First trip abroad

- RK Nagar 

These days foreign travel has become very common. Scores of people go abroad for business, study, pleasure or both and it has all become possible because obtaining a passport and foreign exchange has become so easy. Many who can afford-and that is an increasing number, travel out of India more often combining both business and pleasure. For some well known politicians, it is more pleasure with Thailand as the most favourite destination.


Jokes apart, it wasn’t so easy in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. On the contrary It was quite an adventure. Whereas many like me dreamt of getting the tag of ‘foreign returned’ in this lifetime, it but remained only a dream. One of the favourite questions that most people asked an astrologer was, “do I have foreign travel in my horoscope? Or if it were a palmist, “do I have a foreign travel line in my hand?”


Interest in foreign travel was especially very strong among those who were getting some kind of technical education, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, or even agriculture. New agriculture colleges being set up in collaboration with American land grant universities were providing the faculty an opportunity to study in USA and that was an added incentive to do academically better, get a faculty position and wait for your chance to go “phoren”.


I did my undergrad and masters in agriculture and dairy science respectively but teaching never interested me. So, whereas many of my friends worked towards going “phoren” through the above route, it wasn’t for me. And going on my own wasn’t affordable. So, I had, even as a student abandoned the idea of going abroad. My eyes were firmly set on the Indian Administrative Service.


Somewhere in between I ended up in NDDB. What I thought as a stop over on my way to civil service, came to be my final destination. Thanks to prof Michael Halse (my guru Mike), I changed my mind and dropped pursuing my original goal of civil service.


Since I was among the beginners, and work and systems were still in the early stage of evolution, any thought of going abroad as an employee of NDDB was far fetched. It wasn’t even on my mind. But when things have to happen, they happen in mysterious ways.

We get our passport:Yes, it was “WE” Shailendra and me


It was 1972. We were pretty well settled in the campus, BOHO club had become functional and we used to have a weekly screening of a movie in front of the old hostel towards the pump house side. We were barely 40-45 persons on the campus and we all set on the mound in front of the first D block. For Dr and Mrs Kurien, Shri AK Roychaudhari, and Mike ( he hardly ever came) we used to pull out a sofa from the hostel lounge.


We had a 16 mm projector to screen the movies on a white screen stretched on the hostel kitchen backyard wall. For every film, we used to have two intervals as it used to come in 4 spools. Our official projectionist was Rajeev Verma from Engineering.


It was during the interval of one of these movie screenings that Dr Kurien sprang a surprise. He got up from his seat, turned back and asked, “where are Shailendra and Nagar?”. We were sitting together so we responded by raising our hands and went to him.


“Do you have passports”, he asked. “No sir”, we nodded our heads in unison and wondered why suddenly, in the middle of a movie, he is asking if we have passports. A thought crossed my mind- why do I need a passport ? Foreign travel is not on my agenda.


While, I was lost in this thought, he told Shailendra, you two meet me in my office on Monday. I am sending the two of you to England for training in computers.
So, when Shailendra later revealed to me what Dr. Kurien had told us (and what I hadn’t paid any attention to) surprised me more. “Training in computers for me? I was happy at the prospect of getting a chance to go abroad, but at the same time, I was apprehensive if I will finally make it as I am not an engineer by training nor do I have strong credentials or flair for numbers.


When we met Dr Kurien in his office on Monday, he gave us passport application forms, asked us to fill them and get them endorsed by an IAS officer of the rank of joint secretary or above. “Do you know any IAS officer in Gujarat?”, he asked and we gave the expected answer, “No sir”.


In fact, the only IAS officer we knew was Ashok Koshy, Dr. Kurien’s executive assistant, but he wasn’t eligible to endorse our applications. In those days, one had to get his passport application endorsed by a gazetted officer above a particular rank and unless you were well connected getting endorsement became a Herculean task.


Dr. Kurien offered to help us out. He knew that on our own we will just draw a cipher. He therefore called one of his senior IAS friends in Gandhinagar who agreed to endorse our passport applications. He gave us a letter and asked us to go next day to Gandhinagar and meet this officer.


Here there is a difference in my and Shailendra’s recollection. I remember the name of the officer as KG Badlani, who was Agriculture Secretary, Government of Gujarat while Shailendra remembers him as FJ Heredia. My recollection is that Heredia was the MD of GSFC at that time and lived in Vadodara. Anyway it doesn’t matter since we met the same person as we travelled together to Gandhinagar with Dr. Kurien’s letter to get endorsement of our passport applications. A couple of days back, I googled KG Badlani and learnt an interesting fact about him. He was Prime Minister of Dadra and Nagar Haveli for a day in 1961. He thus has a record of some sort in his name.Henceforth, I will use the term SHRI for the person we met.


With the letter of introduction in tow, we headed for Gandhinagar next day. We boarded Gujarat Queen for Ahmedabad. As we were approaching Ahmedabad, we asked a fellow passenger what was the best way to go to Gandhinagar. He suggested that we get down at Maninagar and take a bus from there. He said that bus service from Maninagar is more frequent and easier to take than Kalupur railway station.


We got down at Maninagar station and looked for bus to Gandhinagar. “A bus for Gandhinagar has just departed and the next bus will be here after an hour”, a person waiting at the bus stop told us. “And how long does it take to reach there?”, we asked. “About one hour”, the man at bus stop responded.


We calculated that it would be around 1230 pm and what if we can’t get hold of SHRI whom we have been asked by Dr. Kurien to meet in the forenoon? Waiting for the bus would be too risky. We conferred with each other and decided to take an auto rickshaw ride to Gandhinagar. Auto driver told us that it would take about 50 minutes to one hour to reach Mantralaya. So, we stood a good chance to meet SHRI in his office in the forenoon itself.


Neither of us had ever undertaken such a long auto ride before. In any case, there were, by this time very few autos in Anand and the ride was always a short one. Once we were out of the Ahmedabad city limits, a drive through long empty stretches of half done roads felt like a never ending journey. I felt we were driving into eternity.


Finally we arrived at the Mantralaya, located the office of SHRI and told his PS to inform SHRI that we are here to see him. After a wait of about 15 minutes, we were called in. We had in the meantime sent in the letter that Dr. Kurien had given us.


As we entered SHRI’s office, he dropped a bombshell. “Gentlemen, to endorse your passport application, I must personally know you for at least 3 years, but I don’t know you. So, how can I do it? I am sorry.”


We had not taken even a drop of water since we left Anand. The auto ride from Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar was tiring and irritating. And we didn’t know if we would get an auto or bus to go back to Ahmedabad. Shailendra signalled me to leave and just as we were turning our backs a bit disappointed, I blurted out, “But sir, I hope you at least know Dr. Kurien for years”.


SHRI’s expression immediately changed from a stoic serious one to a friendly smile as though he was waiting for this reaction.

He then started looked at our applications. While going through Shailendra’s application he looked up and asked him “ So your mother was only 18 years old when you were born?” . He was confused from this unexpected question and could only utter a feeble “Yes Sir!”

Well it better be correct as I am endorsing your application based on Dr Kuriens letter.

He then asked us to wait for few minutes outside and in the next 5 minutes we has with us our passport applications duly endorsed by a senior IAS officer -SHRI.


Now Shailendra was worried.He had put his mother’s date of birth as told by his father. He was greatly concerned about the correctness of information provided. We both were hungry too.

We headed straight to Mantralaya cafeteria-that was the closest where we could eat something and soon after a small bite looked for a transport back to Ahmedabad.

Shailendra was 26 year old then. His mind was stuck on the authenticity of information provided about his mother’s date of birth. We agreed that on the way BBC we will stop in Ahmedabad so that he could make a call to his father to recheck the date of birth of his mother.

Mercifully, we got an auto but this time around it didn’t feel like a ride into eternity.


On our way back we stopped at the public call booth at Post and Telegraph Office amd Shailendra made an “Urgent” call to Babuji to reconfirm Amma’s date of birth.

He was visibly very happy when Babuji reconfirmed the date of Amma’s date of birth provided for the passport application.

Our passports arrived in a months time. In those days, that was considered “quick”.

With passports in hand, we now waited for the “dates” for our training and looked forward to a flight that would take us to the “phoren” land-UK.


Once date’s were known and our tickets booked-we travelled Air India which incidentally in those days carried a very good reputation as an international carrier. Our training cost was fully borne by the FAO. They also gave us a measly “allowance” to meet our expenses to cover us during weekends and between course breaks. Put together, the amount was adequate to pay only for one weekends expenses although we were to be in UK for nearly 3 months.


We also had on us, the full quota of permissible foreign exchange. Between the two of us, that was a princely 10 pounds. We realised how hand to mouth we were going to be only after landing there. Imagine on your first trip abroad you are I’ll informed, I’ll equipped and with the biggest handicap- communication with your office or family back home! It can be quite depressing but we braved the challenge.


When we landed in London, we were received at the Heathrow airport by our host and training coordinator, Wally Saunders. He had earlier come to NDDB as a consultant through FAO and was, in part responsible for our selection for this training. We two were the first ever from NDDB to be sent abroad for training. We landed there at 11 am local time.

It was a bright sunny and pleasantly cool day.


Since it was our first trip out, we had no idea of what is “jet leg” and we were feeling very fresh, Wally decided to take his own sweet time to reach us to his village, Bradford in Warwickshire county. He being an experienced global traveller knew that if we reach our hotel early, we will surely hit the sack. He therefore wanted us to keep awake as long as possible and not to go to bed before 9 pm local time.


We stopped on the way to see Blenheim palace, Oxfordshire, the birth place of Sir Winston Churchill, the British Prime minister during World War II. By the time we reached Bradford and checked into the hotel, it was 5 pm. To make sure we don’t go to sleep, Wally said that he would come by 7pm and we will dine together. That would give us enough time to take a shower and freshen up.


But when Wally arrived, I was in deep sleep.

He woke me up and said, it is dinner time. I looked at my watch-I had reset it at London airport-and it was 7 pm. With sun shining in full glory at an angle that was like 4 pm in India, I asked, “Dinner ?, So early. Look at the sun, it is still on our head. Can’t we wait till it gets a bit darker”?


Wally laughed and said, “Nagar, this is summer time in UK and the sun will set past 9.30 pm. We will have dinner after 15 minutes”.


What a ‘huge’ concession that was on time! Anyway, we had our first dinner on English soil in broad daylight.


And at last, we were in ‘Phoren’ with the ‘returned’ tag just three months away.

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