand.
Asma was in Delhi recently for heart surgery. Before returning to Lahore, she breezed in to see me. I was overjoyed. I started off with the stock question: “What is going on in Pakistan?”
“What do you want to know ?”
“Why do Muslims the world over, including Pakistan, suffer from a feeling of hurt and discrimination?”
She explained in detail: the decline of Muslim power, of the cultural and scientific supremacy it once had, and looking for scapegoats as excuse.
“Why the recent eruption of bigotry and its medieval penal codes — burqa, flogging girls, cutting off limbs, beheading, etc? Why don’t educated Pakistanis slam the door on their faces?”
“They do. There is a rising tide of resentment against the attempted Talibanising. We have had enough of them. You’ll see the results soon enough.”
“Stamp them out without killing them,” I said. “We in India have done so. Our fundoos count for very little today. They have been thrown into the dustbin of history.”
Asma Jehangir smiled and said, “Well done! We’ll do the same. Inshallah!”
Out of custom
My heart goes out to Sheetal Mafatlal who has been arrested by Mumbai customs for trying to smuggle in gold and jewellery worth several lakhs without paying customs duty on them. I am on her side as I too have tried to do so in the past because I think that once you have paid the full price for an article, it is unfair to make you pay more when you bring it home.
Her fate reminded me of a few encounters I had with customs officials.
The first was when I was in college in England. Once, on my way back to London by boat, I bought a camera at Port Said. It was an expensive German camera newly out in the market. The shopkeeper who sold it to me gave me a receipt giving half its real price, so that I would not have much to shell out to British customs. At Southampton, where I disembarked and my luggage was examined, I showed my new purchase and the receipt. The custom official took the camera out of its leather case and showed me its market price printed on it, in Deutsch mark. It was double the price on the receipt. Very shamefacedly, I paid the duty demanded. I began to hate my camera. I couldn’t get a single good photograph out of it. Years later, I gave it away to my son. He got many excellent shots out of the same camera.
Most of my foreign travel in later years was by air. I taught myself a few tricks. While in Bombay I had the logo of The Illustrated Weekly of India, of which I was the editor, reproduced on my suitcases. Customs officials were impressed and did not ask me too many questions. In Delhi I did the same with the logo of The Hindustan Times boldly displayed on my luggage. I was rarely asked to open my only suitcase. I walked through the green channel ‘nothing to declare’ with my head held high. I never felt guilty of cheating the customs.
Since customs officers got X-rays which show all there is in your baggage, it has become difficult to sneak in taxable items without paying tax on them. Sheetal Mafatlal should have known this before she catwalked through the green channel.
When you really know you have nothing to declare and a customs official refuses to believe anything you say, you can strike an indignant tone of righteousness. This happened to me when my wife and I were returning from a conference in Colombo. We had bought nothing as there was nothing worth buying. However, a cheeky young lass of Madras customs, new to her job, went through all we had and found nothing taxable. Her eyes fell on the gold Rolex watch I was wearing. She asked me to show it to her. I did so and told her it had belonged to my late father and was given to me by my mother when he died many years ago. And that I had been going in and out of foreign countries without anyone asking questions about it. “Why have you not put it in your passport?” she demanded. “Don’t be silly,” I roared, “Why the hell should it be on my passport?” She promptly reported my behaviour to her senior officer. He came fuming and asked me if I had used the word silly for her. I continued to roar, “You ask silly questions, you are silly. I am not paying duty on a 20-year old wrist watch. Do what you like.”
My tone carried the day. Or perhaps the label on my case, “Editor, The Hindustan Times.” He apologised and let me go.
File it, forget it
This is a true story of an ingenious politician who was head of a government company which was to buy 40 buses for its transport fleet. After getting his palm duly greased, he asked his procurement-in-charge to put up a note recommending that the buses be bought from a particular firm. The note was duly put up. The politician wrote ‘approved’ below the note and signed. Meanwhile, another firm had got wind of the deal, so they approached the politician with a better kick-back offer.
The politician recalled the file and added ‘Not’ in front of ‘Approved’. The original supplier then landed up and offered the politician a further cut. The politician calmly recalled the file a second time and added an ‘e’ after ‘Not’, so that now it read ‘Note Approved’.
(Contributed by Rajeshwari Singh, New Delhi)