Thursday, 29 September 2011


The  time has come for me to reach far into the depths of my inner

sanctum and try to pull out the strength I need to make that trip

to the hell hole we all know as the FRRO.

Just the thought of entering those doors, ascending those stairs

and waiting behind those ropes until the clock strikes nine fills me

with a primal fear. 

 The sign on the wall says: “Do not stand beneath the ceiling” and

I know that once again I am about to enter the Graham Green-

esque world, the parallel universe that is the Foreigners

Registration Office with its surreal twists and turns. Even the extra

‘R’ in FRRO is there to confuse and torment me. I can’t even say

FRRO without sounding like a pathetic, stuttering dog.

The trick is to stay calm despite the nest of vipers squirming in the
pit of my stomach. I have in my hands umpteen copies of umpteen
documents but I know this will not be enough. Past experience has
taught me that if I have ten copies of a document, they will
require 11. Past experience has taught me that after a patient 15
minute wait to use the Xerox machine, someone will announce
the machine is broken: “Come back in some time.”
The dilemma is;  do I wait in the hope that the machine will
magically start up again,  just as magically as it broke down, or do I
go into the street and wait in a long line for use of another Xerox
machine – all the while painfully aware that the clock is ticking
and they will soon close for their two hour lunch meaning I will
have to return the next day and possibly the next and the next...

The very first time I darkened the doors of this ramshackle hell
hole I was an ignorant fool. I thought we’d just waltz in with our
British passports, get them stamped and then mooch off to Colaba
for a lovely lunch.  

No, that first time I had to be helped down the stairs by a
bemused European backpacker (whose handkerchief I still have)
as I cried “but I don’t understand” to the porcine official in the
regulation navy sari who made me wait for four hours before
telling me I had the wrong documents, without giving away what
documents I would need.

The next time I went, I took the kids as instructed and they sat in
their uniforms, again for four hours, before I was told I didn’t
actually need to bring them. You can bet your bottom dollar that
if I hadn’t brought them, they would have insisted on habeas
corpus.   On that particular occasion I broke the mouse on the
computer in frustration and stood up and screamed like the
Edvard Munch character as I failed, repeatedly, to register us

online.  A Japanese lady put her hands over her ears and began to

rock back and forth. Grown men wept. We were like the wretched

souls of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. In hell!

That afternoon I was informed that I would have to come back the
next day with rupees converted from however many dollars it was
for our visas. That night, I took the conversion rate from the Bank
of India website and withdrew the exact amount in rupees. The
next day I stood in line with my rupees in a dirty, brown envelope

and when I handed them over, was told I was 500 rupees short.
I  Googled the rate and shoved the iphone under her nose.  
“We use the Thomas Cook rate,” she said.
“Arrrrggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, but it’s the Bank of India!”
“Either give me the correct money or stand aside.”
So that was the last straw. I handed over the extra money and fell
back into the plastic sofa, defeated, a shadow of my former self.

All anybody wants to do is to get into the chamber beyond the
ante-chamber because then there is hope. The queuing system,
which, on the face of it, looks as easy as taking a ticket in a Clarkes
shoe shop, is actually based on chaos theory and is impossible to
fathom. People just shuffle silently towards the door, pointing
their toe forward a little if it looks like someone else is going to
push in.

It was not until the third or fourth visit that we began to notice
that some people had agents. The people who appeared calm,
those who were not crying, had representation. I marched up to
one of them and demanded his card and since then, dear reader,
the experience has become a little less fraught.
We now go along with the agent, feeling like children in the
presence of an appropriate adult. We pay him an absolute fortune

and he does the necessary while I sit in a chair  like the Jack

Nicholson character in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” after

he’s had the lobotomy. Silent and defeated.

I am tempted to go in this time wearing my Anna Hazare T-shirt

and white topi but I don’t want to make it harder for myself.  Let’s

just hope the ceiling doesn’t come down on the lot of them!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

About a boy

Well I did it - I swapped my 13-year-old son for a Mulberry

handbag! I dropped him off at the boarding school on the Monday

and by the Wednesday I was in the Mulberry shop at Heathrow

Terminal 4 deliberating between the ‘Bayswater’ and the ‘Alexa’. I

had been looking forward to this moment since I don’t know when

but when it came to it; my heart wasn’t really in it. I was a bit sad, a

bit drunk and 10 kg overweight – and so was my luggage!

That morning as I sat in my friend Louise’s flat in Stoke Newington,

we both marveled at how I could get so much stuff into one

suitcase. I had popped to the supermarket and come back with two

bags of meat and dairy products which, between us, we managed to

shoehorn in between all the DVD box sets, books and the yoghurt

maker I bought on a whim at Robert Dyas. Not to mention the

gorgeous cushion I had to have and huge fluffy dressing gown I

bought for my daughter which she doesn’t need. The main worry

was that the fillet steaks would literally bleed into all my lovely new


It was not for the first time in our 28-year-friendship that Louise

saw me off at a bus stop with a massive suitcase.

“Good luck with that!” she chuckled and went off to work.

I was going to meet another friend, Tony, at Finsbury Park for a

quick drink before taking the tube to Heathrow.  He burst out

laughing when he saw me lugging the great suitcase behind me, red

in the face, sweating and panting.

“And what’s the luggage allowance again?” he asked.

I was beginning to wish I hadn’t worn the cashmere sweater and

Ugg boots but I quite literally couldn’t fit them in the suitcase. Tony

took the suitcase from me and dragged it to the World’s End pub

where a Staffordshire bull terrier woke from its slumber as soon as

we sat down and started sniffing excitedly at it.

“I hope he doesn’t work at the airport.” Tony laughed.

Blinking into the sunlight three large white wines later, I didn’t care

about the extra kilos, I developed a nonchalant attitude. If caught

with the meat and dairy, I would just tell customs I was on the

Dukan diet and could only eat protein. What’s the worst they can


By the time the tube stopped at Terminal 4, I was dry-mouthed,

head-achy and desperate for the loo. But the suitcase was weighing

me down mentally and physically. I thought I’d just get rid of it first

then go to the Ladies, get some water, buy the handbag and have a

celebratory glass of Pinot Grigio at ‘The Bridge.’

“The luggage allowance is 28 kilos madam. You are 10 kilos

overweight. I will have to charge you 24 Pounds per kilo, I am

afraid. That’s a total of 240 Pounds. What have you got in there?”

 A yoghurt maker plus yoghurt sachets, six fillet steaks, three large

packets of cheese, 20 CDs, four HBO box sets, all the Sunday

newspapers and supplements, a large cushion, a packet of 3 amp

fuses (impossible to find in Mumbai) trainers and gym kit (unworn

the whole trip) and any number of packets of bacon, ham and

turkey breast.

I didn’t say any of that. I was thinking on my feet.

“Books. I am taking them to India on behalf of a charity” I blurt.

“What charity.”

“Actually it’s called Mumbai Connexions. It’s an excellent

organization which raises money for several charities, partly by

selling second hand books.”

He looks at me for a moment. Does he know I am drunk? Can he

smell the bacon?

“Ok, what you can do is remove 10 kilos of books from your

suitcase and carry them as hand luggage, please repack and then

come back to this desk.”

So, half an hour later I am plonked in front of the Mulberry shop

having gone through customs weighed down by the extra 10 kilos of

hand luggage, plus the cushion. I vow to give Mumbai Connexions

a load of books next time I have a clear out.

Instead of going into the shop, I sit and think about Hugh. I call the

housemaster and leave a message on the answer phone. I haven’t

heard anything since dropping him off two days ago.

As we drove to the school in my mother-in-law’s car on that

Monday afternoon, I reached round the back of the passenger seat

and took his hand. He squeezed my fingers for a minute and then let

go of them one by one. My eyes prickled, for the first time since we

first came up with the boarding school plan. It was only now hitting

home that this was ‘it.’ I blinked away my tears silently and turned

round to look at him.

 “I can’t believe it’s actually happening” he said.

An hour later I was dropped off at the station and headed off to

London when I realized I had left my camera in his room.  I

couldn’t even look at the last snaps I had taken of him all smart in

his black suit and tie.

And so it was I bought the bag. I went for the ‘Bayswater’ as the

assistant thought the ‘Alexa’ might be a bit “young” for me. Ta

very much, b-yatch. Sitting on the plane before takeoff, I tried the

housemaster again and miraculously got though. He called Hugh to

the phone.

“Hello Mum?”

“Hey love, how’s it going? I’ve been thinking of you.”

“It’s great, brilliant, I love it but can you get off the phone because

we’re watching a rugby match on the telly and my hot chocolate

will be getting cold.”

And then I flew back to Mumbai alone.

A week later and I’ve still heard nothing. No emails, no texts,

nothing. It’s funny but walking through Shopper’s Stop in Malad

today I was confronted by a ten foot image of my son looking down

at me from a giant advertising poster. Some months ago he did an

ad campaign for Ruff Clothing’s A/W collection. He is not the

modeling type but wanted the money for an X-box game. I looked

up and felt my heart swell with pride and sadness. Tears were

rolling down my cheeks as a security guard approached me. Where

would I begin to tell him why I was standing in the middle of the

shop staring at a kid’s clothing poster crying my heart out? Do I tell

him that 13 years ago, I had a baby who grew up to be a lovely boy

who now lives 4000 miles away from me yet is standing here, ten

foot tall in a department store in Mumbai? That would be too much


“Hey” I smile “that’s my boy!” and then I walk away.