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  • Shelley Dark

3. The Indian sitcom begins

It's 4am and we've only been in India for a few hours but I just had to tell you about our arrival. So apologies for the lack of photos - just wait until tonight!

I'm sitting at the most beautiful wooden desk in our bedroom at the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Calcutta. I woke a while ago and thought, you must go back to sleep, you've only had four and a half hours. Then I began to think of our arrival last night, and laughter began to bubble up. No point in even trying.

It was a long flight - fifteen hours with a four and a half hour stopover in Singapore. And some poor darling parents had a baby who was very good for most of the trip, but by the end was so beside herself with exhaustion that she cried constantly. The parents were pleased to arrive in Kolkata and so were we.

You know the late night mindless walk along highly polished airport corridors to arrive at the customs area thinking only of bed? There was an absolute throng of Indian people lined up in long queues at customs. As we went to enter one, an Indian official caught my eye and asked to see our passports, to direct us. Hope! Maybe we were going to jump the queue???

He took one look, and shook his head. Oh no, oh no, he said. Not here. You must go there, and he pointed across what seemed like more miles of polished floors, over to a corner where there appeared to be an abandoned desk. There? I pointed too. Yes. He was sure. John let out just a tiny sigh of exasperation and off we went.

When we arrived in the far corner, there was indeed a desk, marked Immigration and manned by two men. One rapidly disappeared. I wondered why we needed immigration. Did they think we were migrating?

In front of the desk there were tiered steps, and in order to get close to the man behind the desk, I had to stand on the top one, which made me much much taller than I wanted to or needed to be. I was looking down at our helper.

Now, the official said, where are your passports? I handed them over. He flicked through them. Where are your visas? They're inside the front page with the photograph, I said. I had printed the visas that the travel agent had emailed to us, cut them out, and stuck them in. I wondered if that was a crime in India.

This? He stabbed at the form, and when I nodded, he tore it off the page. I could feel laughter starting to bubble up. Tiredness makes me laugh. This wasn't meant to be how we arrived in India. John muttered to me, don't mention the cricket (India has just lost a match against Australia in Sydney), and then we both laughed.

He studied things for a while, and then looked up at me. Please look at the box. I had no idea what box I should look at, but then saw a small one covered in fabric, on top of a pole, a bit lower than my eye height. I supposed it was a camera. I looked at it, wondering how they could make a camera look so much like a box. I stared at it, feeling very silly, then started to laugh. Fortunately, that didn't seem to make the man behind the counter angry.

Now he said, and he grabbed a black box from further along the counter, and slid back the lid. There was a glass top on it. I would have loved to take a photo, but thought the better of it. He stood up. Put your fingers on this, he said, and as I extended my hand, he grabbed it and shoved it on to the glass, very firmly, looking into my eyes rather pleasantly. It lit up green briefly. He sat back down and looked at a screen in front of him.

Oh no, not good he said. He stood again and pushed my fingers on to the glass again, waited, sat down, and looked again. No. Not good quality. Oh dear, I said. Maybe I don't have any fingerprints. I had gathered that's what we were doing. He laughed. I think you have dry fingers, ma'am. Oh really? I said. I must use hand cream more often.

Several attempts later, with much sighing, and shaking of head, he pushed a bowl with a wet sponge in it at me. In there, ma'am. In there? I asked. He was probably beginning to think I had a repetitive brain injury. He pushed my fingers on to the sponge, and then asked me to wipe them on a pale blue microfibre cloth. I did as he asked, but no, we still didn't get a quality impression. I could hear John behind me beginning to do big exhalations and I prayed he wasn't about to lose his cool. I don't know why but I was beginning to feel hysterical laughter even closer to the surface.

Finally after several wet dips, he chortled YES! We have quality ma'am. We all cheered. Including the small queue behind us. Now for the other hand. I was beginning to think that it would be way past midnight before we left the airport. We went through the same circus for the other hand. By now I had worked out that because the travel agency did the visa application online, this must be normal procedure. Made a mental note not to get an e-visa ever again.

Passport stamped! Yes!

John's turn. I prayed he would keep his good humour, but I needn't have worried. He was starting to enter into the spirit of the adventure as he stepped up on to the top step, towering over the desk below. No, no, sir, said our official, not up there. You must get down. More laughter. John stepped back down backwards.

How old are you sir? Seventy-one, said John. Oh good sir, said the man. Look at the box. John looked at the box, apparently for recognition. That's it sir, said the official. It? said John. No fingerprints? No, said our friend, whom I was beginning to like very much. No, you are too old. Oh good, said John. My wife could be a criminal, but I'm too old to be? Seems reasonable.

We all laughed again and off we went across to the still extremely long lines at customs. My heart sank. This was going to take hours more. When we arrived, I asked which queue we should join. Oh no queue madam, said the black-suited man. You can go now, take the fast lane. There was no one in the fast lane and we sped out of the customs area before anyone could say Stop! Illegal immigrants!

Luggage collected, and no further holdups until we tried to exit the cavernous airport space. A man standing at a tall lectern desk asked us for our customs declarations. Oh the man upstairs took them, I said, heart sinking. No, the customs form, he repeated. Yes, we gave them to the man upstairs. Incarceration seemed to be written all over his face. Or detention overnight at the least. He looked at our passports again. Looked up at us. Looked down again. Shrugged, and pointed to the door. ESCAPE!!!

Two beautifully suited young men from the hotel were holding up a big sign with our name on it. The darling driver in the photo way up above brought us to our hotel, yessuh, nosuh, yes ma'aming all the way.

On the way in there were wedding parties on the sides of the road (it's the wedding season ma'am), rows of shacks with roofs held down by sticks and stones.

Christmas lights are still festooning the city, dripping lines of purple and green, and long tunnels of yellow sparkling arches. Excited but exhausted, we were looking forward to bed.

photo courtesy wikimapia

The large double iron gates of the Oberoi Grand swung open, security staff swarmed around to check the bottom of our car with mirrors on long poles. More welcoming staff at the front door and a blissfully quick check in. The woodwork in the lift and on the desk in our room is the most beautifully intricate inlay.

Now it's 5am and I must shower to be ready for our photographic tour at 6.15am. No time to go over this and make corrections, so as Mark Twain or someone said, I'm sorry this is so long, I haven't had time to make it short.

Now for our first exciting day! After this early morning tour, we have another one at 11am and then an afternoon/evening one. We might be like rags tonight!

Hope the sitcom continues!

until then, buddies....


shelley dark, writer 

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