Jose Thomas

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Wednesday 26th May, 2010



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I hope you enjoyed my last blog. After having received tremendous encouragement from friends all over the world, I am motivated to write about another experience that helped shape my life. I hope it will have an impact on you as well.

The year was 1976, a few years since my father had passed away. I was very young, aged 21, new to the business and still learning the ropes. It was around this time where I felt I needed to do something creative in order to take Choice to the next level. It was suggested that I travel around the world to meet and acquaint myself with the business associates with whom my father used to deal with… Liking this idea I approached my mother & oldest brother Alex, who was the Managing Director of Choice at that time, to ask them for their permission to travel. After much cajoling and some serious convincing later, they reluctantly agreed on condition that my brother Tom accompanied me.

I was very excited! As soon as I got permission, I set out to make all the appointments and plan our trip. Our journey was to begin from Cochin to Hong Kong (via Madras & Calcutta) and then on to Japan, the U.S., Canada, France, Italy, Belgium, the U.K. and back to Cochin (via Bombay). At this time I remember Mr. Joseph, my travel agent, had warned me of the uphill task of getting foreign exchange for travel. Those were the days when the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) controlled the entire foreign exchange management of the country including giving permission for overseas travel. This was because India, unlike today, did not have a foreign exchange surplus and hence had to have controls and restrictions in place to regulate out-flow of foreign currency.

Our company, Choice, had to submit an application to the RBI Control Office at Cochin and after substantiating the necessity to travel, and 5 long weeks of waiting, we were finally issued a $1000 in Travelers Cheques. Those days, the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) was not only in existence, but also enforced. It clearly outlined the rules, regulations, penalties and punishments for violations. If one was caught carrying undeclared foreign currency it was considered a very serious offence that could warrant a non bailable prison sentence even up to 10 yrs.

The day finally arrived, 20th Apr 1976, my brother and me were all set to travel in style - bell bottom pants, 4 inch belts around our waist, long hair, extended side burns and of course the prerequisite for hipness - "Sun Glasses".

Our friends and family came all out to see us off with bouquets, garlands, tears, wishes and a 'bring-me-back' list. This kind of melodrama was commonplace back in the day when anyone undertook an overseas trip. By the way my mother or the 'big boss' as we called her, accompanied us till Calcutta.

As we were about to leave, a very close relative of mine came up to me and asked, "Jose, how much money are u carrying with you?" I was taken aback as the question seemed quite unusual, but without thinking I answered, "a thousand dollars." He then said, "That money will run out even before you get to the U.S. Here's another five hundred dollars that I want you to keep". Puzzled, I remember asking him where he got this money from. He told me not to worry about it and to have a good time. I didn't think too much about it then and reluctantly accepted the money.

Our first flight from Cochin to Madras was on an Avro HS 748, a 40 seat, propeller driven aeroplane, which took close to 3 hours to reach Madras. Right after we landed at Madras we took another connecting flight to Calcutta, where we were received by my sister who lived in Jamshedpur. We spent the night with my sister and her family as our flight to Hong Kong was only the next day. Amid the excited dinner table chatter and my mother and sister exchanging bits of juicy gossip from back home, my mind was just not there. Excitement and nervousness of the following day's journey and my dreams of taking Choice to greater heights crowded my mind. I had excused myself from dinner to finish up my final packing for the next day.

My father had three precious belongings, other than his wife, children and Choice. A gold ring, a 22 carat gold chain and an Omega watch, which he wore every day. Upon his death, my mother distributed these three belongings amongst her sons. Tom got the ring, I got the chain and Alex, my oldest brother, got the watch.

Before leaving on this trip, Alex had asked me to get this watch repaired at the authorized dealer at New York since it was faulty. I remembered fondly how much my father really loved this watch and I immediately packed it carefully into my bag along with my clothes. As I was finishing my packing, I remembered the additional $500 that was given to me which I had tucked away into my shirt pocket. I pulled it out, looked at it and for a minute something did not feel right.

I started to think back to the great difficulty with which we had acquired the $1000 from the RBI. I couldn't imagine that my relative could have landed this money so easily. That's when I remembered somebody telling me about how one could buy dollars off the grey market by paying a much higher premium. But of course, this was illegal.

I started to get nervous at this point. What if I was caught with this extra money? What would I say? What would I do? I clearly remembered the punishment if I was to be caught- the non bailable imprisonment. Once again brushing it aside, I placed this money into the back pocket of a pair of light green pants which I owned. I then packed these pants into the bottom of my check–in baggage, shut it and went off to sleep.

The next day dawned and there we were, headed to Calcutta airport, a mix of excitement and anxiety. Bidding farewell to my anxious mother and sister, we checked in, got our boarding cards and proceeded towards immigration. We were barraged with questions at every point. "Where are you going? Why are you going?" They looked down on us like two immature little kids and were unable to fathom why we were under taking this trip. We managed to get through these hurdles and thinking that it was all done, I breathed a sigh of relief. As we walked away from the immigration counters, it suddenly hit me that we still had to pass through customs.

We walked along and then we saw them, all dressed in white, about 15 to 20 of them - the customs officers. When we approached the counter an officer began asking the usual questions, "Where are you going? What is your purpose of travel?" to which I gave the same answers as before. I felt that it was over. After a short pause, it was then that the officer asked me the question I had been dreading all along. "Son, how much money are you carrying?"

                    I froze. Should I lie? Or Should I speak the truth? I was confused.

The Customs Officer being trained to be tactful calmly asked, "Tell us the truth and we will not hurt you." In a trice I boldly answered, "We have a thousand dollars in Traveler's Cheques". I knew I had just lied. The officer asked again, "Are you sure that if we search your bags we will not find anything more?" "Yes." I said again, without batting an eyelid and being quite certain I would not be caught.

My eyes scanned the room for my bags. I was sure they would have reached the plane by now… but suddenly, my heart sank. I saw my bags in the control area with the customs officers! I knew what was happening… they were going to search my bags. I knew the price I would have to pay. I watched with dread as they took my bag and in the presence of 4 or 5 officers, they started to rummage through it. Each and every piece of clothing was taken out, shaken and they began to check the pockets of my shirts and pants. I was filled with horror, conviction for crime and jail loomed large. Images of my father and his unfulfilled dream, my desire to grow Choice, all my plans for the future, were hanging in the balance.

A question came to mind, time and time again. Was it worth telling a lie?

As they were reaching the bottom of the bag, I took nervous glances at Tom and saw him as cool as a cucumber as he was unaware of the other money. I then closed my eyes and prayed. I was helpless.

At that moment the officer pulled out the green pants, and out of nowhere my father's Omega watch slipped out and crashed to the floor, shattering the glass dial. I felt something come over me and I shouted in a loud voice."STOP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!!" The commotion caught the attention of the senior officers nearby. They rushed over and said, "Stop harassing these kids. Let them go immediately, their flight is waiting". The officers were apologetic, quickly stuffed everything back into the bag and let us go. As we hurried to board the awaiting Boeing 707, I looked heavenward and thanked God & my father for the helping hand.

That day I made a firm decision. If I can, I will not lie again. It's simply not worth it! Nor would I put myself in a position where I would be forced to lie.

Sometimes you learn hard lessons through bitter experiences, if you can convert these experiences into opportunities, you will be a Winner!

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