Shivarathri

This is yet another true travel story although I suspect the tale might have grown a bit with the telling.

Every year, several thousand Indian boys (and girls too, but they are irrelevant to this particular tale) reach a certain milestone, a milestone that they have been planning for practically all their lives. It is an important pre-condition that precedes the creation of a profile on Bharat Matrimony and the likes. It is the H1B visa, that augmenter of dowries, the harbinger of Dollar-store gifts and the single biggest violator of check-in baggage allowances.

Sankaranarayanan (name changed) was one such gentleman. He grew up in Chennai, studied in a private engineering college and therefore, apart from being fluent in spoken Java and C++, believed that the female of our species was a native of a far flung galaxy. He was also someone who wore his religion on his sleeve, or as it was in his particular case, his forehead to be precise. It was his policy that the rest of the human population must not, under any circumstances, see his forehead au naturel. It was therefore covered in sacred ash from temple to temple every day.

So armed with an H1B visa, Mr Sankaranarayanan packs his 23 kg x 2 VIP skybags that could, if stretched a bit, accommodate a small sized calf, with all manner of things that are of crucial import to a day in the ‘Murican life.

Suitcase 1 accommodates

  • a bar of Sandalwood,
  • a 12 pack Mysore Sandal soap,
  • 2 packets of Ambica appalam,
  • 2 bottles of Grand Sweets Puliyodarai mix,
  • 20 pairs of the finest men’s lingerie from Hari Agency, Luz Corner
  • and an entire set of Brilliant Tutorial’s CAT preparation material.

The contents of suitcase 2 will remain untold for the moment.

Aboard the flight (his very first in his life), he conducts an impromptu english lesson in the precise meaning of the word “Vegetarian meal” to ensure that the Lufthansa flight attendant does not bring him a “Hindu meal” (which is essentially no beef, but is typically Chicken) or fish, which in many cultures is considered not to be “meat” and finally arrives at the John F Kennedy airport in Queens, NY.

For those unfamiliar with JFK, it is what results when one takes every Kafkaesque government bureaucracy and every school bully in the world, mixes them in a salad bowl and applies the sort of physics that converts matter into Black holes. It is rumoured that in some evangelical sects of Christianity, a visit through this airport is considered to be fit punishment for commandment violations.

After explaining to an immigration officer sipping on a 256 Oz bucket of aerated sugary beverage that he is fluent in Java and C++ and is qualified enough to steal American tech jobs, our man finally picks up his baggage and reaches the customs checkpoint. Normally, these officers apply sound statistical big data analytics techniques to randomly pick a small percentage of outgoing passengers for a baggage check. In short, it’s called the “Pick the brown guy with 2 large suitcases potentially full of Grand Sweets pickles” strategy.

“Excuse me sir, could you step aside and take your bags to that station please.”

“OMG, they are going to ask me why I am carrying CAT prep material and also having an H1B visa”, he feared

But it turned out the customs officers were not particularly interested in his long term MBA ambitions. They were, however, interested in the contents of suitcase 2 (whose contents we left untold a while back for plot suspense reasons)

Recall his daily habit of smearing ash on his forehead?

Now daily full surface area coverage of forehead requires a fair amount of ash and the logistics experts among you might have figured out that the sacred ash supply chain doesn’t work very well between the Old world and the New World. One can’t just walk into the Shaivite Goods aisle at Walmart and pickup Sacred Ash gels, sprays, deo rubs and face masks et al. It has to be purchased in the assorted Mada streets of Mylapore and transported in clear violation of baggage allowance rules. Now, factor in a 6 ft 4 boy from Mandaveli with a forehead that could host its own major tennis tournament, we essentially have 12 250g packets of sacred ash in suitcase 2.

Now, picture in your mind what 12 packets of greyish white powder in clear transparent packaging looks like, especially to an American customs officer standing over a suitcase belonging to a tall brown guy with a strange english accent.

He whispers “I need some backup here” into his shirt microphone and picks out one of the packets and looks at Sankaranarayanan in the eye and asks him “Sir, what is this?”

At that moment, our man had two choices. He could have calmly smiled and told the officer that it was just plain ash that he used to smear his forehead for religious reasons and that many Hindus from his part of the world did that daily. Or he could have panicked and volunteered more information than was necessary.

He did the latter.

“It is spiritual powder, holy powder. It is for God and it gives good clarity and good thoughts.”

The officer – “You bet”

The sarcasm was lost on our man, and he added more information with nary a thought for one Mr Ernesto Miranda.

“It is basically sacred ash from cow dung, it is collected and dried and then burnt”

The officer’s expression suggested that it was the first time a drug bust resulted in detailed chemical explanations of the manufacturing process within the first few minutes.

“Ahan”, he nodded.

By that time, the officers mates had arrived on the scene with an assortment of Labrador retrievers, each of which were asked to sniff for known drugs and not surprisingly, they expressed no interest in Lord Shiva’s holy powder.

But this was ‘Murica so things had to be done through proper procedure.

“Sir, we are going to have to take your suitcase and get it tested in a lab before we let you go and that is going to take at least 12 hours so please follow me”

So our man was taken to a holding cell that contained, among others, Guatemalan refugees, lapsed Uzbek warlords and political asylum seekers from East Timor.

He spent the night in that cell singing in his head, dolorous laments to his favourite deity, Lord Shiva.

ps: He was released the next day morning but the sacred ash packets were confiscated on account of their “Dairy origin”.