By Jerry Pinto
ON THE DAY that Mumbai was attacked by terrorists, I was in the Philippines, attending a conference on encouraging financial education among children in Asia. I was representing MelJol, a children’s organisation that has pioneered an entrepreneurship scheme that is now in use in 50 countries across the world. On the last day, my Filipino hosts gave me a memento: a bamboo savings box, about as long as my arm. I thought, “This is going to cause a lot of problems with customs back in Mumbai.”
The airlines politely told me that I could not carry it as hand luggage. They would, the lady at the counter said, wrap it up nicely and stow it safely. I agreed readily, because it didn’t really matter if the savings box ended up as splinters. There was no money in it anyway.
When I arrived at Mumbai, it was on the day that the whole catastrophe had ended, the last terrorists were dead; the city had begun to recover. I expected customs to be a nightmare of paranoia and zealousness.
I was waved through.
Carrying a suspicious-looking parcel, I was waved through. My luggage was not even scanned. I should have protested but when you’re given a free pass to get ahead of the lady with the seven monstrous Louis Vuitton bags, you don’t pass it up. I didn’t.
At cocktail parties all over the city, the likes of Sheetal Mafatlal talk about how customs is now a breeze, how they don’t even bother to check ‘People Like Us’ because they’re so busy chasing down ‘People Like Them’. It has become easy to forget, in our age of plenty, how draconian customs checks could be. Women of my mother’s generation remember the humiliation of having their underwear examined for signs of use and age. Men would routinely carry an extra bottle of Scotch with which to bribe the customs official into letting their other bottles in free. And if you knew a customs official, you would be assured of a vast number of friends calling up endlessly to ensure their smooth passage.
Over the last ten years, this part of the nightmare seems to have been smoothed over. But the laws exist. They can be brought to bear on the likes of Sheetal Mafatlal. And while I did not exult in her arrest, I was rather reassured that she spent some time in jail. It may mean we are inching towards a place where everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. A bail of Rs 5 lakh may seem a little low but, hey, she’s not doing a runner either, is she?
Maybe it did slip her mind that she was carrying jewellery worth Rs 80 lakh. Maybe she has a habit of buying that much of jewellery on a regular basis. No one believes that she is a smuggler. Yes, indeed, it was for her private use. But in this time of crisis, it seems a little bizarre even for a member of the super rich to go around running up a jewellery bill of that size. A bit thoughtless, when people are losing their jobs. But that’s why we have the rich. To remind us that we live sensible, reasonable, rational lives. To show us who we could become if we hit that jackpot: how ugly and unthinking our actions could be.
And finally, there is a sense of ironic justice in all this. Namrata Zakaria tells me in the Indian Express that Sheetal Mafatlal hated being called a page 3 regular because she believed that she belonged on page 1 of the daily newspapers. She got her wish. That happens to the rich too.
Will Ms Mafatlal learn something from this? I suspect not. I suspect she will dine out on her nights in jail for quite a while to come.