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It was my first day at work, fresh out of college. “Work", all those years ago, was to supervise a high-end jewellery store in Chandigarh—part of a national retail chain. I was to tot up clever Excel sheets that tracked inventory, and help figure out how to make rich wives, unfaithful husbands and corrupt bureaucrats buy more diamonds and gold.

I reached Chandigarh Junction at around 9.30am and headed straight to the store to report for duty. I had woken at 5am, to catch the 6.20 Shatabdi from New Delhi, and that after a send-off party that wound up in the wee hours, and so was still quite groggy and addled in the head. I figured it didn’t matter; just getting here was likely going to be the hardest lift for a First Day. I was thinking lots of coffee breaks, some boring presentations, a series of Hi-Hellos, maybe some forms.

When I reached the store, however, I found the owner, a man who looked not unlike the Airbus A380, in a greatly agitated state. I asked what was wrong.

He shook his head, wrung his hands and mumbled. From that I understood that someone very important (read corrupt) in Varanasi wanted 5kg of gold. Our Varanasi store didn’t have as much and Chandigarh was the nearest store that did. What I didn’t understand was why this was bad. Five kilograms of gold sold at one stroke like this meant business of nearly 50 lakh, and bonuses as fat as the A380 himself.

More shaking, hand-wringing and mumbling later, the problem became clearer. The 5kg had to reach the top customer before noon the next day and there were no direct flights from Chandigarh to Varanasi. The gold would have to travel to New Delhi if it was to be sent as air cargo.

But, as it happened, my first day at work was also Dhanteras—the day when Indians get infected with gold fever and jewellery store staff gear up for riots. There was simply no one trustworthy available to travel with the gold on such a busy sale day.

Except, it seems, the guy whose first day at work it was.

Two hours after I had arrived in Chandigarh, I was speeding back to Delhi with five 1kg gold bars wrapped in an old polythene bag. I had already covered about half the distance when the A380 called. “Do you have the papers?" he asked.

“What papers?"

“The road permits for carrying the gold," he said impatiently. “Do you have them?"

I did think it was odd to be handed gold bars in a polythene bag…but what did I know? It was my first day at work! And now I was at risk of being stopped by the police and interrogated. Helpfully, my driver assured me that such a thing wouldn’t happen. We were in Karnal, after all. Before the police finds out, the robbers would have taken care of us. There was only one solution. To stop at one of our stores in New Delhi and get the papers made.

We made haste, got to the store in Delhi, fought our way through the children of Gollum, and got the papers. I even got a tin box with a lock to put the gold in. Mighty pleased with myself, I was about to get in the car and speed off to the airport when Mahender, the helpful security guard, said we needed a particular type of white cloth to wrap the tin in. Apparently, this was an air-cargo requirement.

Where do you get the right kind of white cloth that meets all the air-cargo norms at 7.30pm on Dhanteras in Delhi?

“Saar, try Connaught Place (CP)."

I dragged Mahender into the car and sped towards CP. Dhanteras had added a whole new dazzle to CP, it looked beautiful with fairy lights on the facade, exuberant crowds in festive wear, and the clamour of pre-Diwali commerce. It was past the regulation time of 8pm, but all the shops were still open.

All the shops except the one that sells the cloth we needed.

I decide to call my Boss. Boss, till then, was only a name. He was based out of Lucknow and supervised the north India region. We were yet to meet and this call was my first direct interaction with him.

“Why do you have to cover it with white cloth?" he asked when I had explained.

“It’s an air-cargo rule."

“I see. Don’t air-cargo it then. Take the train to Varanasi and hand-deliver it."


So there I was, standing at the current-reservation queue of the New Delhi railway station, clutching 5kg of gold, hoping I could make it to the ticket counter before the train left. I didn’t. The train left.

I fished for my cellphone to call Boss again and realized that the knaves of the New Delhi railway station had left the gold alone but had filched my mobile phone.

I found a phone booth. I told Boss that no tickets were available to Varanasi. Not even Lucknow.

There was a pause at the other end. I anticipated a sympathetic, “You did your best..."

“Go to the airport. Fly to Varanasi. Take the gold as hand baggage."


As I trudged out to the car park, I felt a steely resolve beginning to grow within me. This was not about the gold, this was about me. This was a test.

An hour later, I knew what flight to take. The price seemed a bit steep so I decided to check with Boss. I found the airport phone booth and made the call.

“Why aren’t we air-cargoing it?" he asked me coldly. I took a deep breath and explained as one would to an idiot child.

“We don’t have the white cloth packaging that the air-cargo rules require."

“Says who?"

I almost said “Mahender, our security guard", but decided against forever ruining his trust in my decision-making abilities.

“Listen, I have checked with people and any cloth covering will do. Go to any of the courier shops near the cargo counters and ask."


I went to the cargo centre, strode into one of about a dozen shops open, and thrust my tin of gold at a man at the counter.

“Pack it in white cloth," I demanded.

“Nahin hai (don’t have)."

I tried offering him the price it would cost to courier 5kg if he would just pack it. He refused. I tried offering him 1,000 bakshish. He refused. I tried offering him a job. He refused.

He and the dozen other men behind counters at cargo shops.

Time for another call.

As I neared the phone booth, I saw the booth-owner preventing people from making calls. I asked him why. He said it was already midnight and he would be shutting shop at 12.15am.

“Aap dukaan band nahin kar sakte (You can’t shut down yet)," I told him rather firmly. He, just as firmly, told me to get lost.

We negotiated, and on my initial offer of 200, he agreed to keep the shop open for a gratis payment of 1,200. I made the call.

By now, Boss had an edge to his voice and I couldn’t tell if it was disappointment or anger. But, for the first time, he offered a real solution.

“I have asked a friend of mine to come to the airport to help you. He is an exporter and knows all the cargo norms and stuff. You can take down his number. And, by the way, I am switching off my phone."


I called up the “friend". He turned out to be a jolly chap.

“Dude, I am a little drunk right now and my phone is running out of battery. I am going home to charge it and then I will come straight to the airport. I will be fine, don’t worry. And I will bring dad."

“And white cloth," I pitched in.

I put down the phone, told the phone booth guy to keep it running for at least 2 more hours, told the driver to get some sleep, bought a coffee, checked if the gold was still there, and settled down on the footpath to wait.

Friend and his father arrived on time.

“Did you get the cloth?"

“Yup," he said, pulling out a tablecloth with floral embroidery. “Hope you are good at stitching."

At this point, it started raining.

As I stood there at the Indira Gandhi International Airport at 2am in the rain, trying to thread a needle, I wondered if this was one of those moments that would shape my life’s philosophy.

The cloth wrapping turned out to be fairly simple and the Friend and I went around to the air-cargo terminal to put it in.

If you have never been to an air-cargo counter, try imagining a Ganesh Chaturthi-sized crowd doing Oompa Loompa kind of assembly in a chawl-sized room. We climbed over boulder-sized parcels and I managed to thrust my hand through the narrow window. The officer took it, looked at it, shook his head and returned it.

“No seal."

The Friend, now alert and resourceful, began to call the officer chacha (uncle). After a minute of conversation, chacha spoke more kindly. “Beta, is pe seal nahin hai (son, this doesn’t have a seal)."

To Friend’s credit, he managed to extract the solution from chacha himself: There was a 24-hour India Post Office branch at the airport that would be able to help.

We found the post office quickly enough. As quickly, we were refused help.

“Kaka... (uncle)," began Friend.

Like chacha, kaka also suggested a workaround and left us to it. We had to stand in front of the wax cauldron and wait for the wax to melt. Thirty minutes and two wax-singed fingers later, we were back at the cargo counter.

The cargo guy, who probably sympathized, smiled as we went over the parcel boulders a second time. His outstretched hands readily accepted the form. Then a dejected look came into his eyes.

“Aap andar aiye (come inside)."

I felt like a patient who is about to get some very bad news from the doctor.

“This cargo...the declared value is 50 lakh."


“...and it’s going to Varanasi?"



“No? Not no. Yes"

“No. We can only send high-value items to Mumbai without pre-approved acceptance authority from recipient. We don’t have that in this case."

“Maama… (uncle...)."

If we could get approval from the recipient—the Varanasi franchisee—it would do. It was 4am. People wake up early in Varanasi, right?

The Varanasi franchisee answered at the end of the seventh ring of attempt No.3. I spoke quickly.

He said yes, the officer said yes, the gold went through security checks, we paid the charges and we got a slip that said that the gold bars were on their way to Varanasi. I thanked Friend, woke up my driver and we sped towards Chandigarh.

I should reach by 9-9.30am, I thought. I didn’t want to be late for my second day at work.

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