My job kept me on my toes, touring the whole of industrial western India. Most of my travels were by trains, buses and lorries. If you can survive the rigours of travelling in India, you have done it all.
It was one of those days. I had just alighted from the train at Kurla junction in Mumbai. Two men in plain clothes confronted me and I was whisked away for interrogation. I guess I was prey to dubious suspicion.
During the late 1980s and the early 1990s, there was a dramatic rise in radical Sikh militancy in Punjab. By the fertile figment of the police, I had all the makings of a terrorist. I was young, muscular, carefree and sported a turban. My belongings were searched; they couldn’t find hand grenades, but there were harmless toiletries. A few orange cream biscuits didn’t smell like RDX. The clothes in my bag for sure needed an urgent dry cleaning. The novel by Ludlum was a harmless book. The headphones wired to my walkman needed no de-coding; those were soulful Sufi Ghazals. The cops grilled me on all accounts, my home, my recent movements and my friends.
My robust built and complex upbringing did not help, either. I was born in Jamshedpur, the steel city of Bihar, now Jharkhand, a state in eastern India. My schooling in Orissa helped me read and write Oriya. In 1983, I had moved to Mumbai and picked up spoken Marathi. My friends from Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, and Maharashtra influenced my gastronomy. If this wasn’t already a mix up, I ended up marrying a girl from the South. I was a walking national integration spoof! Yes, I was an Indian.
The police finally realised I hadn’t gone beyond toy guns. They apologised for being snooty and I had to live with the guilt of looking like a terrorist. Until 1987 at the age of 21, I was just an Indian; now I realised I was also a Sikh.
It is difficult to envisage what goes in the mind of an innocent when singled out in public on the needle of suspicion. This is more terrifying than the terrorist himself. Looks are deceptive; there are no guidelines to terror, as terror has no religion. I was singled out as a caricature of something, which I never was. Is it important to look good or be good? A faux pas of this magnitude is terrifying enough. My experience with train junction derailed my Indian train journey ahead. A cop at the railway station was a signal to stop.
Destiny flew me to greener pastures in the desert. There was not much of a difference between a train and a plane. The flying Sikh was learning to fly.
In 1997 my turban was at it again. My wooden head was making a mysterious metallic beep. It took a while for airport officials to decipher steel metal pins neatly tucked on my turban. Cyprus thereafter was memorable. A year later my shoes created a rumpus at the Zurich airport, it had metallic skull for toe protection. The pair was dished several times through the scanner and the officials hovered around it. How can safety shoes be a concern of safety?
The English were not far behind. At London Heathrow I was asked if I had packed my own bags. I was tempted to credit my dear wife with those laurels, but chose to give a logical answer that would please the immigration officer. I am glad I was now flying savvy, they let me fly!
Holidays are always exciting. My wife and I decided to beat the heat of July 2001 at the Big Apple. There were long immigration queues. We were pulled out for special care with body mapping gadgets. While I was used to such travel ordeal, my wife was on holiday. She whispered, “Is NASA sending us to the moon?”
In perfect harmony, I would lift my right leg, then left leg, turn around and then lift my bare hands to the sky. This was the new salsa rumba calypso security check-up for safe travel. The hawk-eyed officials carry out these rituals day in and day out. Travelling spares none — the shoes, the feeding milk bottles, the laptops, the ageing or the pregnant women. We kept our spirits united as we are in the United States.
I guess travelling will never be the same again. Mass public transport systems are soft targets of terror mongers. Our agony is in minority to a major problem. Terrorist threats have prompted virtual strip searches. What next?
I am a normal human being in pursuit of a better living. My business takes me around the globe. I want to rise above the myopic delusion of religion and make my mark in society.
Do not judge travellers by a turban, hijab or a cross. Do not ask me if my name is Khan, Singh or Mendonca. Leave me alone if I am a good traveller. After all these hassles, the courteous say, “Fasten your seat belts, enjoy flying and have a safe trip”. While I have clocked many air miles, I am still learning to fly. Travelling is a terror of a kind.
First published in Khaleej Times, Dubai - UAE on May 20, 2010