‘Around The World’ was a 1967 is a Bollywood romantic comedy that starred Raj Kapoor and Rajshree. It was the first 70 mm movie in India and took the audience on a tour around the world together with Raj Kapoor. The song ‘Around the world in eight dollars’ referred to the number of dollars, or an equivalent foreign currency, that an Indian was allowed, by GoI rules, to obtain by converting rupees into foreign currencies. unbelievable? Well, that was the situation in 1967.
I had my first and second foreign visits in the Navy in the year 1974, on Delhi (as a Cadet) and on Tir (as a Midshipman) respectively. When abroad, Navy personnel are given a Daily Allowance in foreign currency and on return we face Customs Clearance in the same manner as people face whilst returning from abroad, say, by air. The only difference is that these men in whites (just like us) are willing to allow us a little extra provided they are convinced the items are for home-use only. In my later life, I talked to a few of them and they told me that our own procedures and authorities are even stricter than theirs and hence when they arrive on board for the Customs Clearance, they are prepared to have a good time themselves, which is sharp contrast to the pulls and pushes, deception and chicanery that they are subjected to elsewhere and on everyday basis.
My second CO on INS Talwar: KMS Rajan (as gentlemanly as they come; God rest his soul) once won a prize (in Navy Ball raffle): a return ticket for two on board MV Chidambram plying between Chennai (that time still called Madras) and Singapore. That time Captain Rajan told me that the amount of smuggling that people indulged in was to be seen to be believed. He said people carried back huge suitcases and boxes. The procedure at the Custom Clearance was for these men to kinda forget one of these there (as a gift for the Custom people). He told me that when he and his wife disembarked with just a small suitcase, all kinds of officials descended on them. Just like in the chaotic traffic on our roads, the one who follows traffic rules is actually a menace; similarly, it appeared that they were suspecting that KMS Rajan was probably smuggling gold or diamonds.
I remember this news item in Feb 1985 about MV Chidambram having fire on board in which 11 people died. It was said that the ship had long ago outlived its safe life; however, vested interests had kept it afloat.
I also remember my first purchase abroad was a fishing rod complete with a few accessories such as reel and hooks. I wrote the actual worth of the rod, as a Midshipman on INS Tir, and paid a duty of Rupees 125 on it. The rod is still there with me in Kandaghat. Whenever I sat down for angling, I willed the fish to get caught, silently telling them that I was probably the only honest fisherman in the world (Well, the other one was the fisherman who, returning home after his abortive full-day fishing expedition, went to a fish shop and bought fish and then asked the vendor to throw it to him since he was going to tell his wife, honestly, that he caught it!)
By the time I became a commissioned officer I too had learnt the tricks of the trade. On Ganga, for example, I was responsible for the Custom Clearance of the ship together with PMC (President Mess Committee) of the Wardroom Mess: the ship’s Cdr E. After downing his fifth large one, one of the Custom Officers showed me a Custom Declaration Form of a sailor. It read: Three-in-one Music System cum Camera cum VCR – Rupees 250. He said, “We are used to drinking large quantities of Scotch. I am never so drunk that I can’t make out that they haven’t yet made Music Systems with Camera and VCR. I dutifully (what an expression!) got the form changed through the sailor. Thirty years later, though, we all carry these in our pockets; they still don’t cost Rupees 250.
Despite all our so – called smartness, we in the armed forces are still bimbos. I learnt it when four of us were going on a deputation to Spain. There was this IFS officer who I met at the airport who was also going to Spain. I found that whilst we were going via Frankfurt, this one was going via Dubai. I sympathised with him that he couldn’t get a proper connection. He said he had asked for the one via Dubai whereat he would spend the whole day, do shopping, leave the stuff there with receipts of having paid for on that date and collect them on the way back as ‘used items‘ during his deputation in Spain!
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