This story collected by Manojit Mishra belongs to the time 21 years ago when the so-called economic liberalization hasn’t yet begun. The author suffered at the hands of Customs officials in Kolkata because he didn’t know the rules to get duty-free books released from their clutches.
The word ‘ghoosh’ or bribe – now called ‘speed money’ – didn’t enjoy limelight in Bengali lexicon till early 80s. For the first time in my life sometime in 1983 I faced the prospect of paying bribe to a government official, a railway clerk at the Howrah station.
I felt very bad and my ‘Bengali’ pride was wounded since I imagined a Bengali would never indulge in such wrongdoings.
Events later proved I was totally wrong. As the ‘fight against imperialism’ got intense, the salivation for ‘ghoosh’ got even more intense, which made me wonder that there perhaps was a direct relation between the two. Let’s do some math.
Let’s say the pretense of fight against imperialism is termed ‘y’ and the propensity to take ghoosh is ‘x’. We then have,
or, y = kx, where ‘k’ is a constant. This ‘k’ can be termed as the ‘degree of salivation for ghoosh’, and it varies from state to state.
Thus in some states you’ve ‘bahubali ghoosh’ or ransom if you prefer. In others you’ve ‘chaipani ghoosh’ or tea-bribe, the value of which varies from condition to condition.
In our beloved Bengal the ‘k’ has a strange value you cannot see in any other state. I call the variety ‘gonotantrik ghoosh’ or democratic bribe where the sums collected underhand are divided uniformly among all.
There is a great advantage in this process. No one would complain about his or her share, and the booty will come irrespective of earning capacity. Since everyone is considered equal, if anybody dares break the rank, he or she will be immediately trapped and ‘caught’ as a wrongdoer.
It will not be uncommon to find a portion of the booty from everyone’s share stashed away for annual get-togethers like picnic in the winter and cultural functions, and even as loans to members in distress.
Okay, let me now go to this poignant tale sent by Manojit below. I’m not sure who the anonymous author is, and though Manojit doesn’t mind sharing it here I suppose I owe an apology to the actual author for not having his/her permission to have it in this blog. If any of the readers knows who actually wrote this piece, do please send the information.
The dialogs used by the author are in Bengali, and Manojit (and me as well) while sending it apologizes to the non-Bengali readers. My thanks to Manojit.
3 Books and Indian Customs
I had enrolled for the evening MBA program and was trying to be pretty serious about it. Asked my sister in the US to send over some books on IT and Systems Design. There was no email in those days and the only way to communicate was through normal snail mail – thus had to wait for over a month to get her reply. She said she was sending the books through “Air parcel” or something like that….
About three or four weeks later, I received a letter from the Chowringhee office of Air-India stating that I had a parcel awaiting collection by a certain date, and asking me to meet them. It was a Tuesday, I remember. My office at that time was very close to their address and I walked down to the place. The lady at the front-desk looked at the letter and said, “Na, na, ekhane na – please go to the cargo office of Dum Dum airport.” I asked her if I was required to produce any other document there. She said, “Keno ? Na – just take this letter.” She seemed to have this habit of speaking two words in Bengali before taking off in English…. I went back to my office and applied for leave for the next day.
The next morning I made my way to Dum Dum airport. At the cargo terminal there was this huge queue of people trying to get their stuff out. I made my way to one Customs officer standing all by himself under a tree in the forecourt as if he was glued to it… I showed him the letter and asked what I was supposed to do. He pointed to a small, glass covered cabin and said, “Oikhaney.” They say brevity is the soul of wit – this man was very witty indeed.
The man in the glass cabin looked at my letter, and said “Bill of Lading koi ?”
“Ki koi ?”
“Bill of Lading.”
“Seta ki ?”,was my surprised query.
“Maal chharate eshechhen, Bill of Lading janen na ?” Then looking at my astonished face, he must have guessed that I was not used to “maal chharano”, or perhaps, a novice in the trade, and said, “Customs House chenen ? Okhane giye Bill of Lading approve koriye anun.”
“Kintu Air India je bollo ei chithi dekhalei hobe ?” I queried.
The man gave me a sick grin and said, “Ora bolechhe ? Ora plane chalano chhada ar kichhu jane ?” I too, had absolutely no idea about Air India’s skills other than flying aircraft, so I moved on.
“Ota ek diney hobe ?”
“Jaan, to – okhane gelei sob bujhte parben,” was his curt reply.
As you go through life, you will keep meeting a certain group of people who view anything and everything around them with a profound disdain, perhaps secretly cursing the day they were born – people who spend their time on the “sidewalks of life” so to say, mere spectators in a vibrant universe. This fellow, it seems to me as I look back in time, was the chief of that group.
It was about eleven in the morning, so I thought I would take a taxi to BBD Bag, where the Customs House is, to save time and complete the exercise as soon as possible. For those of you who have not been to Customs House in the BBD Bag area, it is a magnificent colonial edifice on the Strand Road. It is a U-shaped building with a large courtyard, almost the size of a small football field, in front, used as a car park and for “gate meetings” of the trade unions – so rampant in those days.
I got off the taxi, had a quick lunch in one of the numerous restaurants dotting the area, and went in. Hundreds of people were milling around, or dashing about with loads of paper, all over the place. I spotted a sign that said “Enquiry” and went there. There were more people in front of the window than you would see at the ticket counter of a cinema running the latest hits.
Asked one young fellow standing near that counter, on how to go about things. He seemed decent enough and explained that I would have to fill up a “Bill of Entry” Form in triplicate, get it approved by the relevant authorities in the building, and then get the books released. “Fine,” I said, “where can I get the forms ?” He said he was looking for the forms himself and could not help me out there. I could hear a lot of people shouting and yelling at each other at the “Enquiry” window and decided it would not be of much help to me.
I joined the milling crowd, walking around, trying to figure out things for myself, when I saw this guy with a whole bunch of papers that seemed like the one I was looking for. I stopped him and asked about the BOE. He gave me one set of three papers and said, “Panchh rupiya.” I thought I would buy two sets in case I made a mistake in the first set. I gave him ten rupees for two sets.
A little further along the corridor I observed quite a number of people squatting on the floor and filling up the forms on the concrete benches, and moved towards them. I looked at the “Bill of Entry” form – the three pages were identical – the first sheet was printed in black, the second in green and the third in blue.
I do not know if you have noticed it, but many people, irrespective of how educated or well travelled they are, find filling up a form very intimidating and start looking around for help – and I was so young. I had to get help. Parked myself beside a guy dressed in business casuals, who was filling up a great number of those forms. I realised I had no carbon paper and asked him for two sheets. He bluntly refused – said he could help me out with filling the form, but no more…..
Thus I started – filled up the first one as per his instructions and then laboriously copied the information on to the other two. He then instructed me to go to the hall marked “Registration” and submit my form there. He also gave a piece of very good advice – that I should act and behave like a student and never let it be known that I was working. And then he warned me against talking to any man in white uniform in that building.
The “Registration” hall was filled with row upon row of desks, and people working busily. There were some ladies flitting about from one desk to another, transferring bunches of paper. All wore civilian clothes – the classical “BBD Bag office babu” variety – crumpled shirts with frayed collars, shapeless pants or “dhoti” and, sandals. The smartly dressed Customs officials, or rather their white uniforms, were nowhere to be seen.
I reached the desk nearest to me. “Ki chai ?” asked the guy. I explained that I had this set of books to be released from the Cargo Section at the airport. He put out his hand the take the forms. He looked at the forms and shrieked.
“Eki – eki korechhen ?”
I was nonplussed. “Keno ?”
“Carbon copy koren ni – eto birat problem. Sob pata alada alada korey hathey bhorechhen ?” he screamed. I said I had another blank set of the forms and could fill them up again if he could spare me two sheets of carbon paper.
“Eta Gom-ment opish. Paper joma diye change kora jaina,” he admonished me. He put a rubber stamp on all the three sheets, signed and put the date, and said, “Panchh taka din.” I paid up silently. “Ei paper gulo oi table – ey diye din verification er jonyo,” he said, pointing to a spot a few tables away. “Diye, ekhane ashun.” I obeyed like a lamb.
“Ota kisher verification ?” I asked. “Oi je carbon copy koren ni, tai sob entry check korte hobe to, eta Gom-ment opish,” he explained.
“Achha, etai ki Bill of Lading ?”
The fellow got visibly upset. “Apni notun eshechhen ?” he continued.
“Ei first time,” I confirmed.
“Boshun,” he said – as a matter of fact perhaps, because there was no chair to be seen anywhere in the hall, for the visitors. I remained standing.
“Ingrej amoley bill op lading bola hoto. Amra ekhon shadhin. Eta ke bill op entry bola hoy. Gom-ment opishey bhool nam bolle bhool kaaj hoye jabe – money rakhben.”
And then he leaned forward with a slightly creased brow. In a conspiratorial tone he said, “Ekhankar rules bole di – je table ey shudhu shoi hobe, sekhaney deben tin taka, jekhane shoi ar stamp porbe, sekhane panchh taka, jemon ami nilam, ar oi mohilader dekhchhen – ora khub gorib – oder deben du taka – apnar paper ek table theke onyo table ey niye jabe. Eto kagoj chari dike, dekhchhen to – Gom-ment opish bole kotha – hariye jaoa kono bep-a-ri noy, he,..he,…he,.”
Instructions and message delivered. I nodded in agreement.
A lady brought back my papers. “Oke panchh taka din – tin taka oi table ey, ar du taka or,” he instructed. I obeyed. He then got very busy with the whole bunch of papers on his desk and said, “Apni ektu ghurey ashun – ei adh ghonta moton.” I had no choice, but to get out and observe things.
I opened the spare set of the BOE forms I had with me. Printed in small italics on the upper right hand corner were the words, “This form is free.” A wave of indignation swept over me… I tried to look around for the guy who “sold” me the forms, but he was nowhere to be seen… I walked up the stairs to the first floor. There were more halls with people milling around as usual and on one side there was a row of cabins for the Assistant Commissioners – the men in white.
Went back to that guy who had my forms. He smiled and said, “Nin – apnar kaj hoye gechhe.”
“Airport jabo ?” I asked. He laughed out loud – and I did not like the sound of it.
“Se ki – ekhon to sobe registration holo. Boi te kono duty lage na – apni ei paper gulo niye do-tolai jan. Dekhben ekta no duty section achhe. Okhane joma din.”
Went upstairs as per his direction. Checked out the “NO DUTY” section. Another large hall, rows of desks, civilians working busily, ladies flitting about, no white uniforms, piles of paper on each desk. Approached the desk nearest to the door.
The fellow looked up, smiled at me, and said, “Ki – boi ?” I nodded.
He took the papers, looked them over, and asked, “Ekhankar niyom-tiyom janen to ?” I said yes, and that it had been explained to me in detail at the Registration Section. He pushed my papers beneath a pile of at least fifty BOE forms and said “Ekhon to prai panchhta bajhchhe, apni kal ashun.”
“Se ki, aaj hobe na ? Kal abar chhuti nite hobe ?” I checked myself – that was a faux pas. “Na, maney kaalke lab achhe, aar ekta important lecture achhe, jeta miss korte chai na,” I explained.
“Chhuti na nite chaile kauke pathiye deben,” – he was absolutely unemotional.
I went to my office and applied for two further days’ leave. I had a premonition that one day would not be sufficient. My boss – a particularly nasty specimen of humanity, sniped, “Boi uddhar korte giye to office mathai uthchhe,” then signed my application. I went home. Went to the local market and changed two hundred rupees into one, two and five-rupee denominations.
Reached Customs House at ten o’clock sharp, expecting to see empty tables and such things. Surprise of surprises !!!! Every person was at his desk, hard at work, and the visitors, like me, were starting to pour in. Went and met the guy in the “NO DUTY” section, I had talked to the previous afternoon.
He still had a smallish pile on his desk and asked me to wait outside. Started chatting with a tea vendor. Expressed my surprise that a Government office was so busy working so early in the morning. He was full of praise too.
“Ekhane keu konodin late to hoyei na, absent – o hoy na. Eksho dui jor niyeo kaj kore. Ar dekhben, table chhedeo keu othe na. Tana aat – dosh ghonta kaaj korey.” And then came the rider. “Opish na elei to prai panchh-sho taka khoti.”
“Tar maaney ?”
“Apni table-ey table-ey poysha den ni ?” I admitted that I did. “Tahole bujhe nin. Maine chhada roj jodi shoy shoy taka kamay – jor, osukh – bisukh, ashbe koth theke ? Aboshyo amio tar bhag pai botey – amar prai diney du’sho takar cha bikri hoy.” I was amazed at the scale of operations.
I moved back to that fellow. He signed and stamped my papers, entered something into a huge register and handed it back to me. I fished out five rupees. He frowned. I raised my eyebrows. “Dosh – register ey entry korlam na ?” I apologised for my oversight. “Oi table ey diye din kagoj gulo,” said he, pointing to a large table at the far corner of the room.
The person sitting there was the quintessential Bengali babu. Bi-focal glasses in a heavy brown frame, a frayed white shirt with four pens holding on to the breast pocket for dear life, paan-stained unsmiling lips and a few days’ stubble on sunken cheeks – something told me that here was trouble. I carried the papers to him. “Apni anlen keno ?”
“Oi bhadrolok je bollen ?”
He did not answer, but looked me over with X-ray eyes and took the papers. “Date op arribhal op goods, flight nombor, koi ?”
I showed him the letter from Air India. “Ete to airway bill nombor achhe. Ami jeta chai seta achhe ?” I agreed the data was missing.
“Jan niye ashun giye.” “Kothai jabo ?” I asked.
“Air India ke jiggesh korun – amake noy.”
I walked out of the hall, out of the building and took a taxi to the Air India office on Chowringhee. Met that lady once again and explained my problem. She said, “Eta to Liaison office – you have to go to Dum Dum.”
And so to Dum Dum I went. Back to that man in the glass cabin. Explained that I needed the date of arrival and flight number. He listened silently, took my airway bill number, entered it on the terminal in front of him and gave me the details. I raised my eyebrows and put my hand in my pocket. “Na amar lagbe na,” said he, “ar je information nebar jonyo apni abar eto dur elen, setao oder lagbe na.” His voice was dull and emotionless.
What a welcome insight !!!! I thanked him and took a taxi back to Customs house. The gate was blocked by a group of people waving flags and shouting slogans. Someone told me, “Ektu porey dhukben, ekhon lunch time gate meeting cholchhe.” I went off for lunch, too.
When I returned, the crowd had somewhat diminished, but the lecturing and shouting was still on. I went in, and up to that guy in bifocals. He smiled and said, “Eto taratari ?” As if he had sent me on some Herculean task and never expected me to return that day. I gave him the information, which he entered on my BOE, into some registers and called one of the ladies. She came and took a big bunch of papers and moved off to a table in the next row.
“Oke du taka diye deben, amar kintu dosh – chhap, shoi aar register.” I paid him and promised to pay the lady. “Inkela-a-a-b Jindabad,” he shouted suddenly, and everyone in the room joined in the chorus. I looked around in stupefied silence. There was another “Inkela-a-a-b Jindabad.” this time, all of them together.
“Ektu wait korun, amader gate meeting ta hoye jak,” he told me softly.
And it dawned on me…..I realised that all those guys at the gate did not belong to Customs House at all – they were outsiders. The employees of the Customs House were “attending” the meeting, sitting at their desks – and raising slogans at appropriate intervals.
I remembered the tea vendor’s words. Such is the lure of lucre.
I do not recall all the details of that afternoon, but it went on and on – table after table – three rupees, two rupees, three rupees, two rupees, five, two, three, two; money kept flowing out of my pocket as my papers hopped from table to table. My BOE got covered with stamps, signatures, tick marks and scratches. I wondered if anyone would be able to even read the document.
At about six-thirty, I was back at this man’s desk. The official hours were up to five-thirty in the afternoon, but no one had even budged from their seats.
“Eta ki kheshtan hobar boi ?” the fellow asked – he was obviously in the mood for chatting, the day’s work done and the pickings accounted for.
“Na. Management er boi.”
“Porle manager haoa jai ?” I could not figure out if there was mockery in his voice.
“Jani na, hoy to.”
“Gorment opisher dayitto kintu je kono manager – er theke onek beshi.” I was almost about to counter this statement, but remembered I was supposed to be a student, who is not aware of these things. I kept quiet.
By and by one of the ladies came over. “Aaj bajar monda gelo.” She fished out a cloth pouch from the folds of her sari (rather, I think it was from inside her petticoat, but will give her the benefit of doubt after all these years), poured out a heap of two-rupee notes on his table and started counting. Two hundred rupees. Then she shoved her hand into her blouse and pulled out another clutch of notes. Kept pawing herself till she was sure her blouse was not holding anything other than what it is supposed to. Two hundred and forty rupees.
“Dekhlen to, aaj bajar monda – ami thik bolechhi,” she told the man. “Ei gate meeting je din hoy, sedin gondogol.”
“Ki ar korben – otao to korte hobe – eta jemon sorkari dayitto otao temni party-r kaaj.” She finished counting, organised the notes, put the money back into her pouch and moved off.
“Era bechara diney tin sho, char sho taka kamay – majhe majhe kom porey jai, heh, heh.” I made a quick calculation – 5 days a week, 22 working days a month, Rs. 300/- a day, meant that lady was raking in at least Rs. 6600/- per month for just shifting papers around. “Then what about these other fellows”….I was getting lost in a brown study….
He suddenly realised I was still around. “Kal ashun – amar section er kaaj hoye gechhe – kaal ke delivery section ey pathiye debo.” (I do not exactly recall the name of the last section, but I presume that was it…)
I thanked him and buzzed off.
I was back there at ten o’ clock. Went straight up to the guy in the “NO DUTY” section. He recognised me and passed me two sheets of the paper – the blue and green forms. I asked him about the black one. “Ota amader section ey thakbe. Bojhen na, Gorment opishey shob record rakhtey hoy, bisha-a-a-l dayitto.”
He called a tea-boy and asked him to take me to the next section. I think it was on the second floor, but do not recall properly. Same kind of a huge hall, same description.
The fellow at the desk was very friendly. “Din, kagoj gulo din.” Then after scrutinising it, he said, “Amra khub systematic. Amar kachhe tirish taka din – aar apnake chinta korte hobe na. Ghonta-khanek ghurey ashun.” I went out of the building and walked to Eden Gardens – not to the stadium – but to the original park on Strand Road. Some of my office people were working at a nearby site and had come over for a cup of tea. Spent some time with them and walked back to Customs House.
The systematic guy was all smiles. “Apnar kaaj hoye gechhe,” said he, and handed me the green form. “Onyota amader opishey thakbe,” he explained.
I was about to thank him, when his face suddenly clouded over. “Dekhi to kagojta.”
“Ei dekhechhen, ashol kaajtai hoyni – ei shon – oi stamp ta koi ?” he asked someone behind him. A guy walked over with a rubber stamp.
He stamped my paper yet again. This time with the Govt. of India emblem.
“Ei char-matha shingho – r maney janen ?” He asked, as a way of making conversation, perhaps.
“Din – aro panch taka. Shoi ar chhap dutoi dilam. Eta na thakle apnar puro kaaj tai britha hoye jeto. Bojhen to, Gomment opishey koto dayitto niye kaaj korte hoy ?” I let him know that I was indeed impressed.
And then he smiled again. “Cha khaoan na.”
“Nishchoi” was my reply, “cha koi?”
“Oi to – EEiii ekhane cha de re”, screamed the guy to a little boy at the far corner of the room, walking around with a kettle and a bag of those earthen tea cups so eulogised by Laloo Yadav recently. The little fellow came. I asked him to give a cup of tea to the guy.
“Apnio nin – eki, ami eka khabo naki ?” he insisted. “De, de, dada ke ek cup de.” The boy poured out one more cup.
“Koto debo ?” I asked. “Ek taka,” said the little boy. I paid him and he went away.
We sipped our tea – he was obviously enjoying it a lot……
“Heh, heh,” he laughed – sounded like a duck being tickled, “dekhlen beta ki paji ?”
“Keno ? Paji keno ?”
“Amader theke tirish poysha ney, apnar theke aat anna nilo. Heh, heh.”
“To apni bollen na keno ?”
“Ki aar bolbo – bachchha chhele – gorib manush – duto poysha korchhe, chhede din,” was his casual reply.
He threw the tea-cup into a waste paper basket. “Jaan, ebar airport jaan.” I could not hold my happiness – after two and a half harrowing days I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Had a quick lunch, took a taxi once again and rushed to the airport. It was about three in the afternoon. Went straight to the counter at the cargo terminal. There was a small queue – about ten or twelve people. My turn came and I proudly presented my paper. These two gentlemen were in their white Customs uniform.
They looked at the paper, at each other, and then at me. I sensed something was wrong. They explained that I should have brought the blue form, not the green one, but it did not matter in my case, since there was no duty applicable. And that the release authorisation was a number to be stamped under those four lions – and it was missing.
I was almost on the verge of tears. I guess they were familiar with the workings of the Customs House. They said “We will open the package for you now, verify it and sign on the reverse of your paper – but we cannot release it until you get the release number from Customs House.”
They did that, I thanked them and headed back to Customs House, cursing that systematic, smiling fellow all the way. By the time I reached there, it was about five. Went straight to the guy.
“Apni nombor den ni ?”
“Amake eto dayitto niye eto kaaj korte hoy, apni dekhen ni keno ?” was his counter.
“Ami ki korey janbo – shingho chhap deoar poreo nombor lagbe ?”
“Mal chharan, aar eta janen na ?”
“Ami konodin mal chharai ni. Ei prothom bar amar porar boi chharate eshechhi.”
“Se ki !!! Apni student ? Clearing agency non ?”
“Tahole to….. Ettthhhh !!!” He stuck out his tongue like the Goddess Kali and remained in suspended animation for a few seconds.
“Khub onnyay holo apnar songe?? Thik achhe nombor dichhi, apni student bole hap phees din – panch taka.”
I had run out of five rupee notes – gave him ten.
The fellow took it, tapped his breast pocket, and said, “Amar kachhe to khuchro nei.” That S@#$%^&* breast pocket was bulging with five rupee notes….
“Rekhe din – ki ar korbo…. Ekhon to aar airport jete parbo na, kaal ke ki cargo terminal khola thakbe ?”
“Nishchoi – kintu barota porjonto.”
“Dekhun aar kichhu lagbe ki na.”
“Na, na chinta nei, he, he,” – his smile was bigger.
I was at the airport by ten-thirty. Joined the queue at the counter – I was number seventeen or eighteen.
There were two other men in white. They took my paper, I showed them the signature on the reverse, they nodded and brought out the parcel. It had a new orange sticker on it. The waiting period was over and I had to pay demurrage charges for one day. Fifty rupees. I was in a hurry. I asked them where I could pay up. They pointed to a room atop a small, two-storey-high tower, a little way off in the forecourt. The queue of people extended from the room, down the staircase and on to the ground – all waiting to pay up. No wonder there were so few people at the counter.
“Ok” I said to myself, “bite the bullet and do it.” I joined the queue, on a concrete courtyard, under a burning sun.
In about two hours’ time, I had climbed the stairs, one step at a time, and had reached the payment counter with my paper and the orange sticker. By the time I got back to the cargo terminal counter, it was almost two in the afternoon. The two men in white were gone. There was this fellow in bedraggled clothes bringing out the stuff.
He gave me my books and said with a smile, “Apnar bideshi maal pelen, amake kichhu deben na ?” I paid him the last ten rupees I had. Then walked for almost a kilometre before boarding a bus – I had no more money for a taxi, or even lunch.
I have never imported anything thereafter. That green BOE with countless stamps and signatures, I believe, is still around somewhere in the house among my old papers – a souvenir from an unforgettable experience. (I do have those books, too.)
I still remember the final tally :
- Rs.175/- towards “handling charges” for my BOE (with stamp, without stamp, entries on registers, carrying charges, tea and cigarettes) + Rs. 240/- for 5 taxi trips to and from the airport + Rs 10/- for 1 taxi trip between Chowringhee and Strand Road+ Rs. 50/- for demurrage = Rs. 475/-.
- Three days of casual leave and half of Saturday as earned leave. (The rule was that you could not take more than three days of casual leave at a time..)
- And I had not paid any “duty” on the imports.
- A victim of the “Licence Raj.”
That was 21 years ago, a time when, as a qualified engineer with more than 4 years of working experience, I made much less than Rs. 3000/- a month, and Rs.50 /- could buy you three to four days’ decent food for a family of two.
I believe the Govt. of India of the late nineties has done the nation a big favour by removing and / or marginalising this “Licence Raj.”