Behind The Mask ~ NO LOSS, NO GAIN

During what was supposed to be the final week of a trip in India, in January 1994, misfortune—or what might be considered such—overtook me, in the following way:

I had just revisited the cave-monasteries of Ajanta in Central India, and was on my way back to Madras in the south. To reach that city, however, meant a journey of 24 hours by train, and I was unwilling to travel without a reservation, as Indian trains are usually unpleasantly crowded. I bought a ticket at Bhusawal junction, but was unable to get a reservation for that evening’s train and had to settle for one the next evening; this meant that I had to stay overnight in Bhusawal. Inquiring about accommodation, however, I was told I might get a place in the first-class air-conditioned retiring-rooms of the station itself, but when I went there, I was informed that there was only one place left, and that I would have to share a room with someone else. Well, since it was for only one night, and the rate not excessive, I agreed to do so. This was my first mistake; I should have sought out a room for myself. But if we knew, in advance, that we were about to make mistakes, we would not make any; it’s always easy to be wise after the event.

I was taken up to the room, but the other occupant was out at the time. When he returned, we introduced ourselves, and he seemed to be well-educated, decent and friendly, and gave me one of his business-cards, saying that he had traveled overseas on business, and had even stayed in the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore. He said he had to meet a business-associate the next morning, and would not be leaving until the afternoon. Other than small-talk, however, we did not have a lot to say to each other.

The next morning, I rose at my usual early time and went into the bathroom, careful to take with me the small bag containing my passport, camera and Indian currency; my travelers’ checks were in a waist-pouch, and my other bags were kept locked beside my bed. Later, when I went out for breakfast, he must have observed that I took my small bag with me, and waited for an opportunity to get his hands on it. This came later, when I went into the bathroom to get some water and carelessly left my bag on my bed. No sooner had the bathroom door closed behind me on its spring-hinges than he jumped up, bolted the door from the outside, and made off with my bag and his own stuff, ripping out the phone before he went. By the time my shouts and bangings had brought someone running to let me out it was too late for pursuit, of course, and I could do nothing but go to the nearby police-station to make a report.

When I finally completed this rather-lengthy and slow process, I asked where I might change money, as all my Indian currency—enough, I had thought, to last for my few remaining days in India—had gone in my bag; I had not a single rupee left. One plain-clothes policeman offered to drive me to a bank on his scooter, which was very kind of him as it was not part of his duty. The bank, however, would not cash a travelers’ check for me, and told me that I would have to go to the next town for this, but I didn’t want to do so. The policeman then dropped me back at the railway-station, but came running after me and pressed 40 rupees into my hand, knowing that I had no Indian money; then, without waiting for me to get his name and address so that I might send him back the money, he went off.

I then went over to the reservations-office to report the loss of my ticket, and while there, I met someone who was willing to change some money for me, though at a very low rate. Then I was sent back to the ticket-counter to get a replacement ticket, for which I had to pay a 25% fee. I also went back to the police-station, but the officer who had helped me had already gone home, so I left a sum of money for him with other officers, trusting them to pass it to him.

All this time, I had not been feeling very happy, of course, but I consoled myself with the thought that whatever can be lost will be lost, sometime or other. I also reminded myself that I was lucky, as it was my eighth trip in India and this was the first time anything like this had happened to me, while I had heard of people going there for the first time and losing everything except the clothes they were wearing! It could have been much worse, I reasoned; I could have lost everything, too, and even been physically wounded or killed, instead of losing just one small bag and its contents.

My train was five hours late, and I boarded it for the long trip to Madras, hoping to find an Australian Consulate where I might get a new passport. Arriving there, however, I discovered that there was none, and so had to return to Delhi. To save time, I reluctantly paid US$170 for a plane-ticket, and flew out the next day. In Delhi, I underwent the usual hassles of finding a taxi and a hotel-room, but finally triumphed, and the next morning, went to the Australian High Commission where I was told a new passport could not be issued that day, and that I should come back for it the following day. I was greatly relieved to hear this, plus being surprised at the friendliness of the staff there, as I fully expected to have to wait about a week for it.

The next day, when I went to get my new passport, I met someone from Tasmania who was there for exactly the same reason; his passport had been stolen in Madras airport, just as he was about to leave for Australia! With so much in common, therefore, we decided to travel back to Madras by train together, so we obtained tickets for that evening’s express, at about $10, with sleeper reservations for the 36 hours’ trip south. Eventually, we arrived in Madras, tired and dirty from the journey, and found a hotel before setting about getting new Indian visas in our new passports, without which we would not have been allowed to leave the country.

Several days later, new visa in new passport, I boarded a flight back to Malaysia, and this was perhaps the happiest part of my trip in India; it was so good to get back to friendly faces in Malaysia!

This was not the end of the stolen-stuff saga however; there was a sequel to it: Three months later, while I was still in Malaysia, I received a letter from my sister in Adelaide saying that a big envelope—containing my old passport, address-book and some other papers—had arrived for me from the Aussie High Comm in Delhi. It had received these things from the police-station in Bhusawal; how the police-station had got them, I do not know, but I presume the thief had felt some remorse at stealing my stuff and somehow handed them in to the police, because I’m pretty sure that if he had just discarded them at the roadside or somewhere, they would never all have come back to me like that. I was very happy, therefore, because although the old passport had been cancelled, and I had back-up copies of most of the addresses in my address-book anyway, it indicated to me that the thief had learned something from it all; had he not stolen my stuff, perhaps he wouldn’t have learned what I think he did. It made my loss appear quite differently, and I am, after all, in the business of trying to help others understand things like this, am I not? Can I expect any success without any outlay or expenditure? And this is also probably not the end of the matter; there might be further developments yet.

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