In the early eighties, I was posted at the Airport for the first time. As a village boy, I was overwhelmed with the gorgeous Airport Building, the departmental discipline, the supremacy of the white uniformed officers and the authority of our Department. We, as an officer of Customs posted at the Airport, even carried an extraordinary aura in the society in general. Initially I was awestruck with the impressive surroundings, the people speaking different languages, the smartly dressed young airlines girls. And with passage of time, the departmental training and in theoverall company of the senior officers, I graduated as one of the smart Customs officers in crispy white uniform.
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon in the departure lounge of Sahar International Airport. Passengers of all scheduled flights had departed and there was no immediate work. Still I being a Junior officer, was sitting on the high chair behind the desk. I was in a dampen mood staring ahead in a vacant look, seeing nothing but thinking about my native village in Bengal. On such Sundays how the members of my big joint family used to keep the whole house humming and my life was so much full with parents, brothers, sisters, cousins. In stark contrast here in Bombay (yes it was called Bombay back then) my wife was alone at the rented house may be taking a nap and I was doing my duties on a Sunday afternoon. Two senior Officers and the Superintendent were gossiping sitting on the PRO’s desk. Superintendent Mr. Olivera called out “Hey Officer, what are you thinking sitting alone, come here we can share your melancholy, we have ready medicines for it.” All other senior officers laughed aloud. I hesitantly joined the team on the elevated desk of the PRO.
The departure lounge of Sahar International Airport was a modest arrangement compared to the present day elaboration. The Airlines check-in counters were on the left hand side and on the right the ever busy Indian Post office, the STD/ISD telephone booth, the Foreign Exchange Dealer, a small tea coffee vendor, etc. All had their traditional rich look. The entry of the departing Passengers was through the desks of the Police officers working as Emmigration officers to reach the Customs counters, in the midst of which was the grandiose elevated Desk of the Customs PRO’s at a T-junction. Behind the Customs desk, there was a giant picture of Palitana (Gujarat) Temple Complex adjoining the transparent glass wall allowing the view of the huge runway and the lined up aircrafts of various nationality. Those days, passengers had to take the departure Customs stamp on their embarkation card.
In the midst of our gossips with the senior officers, I saw one passenger with a small bag and a red boarding card in hand accompanied by a ground staff of Gulf Air hurriedly approaching the Customs counters.
As it was my duty to be present behind my duty desk, I went to the desk and asked the ground staff- “where from this passenger is appearing, I thought your flight had departed?” Prompt reply came from the staff- “No sir, this passenger was missing and we traced him now, the flight is delayed for this passenger.”
I looked at the passenger and remembered the lessons received from my seniors to be extra careful at the last minute passengers. I took the passport, ticket and the boarding card from the passenger. Those days the tickets used to be on paper jackets and the boarding cards had colours to indicate the class in which the passenger was flying. I found that the passenger was from Kasadgod, Kerala and was returning to rejoin his work as wielder in Abu Dhabi after brief holidays. The appearance, the cloths and the worn out chappal indicated that the passenger was from a humble financial background, but he was holding a red boarding card. The red boarding card was allotted for first class travel and I wondered how the ordinary man could travel in first class. His Ticket was for economy class. I asked the Gulf Air Staff- “Is he a first class passenger?”. “No, sir, he was up graded to first class and was given the red boarding card as the economy seats were full” replied the ground staff. I checked the ticket again and found that the passenger had one checked-in baggage weighing 4 kgs. The hand baggage was a small zipper bag weighing about 5 kgs. I asked the passenger as to what was the checked-in baggage. The passenger replied that it was a photo frame. I developed a strong suspicion. A photo frame usually never goes in the checked-in baggage due to high possibility of it being damaged during handling. All these took about three to four minutes. The airlines ground staff was hurrying and claimed if the flight was delayed it would be on account of Customs. As I asked to get back the checked-in baggage for examination, the ground staff said that the baggage was loaded on the aircraft and in case Customs wanted to examine it, the passenger would required to be off loaded from the flight. It was a critical situation. I asked the passenger why did he give the photo frame in check-in as it could break during handling. He replied that the photo frame was not his own. As he did not have checked in baggage, he was requested by the Gulf Air Staff to allow the photo frame to be checked in on his ticket and was told that another passenger would collect it from him at the Abu Dhabi Airport. I took the matter to Superintendent Mr. Olivera. He looked at me and asked “do you seriously suspect? If yes, go ahead and off load the passenger”. I murmured “yes Sir I strongly suspect, why the photo frame was given as checked-in baggage in place of the hand bag, the glass could break during handling, but if we don’t get anything, sir?” “Then it’s my responsibility” thundered Mr. Olivera.
I asked the Gulf Air staff to get the checked-in baggage for examination. He left to get it. It was a box type photo frame and was very heavy. We called the witnesses and after tallying the baggage tag number, opened the rear cardboard panel of the photo frame. News paper wrapped bundles of assorted foreign currency notes were found from the photo frame. The currency notes were counted and assorted foreign currency worth approx Rupees 12 lakhs was seized.
It was my first seizure at Airport as a new officer. The excitement I tested that day was of a kind I never felt earlier.