“What do you do if you see a Paki with a broken leg?” Three-eyed Joe said down the phone.
Chief Preventive Officer Kevin Giblin of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise fiddled with his earpiece and stroked the three gold rings on the shoulder of his uniform as he waved a white family of four through the green channel at Heathrow Airport. “Is this a joke?”
“Answer my question,” Three-eyed Joe said.
“I pull him in?”
“Correct, my friend. You pull him in.”
“What’s he carrying?” Giblin asked. “It better be worth my while this time.”
There was a pause. Then laughter.
“What’s on every bleedin’ news channel this side of the Great Wall of China?”
“The museum break-in?” Giblin asked.
“The man aims, he fires, he hits the friggin’ target,” Three-eyed Joe said. “Yes, the museum robbery. Two stones from Sri Lanka. Heard of that place?”
“Beaches, tea, cricket. Of course I have.”
“The Blue Star of Lanka and the Star of Madras are sapphires,” Three-eyed Joe said.
“I thought you said they were both from Sri Lanka.”
Giblin sucked from a tube of toothpaste he kept in his pocket to hide the lingering smell of booze on his breath. “But Madras is in India.”
“I’m no bloody gem merchant. Look the stones up.”
“You think I subscribe to Sapphire Monthly?”
“On the Internet, you twat. On the Internet. The point is, the three o’clock flight to Colombo tomorrow, look out for a Paki with a broken leg. The sapphires will be in his cast.”
“Hold on.” Giblin walked into an empty customs booth and shut the door. He took out a pen to take notes. “Look, mate, is this bona fide legit intel? You know I’m on a warning for racism.”
“It’s legit. The same source as always.”
“Your fence?” Giblin asked.
“No, my smuggler. The idea is not to sell these stones. The issue is repatriation. The stones were taken from Sri Lanka in colonial times. They asked for them back. Our boys said no, so word on the street is that a rich little Sri Lankan arranged for them to be taken.”
“So Sri Lankan not Paki?”
“Same bloody thing.”
Back in his office, Giblin took a swig of vodka from a plastic water bottle and searched the Internet for the Blue Star of Lanka and the Star of Madras. They turned out to be the two most valuable sapphires in the world and of great historical relevance to Sri Lanka. The Star of Madras was named incorrectly, which is one of the issues the government of Sri Lanka wanted rectifying, repatriation being the other. Both requests were denied and rightly so, Giblin thought. Finders keepers and all that.
This could be just the high-profile catch Giblin needed. Maybe he would become known for a sapphire bust rather than for allegedly harassing Muslims. What if Three-eyed Joe was wrong though? To be safe, Giblin considered passing this intel on to his superiors, but that would be like turning down the chance to take a penalty at a World Cup final. With his career nose-diving as it was, he felt like he was drowning at sea and the only way to shore was on the back of a shark. Giblin perched against a wall near the check-in counters for the relevant flight to Colombo. He stopped himself from slouching, from time to time, because he realised when he did, part of his growing belly stuck out between the last two buttons of his shirt. Within moments he spotted a man with a broken leg, but he was white, not brown. Still, surely it had to be him, he thought.
Giblin approached him and said, “Can I help you, sir?”
The man looked at Giblin’s uniform. “No, can I help you?”
“What’s your name, sir?” Giblin asked.
“Jason.” He held the crutches with his underarms and reached out a hand. “Jason Jones.”
“Easy to remember.” Giblin noticed that Jason Jones did not look at all nervous or shifty. No one is this good. “Would you mind just coming with me for a moment?”
Jason smiled, a bit cockily. “May I ask why?”
“When did you break your leg?”
“A couple of months ago… Look, if you don’t mind,” he pointed down at his leg, “I want to get to the departure gate so I can put my foot up.”
Giblin looked past Jason Jones, almost pushing him out of the way. Thank God, he thought, this is show time. He looked towards a brown man entering the terminal wearing a puffer sleeveless jacket that was four or five sizes too big, under which he had two sweaters, each frayed at the sleeves. His trousers were held up by a leather belt that looked like it had gone round his tiny waist twice. Most importantly he wore a leg cast that looked too big and was so bright-white and spotless it was clearly new.
This. Had. To. Be. The. Man.
Giblin didn’t even bother speaking to Jason Jones. He just brushed past him and marched up to the brown man the second he saw him queueing for the Colombo flight. “You’re coming with me,” he said.
The brown man was sweating so much he had to wipe his eyes. He leant on his crutches, gave Giblin a half-hearted smile and wobbled his head.
The brown man shrugged his shoulders and giggled.
“What’s your bloody name?”
The brown man wobbled his head and smiled again.
“Passport? Give…Me…Your…Passport.” Giblin lifted his walkie-talkie and asked for a buggy to come pick them both up. The brown man lifted his hands up in prayer, still smiling, still wobbling his head, but with his eyes closed and tears streaming down his face.
Giblin switched the clinical LED lighting on in the security office. He helped the man sit on a red chair, behind a spotless white table, facing two light brown doors, with a long thin window between them. As soon as Giblin closed the door he smelt something pungent and assumed it to be in the man’s bag or on his person.
“May I?” Giblin said, lifting up the brown man’s multi-coloured canvas shoulder bag. He looked up towards a camera in the corner of the room. “I have no idea if his head wobble means yes or no, but will proceed on the assumption that it means the former.”
He emptied the contents of the bag on the table. “For the record we have one opened packet of Jaffa Cakes, a packet of chewing gum, loose change and, hello, sir, we have a number of pictures of scantily dressed ladies cut out of a magazine.” Giblin smiled at the camera and held up one of the pages. “We also have a passport for the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” He turned to the man. “Sir, is this your passport?”
The brown man shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“For the record, I do not believe our suspect can speak any English. His passport says his name is Nimal Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Dias. From the smirk on our suspect’s face I am assuming that I have pronounced all those names just about as badly as is humanly possible.”
Giblin flicked through the passport and addressed the camera again. “Our man has been back and forth to countless countries around the world. Repeat visits. If you ask me, he looks like a you-know-what. Are you a smuggler, sir?”
Head wobble. Smile. Repeat.
“Sir, you are well within the law to exercise your rights not to know a single word of the language of the country you are visiting.” Giblin laughed and pulled on some disposable gloves and slid his hands under Dias’s armpits, pulling him to his feet. “But I’m going to have to pat you down.” Giblin felt up Dias’s leg, around his buttocks, inside his butt cheeks, around his groin, up his abs, under his belt, across his nipples. “Sit, sit.” He picked up Dias’s sandal which was made of rotting fake black leather, hence the repugnant smell. He felt around the edges, knowing the shoe was too small to conceal sapphires but he had to check it all the same. He then slapped either side of Dias’s cloth bag again to make sure he had not missed anything.
“I have reason to believe that you may have something hidden within that massive leg cast of yours, so I have to cut it open.” Giblin looked at the camera. “It looks much much bigger around the foot than it should be.” He pointed down at the cast and acted out scissors with his fingers. “Should you have any objections, sir, please could you voice them now?”
The brown man showed no signs of having understood any of this.
Giblin picked up the phone in the office when it rang.
“Superintendent Humphryes here. You can’t cut the bloody cast off yourself.”
“Why not?” Giblin asked. “Clearly nothing wrong with his leg.”
“Is it plaster or fibreglass?”
“The cast?” Giblin asked.
“Yes, the bloody cast.”
“Think it’s plaster.” Giblin touched it again. “Could be fibreglass.”
“Either way, I think you need a cast saw. Do you have a cast saw in your pocket?”
“I don’t, sir.”
“Then wait for the bloody doctor.”
Moments later, after Giblin had had a cigarette break, Superintendent Humphryes arrived with a man who looked too young to be a doctor.
Humphryes shook Dias’s hand. “This doctor is going to have to use a cast saw on your leg, but I can promise it will not cut you.”
The doctor plugged in the saw. Dias kicked his chair out from under himself and hobbled, on one leg, to the first of the two doors. “No, no, no.” He pointed at his cast. “Is broken. Broken. Paining, paining, paining.”
“Get back in the chair please, sir.” Giblin strode towards the door and pushed it shut. “This won’t take long.”
“Relax, sir,” Humphryes said. “Relax.” He rolled his chair, on wheels, across to Dias. “My name is Superintendent Humphryes. It is within my remit to make sure you are not hurt or unnecessarily inconvenienced.”
Giblin laughed. “He doesn’t understand a word, sir.”
As they all guided Dias back to his chair he started to scream, his voice pitched so high, the two customs officers and the doctor had to let go of him to cover their ears.
“You want me to sedate him?” the doctor asked.
“No. No.” Dias pulled a chair towards himself and laboured into a seating position with his cast stretched out in front. He looked up at the ceiling and mouthed something to whichever god he assumed was looking out for him.
Humphryes, with his hands hovering near his ears, said, “Done with the primeval screaming, sir?”
Head wobble, smile, repeat.
Humphryes looked at Giblin who shrugged his shoulders and said, “Could mean anything.”
The doctor knelt down by the cast, holding it at the base and looking up as if plotting where to start. Giblin placed a hand on the doctor’s shoulder.
“Careful not to damage the stones with that thing.”
The doctor shook his head. “I think you’ll find I know what I’m doing.” He crouched next to the cast, while Dias buried his head and began to chant something, possibly religious, in his own language. He grimaced as the saw penetrated his cast. “Aiyo. Amma. Thathi. Apo.”
“It won’t hurt,” the doctor said. “Just try to sit still.”
The saw made good progress but caught a snag halfway up and the doctor pulled it away. “There could be something here.”
“Like some rocks?” Giblin smiled, rubbed his hands together, and slapped Humphryes on the back. “Told you, sir.”
“No, no, no,” Dias said. He put both his hands around the top of his cast and pulled his leg away, but too late. The doctor had the cast loose and on the floor. He examined it closely, cutting it into thinner strips. “My mistake. Nothing there but for poor plastering.”
The doctor put the saw off. “What the hell?” Giblin picked up the remains of the cast and started shaking it.
“Nothing,” the doctor said. “And his leg is clearly, very actually, definitely broken. Pretty badly.” Dias smiled at Giblin and winked.
“Look at that jackass grinning at me,” Giblin said.
“Watch your mouth,” Humphryes said.
“He can’t understand a bloody word.” Giblin rummaged through his bag again. “It has to be him. It has to be.”
“You sure there wasn’t anyone else on the flight who could have fit the description?” Humphryes asked. “‘Because if there was it’s too late.”
“Don’t tell me the flight has left already,”
Dias said in a polished English accent.
Giblin opened his mouth but all he could do was stare at an equally baffled Humphryes.
Dias looked at the doctor. “You wouldn’t happen to have the time, would you?”
“There’s another flight at seven thirty. If I catch that I can still make my niece’s wedding.”
“Your niece’s wedding?” Humphryes asked.
“Yes, I’m making the toast,” Dias smiled.
“Can you get me on that flight?”
“What flight?” Humphryes asked, his eyes blank.
“Doctor,” Dias said, “do you think you can recast my leg in time for me to catch the seven thirty?”
“Not a chance, I’m afraid. We need to get you back to hospital.” The doctor looked at Giblin. “I thought he couldn’t speak English.”
“So did I,” Humphryes said.
“I’m sorry to have broken your stereotypes,”
Dias said. “Can I ask something controversial?”
“If you must, sir,” Humphryes said.
“I am missing my niece’s wedding because that man over there”—he pointed at Giblin—“on a whim, thought I was smuggling something in a cast for a leg that he thought was not actually broken, but very actually is?”
“Sir, rather than answering questions, let’s see what we can do to get you home,” Humphryes said. “There could be other flights.”
“There are no other flights,” Dias shouted. “I checked. I checked because that is what grown men do when they have an important decision to make.” He pointed again at Giblin. “That guy busted me based purely on the colour of my skin.”
“That’s not true, sir,” Giblin said. “I brought you in because you wore a leg cast.”
“So you’re saying you only picked me out of the crowd because of my leg cast?”
“So had you seen someone else with a leg cast, regardless of colour, you would have pulled him in instead or, at least, as well?”
“Yes, well…” Giblin knew where he was going with this.
“Because when I first saw you, you were talking to a white man with a leg cast.”
Dias scratched his leg under where the cast should have been. “So I can safely assume he’s next door, with his leg cast having been cut off.
Doctor, did you cut off a white man’s leg cast?”
The doctor shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” Dias said, “I don’t understand all your English mannerisms. When you shake your head that means yes?”
“Means no,” the doctor said.
“That can’t be,” Dias said. “Because just this second I was told that the matter of concern was a leg cast and that other man had one too.” Dias looked at Humphryes.
“You seem to be the boss here. Can I ask you, have you also brought in a white man with a broken leg?”
“No, sir, but we had intel…”
“What’s the difference between me and the white man with the broken leg? Did he break his left foot instead?”
“I don’t think so. I remember thinking, if we needed to sit next to each other on the flight at least our broken legs, both being right, would not bump into each other. No?”
“Well, let me give you a clue.” He pointed at Giblin. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Giblin sir, what colour am I?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Okay, I’ll help you. I’m brown. Was the other man white?”
“The one with the broken leg?”
“Yes, the one with the broken leg.”
“Yes, he was white.”
“Did you let him go?”
“He wasn’t acting suspiciously.”
“And I was?”
“Yes, you were, sir, I’m sorry.”
“So if I look up the word suspicious, it will say anything looking like dark wood or rich soil?”
“He spoke English for starters,” Giblin said. “With all due respect you pretended you could not speak.”
“I was bloody terrified. It’s intimidating being grabbed by a man of your size.”
“Look, sir, I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I had some very particular intel about this.”
“You had an informant?” Dias looked at Humphryes. “Is that what you call them?”
“Yes, it is.”
“What did he tell you to look out for? A man in a cut-off puffer jacket and a cast?” Giblin looked at the floor. “He specifically said brown.”
Dias laughed again as if he couldn’t help himself. “But then why did you stop the whitest man in the world just because he had a broken leg? Are you colourblind?” “I wondered if the intel might have been wrong.”
“If it was wrong then why take in either of us?” Dias sucked in a deep breath and pointed at his leg. “It’s beginning to hurt like hell. Can I have a cigarette please?” Dias asked.
“There’s no smoking—”
“Just give him one,” Humphryes said. Dias took his time lighting the cigarette, which pissed off Giblin. He pulled in long drags, smiling after each one. “I am a fair man, in all but colour. I am also fundamentally lazy, and if I ever have a choice in life, I take the simplest route.” He pointed down at his leg. It was matted with sweat and goo, and the skin was lighter than the rest of his body. “If I could get on my crutches now, and if there was another flight, I would just leave. Get to Sri Lanka and put this down to an awful, humiliating experience I want to put
behind myself. But, you know what? Maybe it’s a good thing I can’t do that.”
“Sir,” Humphryes said, “we’ll do everything we can to patch you up so you’re good to go for the next flight.”
“But I would have missed the wedding already. Not to mention the shame of being taken in by customs officials in front of a bunch of Sri Lankan travellers. We are lovely people, but we’re islanders and we gossip.”
“If there is anything I could do I would,” Humphryes said.
“There’s a lot you can do.” Dias smiled, and stubbed out his cigarette. “There’s a lot you have to do if you don’t want this to turn into a diplomatic incident.”
“Do you have some demands?” Humphryes offered Dias another cigarette which he declined. “I’m sure we could arrange for you to be taken straight to the very best hospital and we can put you up in the very best hotel until your flight leaves.”
Dias laughed. “I’m not too enamoured by the idea of putting my health, accommodation or travel plans in your hands.”
“Then what?” Humphryes asked.
“I want justice and I’ll stop at nothing short of it.” Dias banged the table with his fist. “I’m disinclined to accept anything from you, because that will look like compensation. I don’t want compensation. Just get me a wheelchair and put me in a taxi.”
“To take you to hospital?” Humphryes asked.
“No, to take me to my lawyers.”
The next day Giblin woke up naked and alone on the sofa. He couldn’t remember anything of the purposefully mind-numbing pub crawl he’d found himself on the night before. The doorbell rang. Giblin covered himself with cushions and had a peek out the window. Humphryes stood outside, tapping his feet fast and tearing bits of paper off the corner of a brown envelope.
Giblin spoke through the letterbox. “Sir, it’s my day off.”
“Dias has calmed down.” Humphryes leant against the door. “Please just let me in.” “Give me a minute.” Giblin found the previous night’s clothes strewn across the living room floor. He smelled the shirt and it was all smoke and vomit so he chucked that behind the sofa, and just wore the trousers. Giblin lit a cigarette, opened the door and sat down on the sofa with his head in his hands. “Please tell me this is good news.”
“He wants ten thousand pounds, a business class ticket to Sri Lanka, a limousine to pick him up from his hotel, and an airport buggy to take him from the limo, through immigration, all the way to the plane.”
“Ten thousand pounds?”
“We may be able to get him to come down on that. His main issue is he doesn’t want to be pulled in again for being suspiciously brown.”
Giblin laughed. “I know what you want, sir. You want me to take him through the airport all the way to the plane.”
“You will do it?”
“I have no choice, right?”
Dias sat on the flight to Colombo next to Luke Vincent, a short Sri Lankan man with a cockney accent. They started drinking together and Luke Vincent mentioned how he was given up for adoption thirty years earlier and was now returning to find his birth mother.
“First time to Sri Lanka?” Dias asked.
“First time in Asia.”
“You must feel you belong there.”
“I won’t know for a few weeks,” Luke said.
“But it’s where I was taken from.”
Dias looked down at his leg cast.
“Anything taken from our country should be returned.”
Two customs officers greeted Dias when he got off the plane. They pushed him in a wheelchair through immigration and into a brightly lit office where a man with a full head of unrealistically black hair perched behind a desk.
“Mr Dias, I am Cuckoo Siva.”
“Yes, sir, I know.” He lifted himself out of his wheelchair so that he could shake hands.
“Please, stay as you are. It’s nice to finally meet. Do you have the sapphires?” Dias smiled, pointed at his leg and nodded. “Those idiots took me straight to the plane and, by the way, your idea to use Jason Jones as a decoy was genius.”
Feature illustration by Rahul Das
This essay was published in the Jan-Mar 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly. Subscribe here.
Elsewhere in the issue, Jai Arjun Singh writes about caring and communicating with an ill mother he is exceptionally close to, Jerry Pinto ponders over familial bonds and what lies at the heart of the family. Sydney-based writer John Zubrzycki tells the wondrous story of Ramo Samee, the most famous Indian magician of the 19th century. Anita Roy visits the Lancelot Ribeiro retrospective in London and find how the painter found his distinct voice. Karan Kapoor talks about his inspiration, his parents, Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor. Mandakini Dubey reflects on the nature of family ties.