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Sunanda K Datta Ray: Lost in translation


Sunanda K Datta Ray  |  New Delhi 

What officialdom can do to liberal policy intentions has to be seen to be believed.
Whether lower customs duties and exemptions benefit anyone will depend on how rules are written and interpreted. Ill intentions on the part of customs and excise officials are one thing, but silly problems can crop up even when greed or extortion are not at play because of a blind dedication to literal detail compounded by the distortions that the convoluted Victorian English of official documents suffers at the hands of babudom.
I experienced all this when returning after a year's teaching abroad. India's envoy there "" an old friend "" had sent me the customs regulations, a badly printed booklet, with a covering note saying that if I could make head or tail of the contents I was a better man than anyone in his mission. Apparently, they had all tried to understand the document and failed.
The bit that concerned me seemed simple enough. It said that if an Indian lives and works abroad for 12 months, he can import goods worth not more than a certain sum in rupees (I forget how much) bought with his foreign earnings (how would that be checked?) without paying duty. The pair of Chinese display cabinets my wife had fallen in love with and that constituted our only purchase cost less than the stipulated amount.
So far so good. We flew back, the sea cargo arrived, and, escorted by the shipping agent, we sat around in the cavernous interior of Calcutta's Customs House. Courteous clerks filled in innumerable forms, made profuse ledger entries, plied us with endless cups of tea and conducted us from one desk to another, for the ritual of forms, ledgers and tea to be repeated all over again several times.
This went on for quite a while. Finally, we reached the hallowed precincts of the section head (I think), went through the by now familiar formalities and, everything being in order, was asked for my termination certificate. My what? I exclaimed. Burra Babu explained he needed proof that my services had been terminated. But they haven't, I burst out indignantly, explaining that far from being dismissed, the university had asked me to renew my contract. Burra Babu cut in, "If job not terminated, then no duty exemption!"
Everyone nodded agreement. One had to be terminated to be excused duty. When I insisted the customs rules said nothing of the kind, I was shown an even more badly printed booklet titled Baggage Rules. The relevant clause said that an Indian is entitled to the facility I was seeking if having worked abroad for not less than 12 months, he returns to India at the termination of his duties.
"So, termination certificate is must!" Burra Babu beamed happily.
In vain did I argue that the clause only meant return after finishing 12 months' labour in a foreign field. Everyone could see the start and finish dates on my one-year teaching contract. But no, that wouldn't do. How did customs know it had been terminated? That's what I had to prove. The cabinets would lie in the docks with the demurrage bill running up until my former employers testified that my job had been terminated.
I thought of Rajiv Gandhi complaining of the difficulty of explaining to Zail Singh in Hindi that the Constitutional provision about the prime minister and cabinet holding office during the pleasure of the president did not mean the latter's whim. I thought of a British ambassador to Thailand assuring Anna's king, he of The King and I, that a British newspaper's description of him as "a spare man" meant his physique and not that he was redundant. I cursed England for spreading linguistic confusion throughout Asia.
The dean of my old faculty chuckled when I telephoned, and joked that for a consideration he would go one better and say I had been sacked! "But seriously," he expostulated, "why can't you show them the contract?" Eventually, after appealing to higher, several rungs higher, authority in various air conditioned chambers on the upper floors of Customs House, and much persuasion and exposition of the meanings and implications of words, they agreed to accept the contract. But I had to support it with a letter saying I had returned to India on the termination of my contract. The dean also faxed a brief statement to the effect that my contract started on a particular date and "" you guessed it! "" terminated on another. He wanted to write "ended" but I told him that would not do.
Now I know the full and awesome import of the Bengali term "machi mara kerani", literally, "dead fly clerk". It's about a clerk who in transferring entries from one ledger to another came upon a dead fly flattened between the pages. Painstakingly, he copied out the outlines of the dead creature in exactly the same place in the new ledger.
But, at least, this is innocent. What toll venality will take of Palaniappan Chidambaram's brave reforms is anyone's guess. After all, it's not for nothing that more bright young entrants are said to prefer customs and excise nowadays to the IAS and IFS.

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First Published: Sat, March 04 2006. 00:00 IST