So I take the tube back to Paddington, looking around in case this be the same train and a blue rucksack peeked out of somewhere.
No such luck as I step out of the station half an hour later into the chilly winter night. It was February end so winter was on its last leg but its kick was nevertheless quite teeth chattering. It didn’t help looking at a window display that read “End of winter sales”.
Anyway, I was back at the small family-run hotel, very down if I may add, even though the guy at the Air India counter told me the airline would put me back on a plane to Kolkata as soon as I got a Transfer Certificate (TC – a one-time document allowing me to fly back) from the Indian High Commission.
The lady at the hotel comforted me like a mother and I had my room back, the one I had checked out in the morning. It was so comforting.
After spending a sleepless night, woke up early nervous as hell not knowing what awaited me at the India House.
I was told the high commission in Aldwych was a walking distance from Covent Garden tube station. But I was in such a disturbed state of mind that it often eluded me while walking past historic buildings such as the BBC World Service headquarters that I was in London and I should look around.
After much walking and not noticing some more landmarks I reached the gates of India House — a marvellous edifice that I’m told was inaugurated by Nehru himself (but don’t rely on my GK). I would like to call the building a fine example of Victorian architecture but I’m not sure if it is one!
It was London when I entered the compound but the moment I stepped inside the building I wasn’t so sure. “Oye katthey ja riya hai?” A burly Jat securityman accosted me. I was apparently going towards a restricted area inside the main hall.
I had the uneasy feeling of being at home with unknown relatives — lots of them. It was as chaotic and noisy as a government office is back home.
Somehow I managed to make my way through to the restricted area and found the PR manager. Showed him my Times of India, Kolkata press card and begged for help. It turned out he knew some journos from The Telegraph where I worked previously.
Things became easy. The good man, I forget his name, fast-tracked my application. I was told I could get a new passport for 170 pounds but I settled for the TC which was 40 pounds or something.
Then it was over to Mr Desai at the passport counter. He accepted my application and wrote me a receipt that had my name spelt wrong. I pointed this out to him in Hindi and he replied: “Arey bhai fikar mat karo tumhara pura agla pichla itihaas dekhne ke baad he TC milega.”
I settled for his assurance and asked when will I get it. He said come on Monday. Monday? I panicked. It was Thursday and I couldn’t possibly wait that long. So played the media card again and told him Mr X the PR man said I could get it today. Mr Desai relented and asked me to come after 3 in the afternoon, which meant I had more than four hours to kill.
The five days in London before the tragedy were bright and sunny and this day was as gloomy as my mood. When I stepped out of India House it had begun to rain.
But now that I knew I was not going to have to seek asylum in Britain or live the life of an illegal immigrant, my mood lifted a bit with the realisation that I could catch a flight home tonight if I got the TC by afternoon.
So walking aimlessly around I began to see the landmarks that I missed while coming here. I figured I was in West End where most of the famous London theatres are located. Walking a bit more it was the London School of Economics where I always wanted to study. Got myself photographed in front of the LSE signboard with the intention of showing it to my grandchildren that I studied here.
After wondering some more reached Trafalgar Square, by now it was sunny. Sat down on the steps of the National Gallery wolfed down a mcburger, smoked a few cigarettes and watched the birds (both varieties).
Soon it was time to go back to India House for my rendezvous with Mr Desai. Back at the main hall, the crowd was getting thinner. It was 4 pm now but no trace of my TC yet. I was told it had to be signed by some top boss of the high commission so it’ll take time.
By 5, the crowd was down to just seven of us and I was glad to note that contrary to my belief I was not the only idiot on earth to have lost his passport.
Like us, the securityman who had stopped me earlier in the day, was also getting impatient — it was 5.30 and time to shut shop for the extended weekend.
Panic returned when I saw Desai preparing to leave. There were murmurs in the group how could he leave without us getting the TC?
Feeling brave I caught hold of him. “Sir why don’t you sit and chat with us till the papers come,” I said as politely as I could while the others joined in blocking his way.
Now it was his turn to plead, “Arey bhai mujhe jaane do, I have promised my wife and kids to take them out.” To which I replied, “Sir hum bhi aapke bachche hain yahan videsh mein phanse hue hain!”
He smiled realising there was no escape. I tried to chat him up to keep him in good humour. Thirty more minutes passed and just as the burly guard was threatening to leave Desai with the keys, the papers came.
Not surprisingly mine was the last in the bunch. And not surprisingly either me and my dad’s surname was spelt wrong. So much for Desai’s filmy dialogue.
I accosted him again. In a hurry to go home, he took out his pen and corrected my spelling. But when I told him my father’s surname was wrong too he suddenly realised that he was not authorised to run his pen over a government of India document.
“Oh my god I shouldn’t have done that,” he murmured under his breath and I started counting my blessings — they would fall short I figured.
Now I was angry, diplomat or not I gave him a blasting. He tried to pacify me saying they’ll only be too happy to let you go you know UK has such a huge problem of illegal immigration.
Unfortunately, my anger subsides easily. I got back my humour looking at the man’s sweating face. He kept saying sorry. I said Desai saab if I’m stopped I’m coming back to live at your place because I don’t have any money. At this he took out his business card and wrote down his phone number and home address. Handing it to me he said, “You’re most welcome to stay at my place.”
We shook hands and I left for Heathrow to book my flight.
But my travails hadn’t ended yet. At the Air India counter, the manager recognised me from the other day and congratulated me for getting the TC so fast. But added that all flights to Kolkata were booked for the next two days because Bangladesh Biman flights to Dhaka have been cancelled for the entire week.
Wonderful! Anyhow I booked myself a place on the third day after paying a transfer fee of 75 pounds (nearly Rs 7,000). I also showed them the TC and Mr Desai’s overwriting on it. But the manager assured me that won’t be a problem.
Now with some relief I headed back clutching the TC like my life depended on it, which did depend on it. Reached hotel exhausted, skipped dinner to save money for the next two days having only a mcburger to keep alive.
But slept peacefully that night and woke up to a bright morning. Tried to enjoy my last two days of enforced holiday in London — taking a stroll in the Hyde Park, smoking away to glory by the Thames, checking out 21B Baker Street home of Sherlock Holmes and the “bargain market” of Portobello where I realised even the sight of biriyani can kill you if you’ve only had burgers for two days.
But again these are stories for another time!