Vantage point

Monday, February 09, 2009

Travel Preparations from Apurvai by P.L. "PuLa" Deshpande

Previous PuLa translations -

My Newfound Spirituality
Mi Ani Mazha Shatrupaksha
Chitale Master
Sakharam Gatne, Part 2
Mumbaikar and Punekar, Nagpurkar

This is the first chapter from PuLa's travelogue book Apurvai, in which he describes his travels to Britain, Europe and America in the 1950s and 60s. I chose this particular chapter because it perfectly captures the travails of preparing for travel abroad. I could identify with a lot of things mentioned here. You might too.

I am not sure about the exact point in time when my preparations for going abroad began. What I am sure about is that it took me longer to figure out how to knot my tie, than it must have taken for Midas to tie the intricate Gordian knot. In the five to six hours before my flight, almost everyone in my family separately convinced me that I had no idea how to knot a tie. And starting from the tie knot to the right way to tie my shoelaces, everyone, whether they had been abroad or not, started quizzing me on irrelevant customs of the western world.

I had already spent the fortnight prior to that listening to everyone's opinions about the do's and dont's in a foreign country. When I expressed my intentions of wearing the shoes I currently use on my foreign trip, I was shoo-ed into silence and instructed to get brand new shoes which would be appropriate for the fashion and weather in England. Finally, I went to a Chinese shoe shop in Colaba and got the appropriate shoes made for 48 rupees. 48 rupees in those days were equivalent to about 4800 rupees today. For many days I couldn't bring myself to put those expensive shoes on my feet, treating them more as a display for my showcase. My feet, used to things like flip flops, kolhapuri chappals and sandals felt very uncomfortable in such opulent shoes.

As it is, my obscenely large feet never fit snugly into the standard shoe sizes. The Creator probably got wind of my body's expansionist intentions, and blessed me feet of an appropriately safe surface area to be able to handle any weight I might put on. Then there are the size variations in different shoe manufacturers. So the Chinese shoe seller in Colaba was really annoyed at my feet.

"Vely big pheet, vely vely big pheet" he said. "Leadymade shoes not fit. Need to make shoes." he said with an expression suggesting that he thought that the only right price to pay for making someone stitch shoes for me was to offer my own skin to be used instead of leather. Although when he told me the actual price, I couldn't help but think that I would prefer being hit on my head with those yet-unstitched shoes than part with those doubloons.

Even trickier than the question of my boots, turned out to be the issue of my suit. I don't recall any tailor ever messing up my clothes. Because I am not quite sure how clothes can get messed up. As long as it isn't too small for me, I will wear anything. Proper fitting, the right cut, the right flow and all are things I have never thought about. But I was told by everyone that in England, you need to be dressed very spiffily. Whatever you wear must fit right and look good. So goaded by unsolicited advice from my friends, I visited a tailor, also in Colaba, who stitched clothes only for people going abroad.

This gentleman must have a really low opinion of me. First of all, he refused to believe that I looked like someone who could be headed abroad. Even after repeated assurances that it was so, he wore his doubts on his face. Secondly, just to prove that clothes he stitches are being worn by people abroad, he insisted on speaking only in English. And really bad English at that. Although I was speaking to him in Hindi, he refused to let go of English. Of course, my Hindi was as badly stitched together as his English, so I guess we were on equal footing.

He really came into his element while taking measurements. Told me that my shoulders are uneven. Okay, they might be, but did he really need to tell me that? My stomach juta way in front of my chest. Okay. My neck doesn't really have a shape of its own. And how that neck hunches when I walk. He kept on making useless observations like that.

Even after that intense measurement session, he kept calling me every few days for "trials". That was when I truly understood why the inquisition of an accused criminal is called a "trial". Every trial at the tailor's seemed like an actual criminal trial. He would put some pieces of fabric all over my body, and then shake his head in disappoinment and mutter,

"No no no no, your tummy... hmpf... your left shoulder shorter than the right...hmpppfff" and with his chalk he'd angrily draw some more lines all over the fabric. Finally after several days full of these trials and tribulations, the suit was ready. I put on the suit and stood in front of him like a guilty defendant. And that is when he looked happy at last. Happy with himself for having hidden all my bodily flaws so adroitly. He passed his verdict - the suit looked good on me. I could now walk the streets of London without fear of any ridicule, he said. And I was finally acquitted.

As the day of my flight started approaching, things got even more tense. Taking a flight meant that my luggage could not weigh even an ounce more than 44 lbs. So I lost a few nights' sleep trying to figure out what all could fit into 44 lbs. A lot of my advisers seemed to feel that for someone of my generous proportions, the suit alone would weigh in at 44 lbs. But then someone mentioned that whatever you wear on your person does not count towards the luggage weight limit. So the next suggestion was that I should wear as many of my clothes as possible. And of course, my wife kept adding more and more saris to our luggage under the excuse that a sari doesn't really weigh much. Whenever she bought a new sari for the trip, it would be accompanied by the comment "after all, it weighs only 100 grams".

I would wear the suit for the flight of course. And one heavy shirt. But wearing 5-6 shirts would have been too much. Agreed that the cold London weather would have meant that wearing all those shirts might be fine. But what about the drive in the hot humid weather till the Mumbai airport? At the end of that drive, I might have sweated myself out of existence. It would have been like H.G.Wells' Invisible Man. A heavy coat, clothes, and a lot of layers, but underneath - nothing!

The advisory council came up with the solution - nylon shirts. They are light, and they dry easily, I was told. So all my other shirts were discarded in favor of new nylon shirts. And of course, that meant 2 extra saris for my wife.

Next came the question of currency. How many pounds or dollars can you legally take with you out of the country? There seem to be different and independent schools of thought on this question.

One school of thought - "Take as many pounds/dollars as you want. No one cares."

Another school of thought - "I think you can take up to 5000 rupees in foreign currency, because when my uncle went to England, he took 5000 rupees worth of pounds with him."

"When had your uncle gone to England?", I asked.

"Oh, he has died now." came the answer.

"But he had gone to England before dying, right" I pressed on.

"Of course. I swear, you never let go of an opportunity to crack a joke, P.L." he smiled. "Let's see, my uncle died.... about 14 years ago... in 1946. When he went to England, I was... 2 years old. And I will turn 40 next month."

"Great! So when you uncle went to England 38 years ago, he was able to take 5000 rupees in pounds with him. How does that help me figure out how much I can take? Those were the days of the British Raj. This is Nehru's India." I said.

"Yeah, of course. Just take inflation into account. Let's see, how much did milk cost in those days? Hmm.... I think the government will allow you to take at least 10,000 rupees worth of foreign currency", he confidently said.

"You think so?"

"Of course!"

There was also another incredible school of thought. These advisers were under the misconception that a certain amount of foreign exchange quota means that the government gifts you that foreign exchange to congratulate you for going abroad. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Then there were people who were very paranoid - "Be careful, OK? I think nowadays, you are not allowed to take even a single paisa worth of foreign exchange out of the country."

I had no idea how these people thought it possible to make this 5,000 miles journey without a single paisa worth of foreign exchange.

Next, I knew that you get a lot of things free on an airplane - food, drinks, etc. But how much should I pay the coolie at the London airport? This typical Puneri question popped into my head.

As soon as I mentioned this doubt to an England-returned friend of mine, he gave a start like a priest who had just heard the communists were coming.

"Coolie?? There are no coolies-woolies in England, P.L." he thundered, "Try shouting 'Coolie, Coolie' in the London airport. No one will turn up."

"Of course, no one will come if I shout Coolie Coolie. But what if I shout 'porter, porter'?" I countered.

"Trust me, even if someone does show up, they will charge you an arm and a leg. You won't be able to afford them. They will charge you 1 pound just to haul one suitcase." he said.

"Oh god, that means 13 rupees", my wife interjected at once with her conversion skills. "13 rupees to haul one suitcase? In india, we can buy a suitcase for 13 rupees! Coolies have it made in England, don't they."

She also suggested to me that when I had some free time in England, I could moonlight as a porter to lose some pounds weightwise, and gain some pounds moneywise.

Then there was the question of buying air tickets. Till now I was only used to buying train or bus tickets for places like Nippani, Chiplun, Ratnagiri, Sankeshwar, Kolhapur, Sangli etc. So we had no idea about where and how one gets air tickets for London. Finally I figured out where the airline company's office was and went there. It was posh and opulent, and seemed even more so than the bus stations and train stations that I usually frequented. I felt very out of place in that posh setting. And I had no idea how to actually buy a ticket for London. Do I just walk over with my cash and say "2 for London". Do I wait for someone to come over and help me? I was lost.

And it reminded me of an episode from my younger days. This happened back when the Emperor of India was King George V. A few friends and I had decided to go to a posh restaurant called Mongini's in Bombay. Mongini's in those days was the epitome of a fancy inaccessible place for us. Almost exclusively the preserve of Britishers and Parsis. Of course now, King George V and Mongini's are both ancient history. We saved up money and decided to dine there. The effect that the huge and brightly lit sign "Mongini's" had on us was similar to the effect a "Beware of dog" sign might have on some people.

Until that day, our collective culinary experiences were limited to the humble and often nameless marathi eateries owned by Mama Kane, Kaka Tambe and the likes. And even our English was very textbookish, with little conversational experience in the King's language. So whether an afternoon meal is called dinner or supper - we started arguing over that right at the entrance of Mongini's. What exactly should we order once we go in?

The four of us together had come up with 10 rupees. If that sounds measly, remember that in those days, a full course vegetarian meal in a decent marathi restaurant would cost 15 paise, and if you order mutton extra - 25 paise. So we calculated that even if the prices were ten times as higher in Mongini's, 10 rupees should be enough for the four of us.

Basically, we were on sound footing financially, and money wasn't the reason we were feeling so out of place. The big problem was, how precisely to order food? Finally we all decided to trust our respective family gods and goddesses and entered the restaurant.

For a long time, no one paid any attention to us. We were also just standing there dumbfounded in that unfamiliar atmosphere. Those big tables with clean white tablecloth. The unfamiliar english music wafting in from a corner. Even in the middle of the afternoon, that restaurant was darkish, and there were dim lights on. And yet the silverware on the table was sparkling brightly. In those days, a fork on the table made us very uncomfortable. It was a mystery why people needed a spoon, a knife and a fork to eat.

We weren't worried about eating something that went against religious diktats. The worries were of a more mundane nature - about rights and wrong. Is it acceptable to dunk bread in soup and then eat it? Or is it frowned upon? There are 2-3 different knives and forks on a table - what exactly are they used for? What do you hold in the left hand - a knife or a fork? We were being tormented by such fundamental questions.

Just as we were all standing there, confused and a little bit panicky, a British waiter approached us

"Yes, Sir??" he said in a deep baritone.

This was the first time a white man had actually called me "Sir" and I couldn't help but feel thrilled at it. He escorted us to a table and seated us. We all wiped the sweat off our foreheads and sat down, a little comforted. And based on our experiences in regular desi eateries, Nilu asked him the standard opening question in English -

"What is hot?"

The white waiter predictably misunderstood the question, and switched the fan on. Gave us each a menu. The next few minutes were spent in trying to decode the menu. I spotted something called "horse de.." something. I had no idea what the horse on the menu meant, but was reasonably sure that it didn't refer to horse meat. We had no idea what any of the words on the menu meant. All we could understand were the prices in front of those words.

Now the fundamental question of how and what exactly to order, made a spectacular comeback with twice the urgency. The waiter was no help of course. He seemed to be impersonating a display from Madame Tussaud's. Nary a muscle on his face moving. Completely stationary. Finally Nilu again tried to ask -

"What is hot? What is hot?"

No response!

Then we finally tried to just smile at him, hoping for some sign of life. Again, no response. A few awkward minutes of silence. Finally one of us managed to come up with a convincing sentence to place an order -

"Four cups of tea, and biskoots!"

"For teas. Thank you, Sir." the waiter finally responded, and left.

We plunged into another debate - is "teas" the plural of "tea"? None of us recalled this tidbit from Tarkhadkar, Nelson, McMillan or any other textbook. We wondered if the waiter might have confused "four teas" with "forties". Govind speculated that maybe the waiter thought we were ordering 40 biscuits. If so, well, we could each easily eat 10 biscuits and have our fill, we thought.

Finally the waiter came with a tray. All we saw was four cups and what looked like a pillow. What was the pillow doing there? Many years later, I learnt that it was a tea cosy. Nilu however thought it was a bag filled with 40 biscuits. He enthusiastically tried to lift it up. I don't need to elaborate too much on what happened next. Most of the scalding tea ended up on our clothes, and we paid the bill and shamefacedly got the hell out of that restaurant.

Even after memorizing textbooks like Tarkhadkar, Kale, Nelson and McMillan inside out, we still had no idea how to go to an English restaurant and order food. To this day, my heart starts racing when I pass the street where Mongini's used to be. At the height of the freedom struggle, one of the ideas I always had was to march into Mongini's and vandalize the whole place, break all their chinaware and destroy their tea cosies. Never acted on it, of course. But that's how deep the scars on my psyche were from the Mongini's episode.

And those scars were throbbing as I stood in the airline's office wondering how exactly to buy a ticket to London. Also, it was really hot in Bombay that day. So I was wearing a cotton kurta pyjama which seemed really odd in contrast to all the suit and skirts there. That made me feel even more out of place. I have never had the occasion of speaking with women who look like those models from the glossy pages of English magazines. On top of that, their laboriously practiced smiles as if straight out of a toothpaste commercial, their intoxicating perfumes, and their excessively nice hospitality also threw me off. I was still grappling with the question of how to ask for a ticket.

Now actually, my ticket had already been purchased. I just had to collect it from there. But before getting those tickets, there were a lot of hoops to be jumped through, which my wife and I had been busy with for a month.

The question of which vaccinations are needed to visit England, had been answered thus by our collective advisory council - except for asthma, cancer and pregnancy, take vaccinations for every possible medical condition.

"Make sure you get a smallpox injection"

"Cholera..cholera... don't forget cholera!"

Typhoid, hepatitis, plague, malaria, measles, rubella, conjunctivitis, pneumonia, arthritis, blood pressure.....diabetes!!! Each adviser suggested every possible illness he or she could think of, whether there were vaccines for it or not. Obviously, there were disagreements over this too. Some said that a mere smallpox vaccine should be enough. Others insisted that cholera and typhoid should be covered too. There was some confusion over hepatitis though. Some said that a hepatitis vaccine is necessary only when traveling to America. Others disagreed.

Finally, there was a consensus on smallpox, so we embarked on that assignment. Of course, we were concerned because only the Bombay Municipal Corporation could administer smallpox vaccines. Because once a government body is involved, it is unlikely that anything will be done on time. Doesn't matter if the government body is from Bombay or Venezuela.

But surprisingly, the BMC's vaccination office was very efficient and even troublingly compassionate. I have always had a phobia for needles. But not my wife. She faced the needles with the enthusiasm of someone getting their first tattoo. Finally, it turned out that of the 72 diseases on our list, we didn't need vaccinations for 70 of them. All we needed were vaccinations for smallpox and cholera.

I was always under the impression that you go to the Haffkine Institute only if a dog bites you. Luckily, no dog has ever found me worthy of sinking its teeth into. I have encountered a lot of dogs in my lifetime, but neither of them felt the need to raise its mouth..... or leg, targeting me. So when we went to Haffkine Institute, I made sure I told every employee I met,

"I want a cholera shot, not a shot for rabies. Keep that in mind, OK?

There was a long line of about a 100 shot-seekers in front of me. Finally when my turn came, the doctor asked

"Hmm, so where are you going?"

"To Cholera" I answered, absent-mindedly.


"No no. I mean England. I am going to England." I corrected myself.

"OK. Passport?"

I had forgotten to take my passport along. No one had told me that I needed my passport with me to take a shot. The time spent in standing in line for two hours had been wasted. I repeated the whole exercise the next day with my passport, and got the cholera shot.

All these matters of passports and visas for going abroad are really painful. Luckily, I had my passport ready thanks to a canceled foreign trip for a few years ago. But I was worried about only one thing - my photo on the passport. That photo looks like one of the picture's from the FBI's "Most Wanted" list that you see on display boards. Another point of concern was my signature on the passport. My signature changes almost on a daily basis. I don't face these troubles in my bank dealings because there's always a known face sitting in the teller's chair.

So my travel preparations were progressing slowly but surely. Just as I was preparing for my trip, a new situation erupted in the Middle East. American warplanes went somewhere. Russians responded by sending their own warplanes. A few other nations responded by sending their warplanes and ships to the Middle East. Presidents and Prime Ministers started visiting each other for some reason or the other. Although I had no issues with any of these nations on a personal basis, they cast a dark cloud on my foreign trip.

For the first time ever, names like Nasser, Eisenhower, Khruschev, McMillan etc started being discussed in our house. Some advisers were sure that there won't be war. Others said that World War 3 was now imminent. In these times of global tensions, I was more worried about whether to buy nylon socks or not. Because now things had progressed from primary shopping to miscellaneous shopping. The departure date was confirmed at least from my side. The question was about the international situation and what the UN would have to say about it. The situation kept improving and deteriorating.

Whoever those Big 4 or Big 5 or whoever those leaders were, would suddenly come to life. Sometimes they would growl at each other. Other times, they would "show restraint". The entire Middle East was standing like a firm wall in front of my westward journey. Of course, there were well-wishers who kept reminding us "You never know when your flight could get canceled because of this situation". Some folks immediately took a look at my horoscope and announced "the trip looks unlikely". Others looked at the same horoscope and declared "the trip is certain!".

I started warming up to astrologers who kept insisting that a war was unlikely. I had dreamed of going abroad since I was a kid. So whenever some self-proclaimed palmist examined my hand, my first question was always - "do you see a foreign trip in there?". They say that the "foreign trip" line is somewhere near the wrist. Whenever a few warplanes flew somewhere, I would imagine that the line had moved away from my wrist.

Finally, the airplane tickets were delivered to us. I have always guarded all kinds of tickets with greater zealousness than my own honor. Particularly if the trip is a long one, the night before the journey, I always put the tickets in my pocket and close the pockets shut with a safety pin. One of my recurring nightmares has been of being caught without a ticket in a train journey by the ticket collector. So I am a bit paranoid about tickets.

Finally, all the preparations were done. The Middle East calmed down just in time. And whenever someone asked "so when are you leaving?", I was able to answer confidently - "On August 20th!!"

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