The Common Vip

The Common Vip

17 mins 673 17 mins 673

The winding road of the Ghats at 1 am in the night accompanied with the near zero traffic condition and the chill outside on a dark winter night of January has got all the elements to be the opening scene of a Hitchcock thriller. But was I thrilled…? Not at all…. Was I tensed? Yes a little bit. But more than anything else, I was restless … The last 12 hours have been the most anxious hours in a long time.

If you put me and Harry together in a similar situation on any other day, then by now we would have downed some Captain Morgan, been investigating on the lost chicken tikka shreds stuck between the gaps of our molars and humming some 90’s classic. But today was no other day. We sat quietly in the back seat of the rented Toyota as it raced towards Igatpuri cutting through the winter haze.

The morning flight had ferried me from Delhi to Mumbai in a little less than 2 hours. I loved flying only till the time I took my maiden flight. After that my disliking for flying became directly proportional to the number of times I had to fly in a year. From 4 flights per annum back in the late nineties, I was almost doing the same number in a month since the last five years. Road trips were much better, but sadly my country was not the size of Vatican.

Though the Jet Airways flight had landed on time and I thought that I will make a quick dash to my Mumbai office before I fly out again to Manila next morning; but it was not to be. The luggage carousel swayed and moved callously like a seventy year old grand ma gyrating to “Beat It” without arousing any interest from the by standers. A good forty five minutes later I spotted my check in bag, it was just that one piece of thing that had held me back for so long. It felt a little heavy as I picked it up, or maybe I was just a little tired, getting up at five in the morning was not my idea of a perfect start to a busy day. I swiftly moved towards the exit and looked for my pick up. I spotted my pick up in no time, sat in the car sent by the hotel and made my way towards the hotel zig zag-ing and criss-crossing through the heavy Mumbai traffic.

It was already 11 in the morning and I decided to call Mr. Kadam, who headed Mumbai office.

“Hello Sir, How is it going? Sunny here”

After exchanging the pleasantries, I informed him that I had just checked into the hotel and will see him for lunch by 12:30 in the afternoon, ensuring that I had adequate time for a nice shower.

Fresh from the shower, I looked at my towel clad physique in the mirror; sucked in my tummy a little bit just to remind me that all is not lost, it’s just that those muscles are preciously covered by a layer of beer induced fat as else they might get robbed.

The wall clock indicated that I still had the luxury of fifteen fashionable minutes to present my best self at office. I knew in my mind what I would don that day, all I had to do is to reach out for my suitcase and get it out. I hate locking my bags, but Indian airports are not the places where you want to try your luck with an unlocked suitcase; the Chinese lock opened with a slight twist of the wrist. What followed after that is epic.

I stood still for a couple of minutes, dug into the bag, trying fervently to trace my black trouser and sky blue shirt but it wasn’t there.

If you are thinking that I forgot to pack it, then you are so wrong. I picked up the wrong bag at the airport, a one that exactly looked the same as my grey on black soft top suitcase, was of the same dimension, almost the same weight, a tad heavy may be and was manufactured by the same brand V.I.P. I had landed myself in fresh soup, thanks to the “Oh so common” V.I.P.

That very moment, I realised why some people go for designer suitcases even though they are tossed and dragged by baggage handling staffs at airport with total disregard for whether they are Chanel or China made suitcases. The only reason I considered designer suitcases are a waste; especially if they are to be treated like this. But the need to stand out appeared to be- 'Oh so important' now.

What chances do you have in a country of billions that two people in two hundred odd passengers travelling on the same flight had the exact same suitcase locked by similar looking Chinese locks and opens with similar keys getting mixed up? Yes right…. I must have been God’s chosen clown for the day.

This wasn’t the first time that I had lost baggage, I had lost them in various shapes and sizes and in different parts of the globe, only to be returned a day or two after by the airlines with an apologetic latter and some travel souvenirs. But this was first, I picked someone else’s suitcase and was pretty sure that he / she has picked mine. My designer shades were replaced with Haldiram moong daal, the Satya Paul ties traded place with “lungis” and slim fit corporate clothes had happily transformed into oversized drapes.

I promptly called up my admin lady and asked her if she can get the travel desk to trace out the whereabouts of my missing suitcase. It was already getting late for office and couldn’t afford to probe further into the missing mystery. I hurried to office.

My mind was not into anything that Mr. Kadam was discussing over lunch. It had a free run between pillars to posts. On one hand I could visualise my dad laughing at me and making a mockery of me over a difference that we had for a long long time regarding travelling. My dad used to have his name written all over his suitcase at every possible angle and at every nook and corner where human eyes could reach. This to me was a faux pas of the first type and I had clearly mentioned that I would happily lose all my belonging rather than have something so tacky tagging along with me. Cut to this date, I am ready to swallow my own word and my fertile mind had an easy time depicting my dad having the last laugh, no wonder he was laughing the most. On the other hand my mind was busy making a step by step POA a.k.a Plan of Action.

After the lunch, there was the customary brain storming. The whole deal was about setting up a new training centre in Manila and making use of the large English speaking talent pool to shore up our foreign man power supply business. Given my previous successful foray into Manila over some other small businesses and a little grasp over Tagalog than an average Indian, I was the chosen one. But my mind wasn’t into any of these. I was busy reconstructing the scene of the crime, estimating the loss, having fleeting glimpse of all the shops that I went to buy each item from, and how to make best use of Haldiram moong dal.

I asked Mr. Kadam if I could postpone my Manila flight by a day. As I narrated him the incident I could gauge that he was at his wits end to decide if he would empathize on my condition or just laugh out loud.

“Hopefully all your documents are with you?” asked Mr. Kadam as I finished my narration. I knew where this was going. No matter what I would be shipped off to Manila by tomorrow’s evening flight with an assurance that the admin department will try and locate the missing bag.

I excused myself at 4 in the afternoon and headed straight to my hotel with a definite plan of action. First I called Jet Airways to notify the incident. I enquired if they have found any unclaimed baggage from the morning Delhi-Mumbai flight. A negative response from the lady on the other side of the phone confirmed my belief about the baggage swap. So it did mean that my bag was with another co-passenger. Now it could be an issue of multiple swaps. Imagine if there were three similar looking suitcases instead of two and all got swapped. Fearing this I asked the lady if any other passenger have made any enquiry regarding any missing luggage. After a good minute and a half she confirmed that no one has called the customer service for any missing baggage the whole day. I thought to myself “Great – someone must have happily traded his lungi for my neck ties.”

“Mam – I have the baggage tag with me, if I can read out the details to you can you please give a positive id on the passenger.”

She was hesitant at first, as divulging customer information needs additional coaxing. I was good at it. I have been selling combs to bald men and here I had a genuine reason. Ten minutes later and a promise to take her out on a dinner to Taj Lands End got me the necessary info. Though she insisted that it was best that I return the suitcase to Jet Airways.

In my head I thought “Do I sound crazy enough to give up the only bargaining chip that I have got?” but said “Thank you and see you soon” as I hung up.

My partner in crime was called Mr. N Chopra. There was no further details associated with him apart from a 12 digit telephone number. I thought that either Mr. Chopra or the customer service lady had made some error in the phone number. I zeroed on the last two zeroes of the phone number and happily chucked it off.

It was ringing, I took a gulp from the Heineken can that I had just opened and downed it with a hope that everything will be cool from here on.

“Hello” – said a lady in husky tone. In my dreams it might have been Rani Mukherjee who was at the other end of the cell phone, but dream seemed to be a luxury that I couldn’t afford at this moment.

“May I speak to Mr Chopra?” I asked with an expectation as high as the Mt Everest.

“Wrong number…. Ta ta ta ta...” It didn’t took the lady long to gate crash my party.

A few more permutation and combination with the phone number did not give me any encouraging results.

A few moments later google revealed that the phone number was an UAE number which started with 971.

Like the open can of Heineken my spirit also ran out of fizz. I started imagining this middle aged beetle nut crunching Chopra who happily flew to Dubai from Mumbai with my VIP without realising that he is taking away a part of my life which I had collected in bits and pieces from various parts of the globe.

I quickly dialled the original number only to be prompted in English and in Arabic that the cell phone is switched off, as if, it wasn’t enough to torture my soul in one language that the telecom company had to reiterate themselves. But there was something that was egging me on not to give up till I have turned the world upside down. Next I turned on to the social networking. Facebook was the first stop. It is this place that I learnt how insignificant can any N Chopra be. Hordes of Chopras in all shapes, sizes and ages lined up against each other in my search list. A good hour later having attempted N Chopra Dubai, N Chopra Abu Dhabi, N Chopra New Delhi. I gave up my hopes of finding this Chopra from the hay stack that Facebook had thrown on my laptop screen.

All this while I had been avoiding doing one thing, which is strip searching my pseudo own suitcase. I honestly didn’t have the intention to rummage through someone else’s belonging apart from what was evident readily to the naked eye. But push comes to shove and I will do it.

The clock tick-tock-ed faster than it does on a normal day when I sit inside my office. My cell phone rang flashing an unknown number. The cell phone vibration generated some hope in my sunken heart. Is this Mr. Chopra? At least I had the correct mobile number registered with Jet Airways ….

“Dog where are you?” this was none other than Harry.

Harry has been my friend for last ten years and the legend of this guy is no less than Harry Houdini, at least in our circle. Every time I was in Mumbai, it was Harry’s duty to see that we ended up in some sort of trouble or the other. Last time I had failed a random alcohol test while driving Harry’s car while returning from a party. Of course I was arrested and summoned to the court the next day. Harry came in with a lawyer who had apparently got things under control and told me just to plead guilty. Since I had no past criminal record, the judge would just warn me and let me go for my first mistake. Guess what? I was sentenced to RI. All thanks to Harry. Later on the same Harry got me out. How he did it, is another story in itself.

I gave a second narration to Harry and like true friends he had no space for sympathy or grief for me or my situation. He laughed uncontrollably over the phone, and funnily enough I didn’t feel bad. Actually in such a situation when your friends do what Harry did to me over the phone you don’t feel bad; you feel “all izz well” even though momentarily. Harry was done for the day and was heading straight to my hotel. I knew I had half an hour, the exact amount of time that Mumbai traffic can withhold Harry from coaxing me to forget my lost suitcase and party hard.

I increased my speed of rummaging. Alas, from the folds of the inner side pocket of the suitcase came out some papers.

A few scribbled numbers, which were probably phone numbers, but strangely no names were listed alongside the numbers. Another folded A4 size paper came into my hand. This was jackpot. I was excited. It was the photocopy of the Mr Chopra’s passport pages. The first and the last page. That was the first time that I could see the black and white image of my chief tormentor. An average Delhite with a penchant for thick furry moustache. The last page had his permanent address which was more likely why he was in Mumbai rather than hoping onto a connecting flight. He was a resident of Nagpur. It would have been much easier had he been from Mumbai, but the slim hope that he was probably in Nagpur and not in Dubai was good enough for me to overlook that fact.

However after the initial euphoria died, I realised that though the passport was handy, yet it did not serve any real purpose. There was no conclusive evidence that my bag is in Nagpur. A trip to Nagpur and back meant that I would be very tight on my next day’s flight to Manila. I made the only other choice that was available to me, dialled all the numbers that was listed there.

“Hello this Sunny, do you know anyone by the name of Mr. N Chopra?” – This was my opening line to all those numbers that I called. I didn’t have a better one. How can I? I didn’t know whom I was calling, what their relationship with this “N Chopra” is and whether they will help me or not.

A demi god by the name of Srikanth Patel answered when I dialled the second number on the list.

“Yes I know Mr N Chopra, are you referring to the one who works for Jaico in Dubai?” – I didn’t know what to say apart from fervent “Yes Yes”.

I went on to narrate how our suitcase got interchanged. Luckily Mr Patel was aware that Mr. Chopra was supposed to return to Nagpur within one of these days. So it didn’t need much of convincing to make him part with Mr Chopra’s contact details in India.

I thanked him a zillion times before I hung up.

This was the moment. I took a deep breath, looked at my dialling pad, remembered all the 3000 million Hindu deities and dialled those magical numbers.

20 rings and no one picks up. Holy lord… now what. But I decided to keep dialling the number till I hear my boarding announcement for my flight the next day.

On the third attempt - “Hello” – answered a drowsy heavy voice from the other side of the phone.

I realised that some men have all the luck to sleep through a tsunami. No doubt that Mr. Chopra was sleeping peacefully till I disturbed his evening siesta.

“Is it Mr. N Chopra?” I asked anxiously

“Yes” – replied an heavily sedated voice

“Were you travelling by the Jet airways Delhi to Mumbai flight this morning” I shot back next

“Yes, but who are you?” – Mr Chopra seemed to have come out of his trance now

“Well… I am Suuny and I have your bag, like the way you have mine” – I broke the news as fast as I could.

“Ah!!! Something must be wrong I have my bag, you must have mistaken” –Mr Chopra’s reply struck like bullet to me.

The next few minutes went persuading that Mr Chopra’s Haldiram’s moong dal and purple lungi is in my custody and what he thinks is his is actually mine.

The man hadn’t even bothered to open and check the bag, he was so confident that what he got from airport was his that he peacefully went to sleep, only to wake up by my incessant phone calls. Mr. Chopra promised to call me back after verifying the truth of what I was saying.

Harry’s door bell and Mr. Chopra’s call back coincided. One was trouble the other was hope. I opened the door while picking up the call. Harry barged in..... so did Mr. Chopra from the other side of the phone

“Sunny…. Chopra here… Yes man this bag is not mine” – The sleepy man had made way for the edgy man now.

The next five minutes went into bargaining how much we should travel to meet midway between Mumbai and Nagpur. I didn’t have too much bargaining power given that I was flying the next day. So we settled to meet at Igatpuri by Baba’s Dhaba at 2 in the night. Harry didn’t want to drive for such a long distance and I had promised myself never to drive in Mumbai. A few phone calls by Harry and we had a Toyota sedan waiting to pick us up from the hotel lobby.

We reached Baba’s Dhaba exactly at 2. There was no other people around apart from another Tata Indigo car. I had no doubt that it would be Mr Chopra but just to reassure myself and save me from another sticky situation, I dialled his mobile number.

“Yes Sunny… Chopra here… is that you in the car?” – said Mr Chopra in an excited tone

I reciprocated

Soon we got off the car, took out the suitcase from the boot and marched towards each other with a wide grin that shone bright even through the pitch dark night. We shook our hands, laughed a bit on life for a good ten minutes, exchanged business cards and returned to our car.

 If I took a selfie I am sure my face would have the look of Tenzing Norgay after he conquered the Everest. But the chauffeur of the rented car thought otherwise. He gave us a look as if we had just concluded some shady deals. I can’t really blame him, his exposure to Bollywood of the 80’s must have led him to believe that we must be some smugglers who just exchanged cash for cannabis in the middle of nowhere in similar looking bags.

Sitting in the car, Harry and I had a good laugh at the expense of the chauffeur’s dilemma. For the remaining part of the night we did nothing to break his notion about us, we just let his mind play havoc and relished the sadistic pleasure.

All wells that ends well. But no ending is ever complete without some Chicken Tandoori and dark rum on a wintry night by a roadside Dhaba. On our way back to Mumbai we stopped by Shera’s Dhaba to give a wholesome ending to what has been a truly roller coaster day. Life felt good with a sip of the black liquid and succulent red chicken.

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