This yarn goes back to around 1998, during my Dubai days. With teas being regularly sourced and shipped out from Calcutta and Colombo, while both cities used to be on my regular beat, having friends in the latter who were always ready to party at the drop of a hat, Colombo was a much more frequent port of call.
Capitalising on the fact that I had very good contacts there and that Sri Lanka had a very well established and innovative tea packaging industry which, at that point of time, was streets ahead of what India could offer, besides bulk tea shipments from there over the years I had developed and was managing quite a few private labels for clients in various countries. Leveraging that base and sensing a business opportunity I ended up taking an optimistic plunge by extending the private label platform to develop a ‘brand’ for myself. That “Camellia”, which we expected would become a huge success, fell flat on its face is a different matter altogether.
On receiving and checking the first consignment of Camellia Tea Bags in Dubai it was noticed that the tag on the tea bag had a minor flaw in the printing. Trying to explain this to the design artist in Colombo over the phone proving to be an uphill task I decided that the better option would be to make a trip to SL, sit with the fellow and sort out the issue peering over his shoulder while the designer worked on his computer. Having already planned a visit to Calcutta I decided to club that trip with a hop across from Calcutta to Colombo from where I could directly head back to Dubai.
Wanting to make an impression on Hussain (the designer) for him to fully understand how the misprint on the tag could impact the whole pack, I decided to carry along an unopened full shipping case from the consignment with me. The standard packing for the 100 Tea Bag carton being 36 shelf packs I landed in Calcutta airport in the wee hours of the morning with my suitcase and this one carton. Having gone through immigration and collecting the two pieces of baggage from the luggage belt I headed out to the exit, having been waved through by the Customs official who, from his dishevelled appearance appeared to have been rudely and unnecessarily woken up from a deep slumber by the arrival of a flight.
Crossing the Customs checkpoint I was waved down by a gentleman in a white uniform who, suddenly appearing from nowhere, asked me what I had in my carton. Having already come past the Customs area, I was rather terse in my response wanting to know who the gentleman was. The response was a somewhat pompous “Phytosanitary Inspector”. There being no overt signs of him being what he said he was I asked him to show me his ID, which he did before again asking me what I was carrying in the carton.
“Tea Bags as you can see printed on the carton”
“You can’t take”
“Huh! Why not”?
“Import of Tea to India not allowed” followed by a rather smug “Banned item”!
After which exchange I very patiently explained to the inspector that what I was carrying was a sample of my own product which had been packed in SL and that I would be carrying the unopened carton back with me the next morning on the flight to Colombo. The gentleman being adamant and repeating his litany of “banned” I suggested that he put his signature across the cartons sealing tape and that on the next day before checking into my flight I could show him that the carton was unopened as proof that I had not imported any teas into the country. With him being unmoved by my suggestion I offered to leave the carton in the gentleman’s office, telling him that I’d collect it from there before heading out. The response was a very brusque “NO”!
Tired as I was after my five hour flight and wanting to get to my hotel for a shower before heading out for my work, in total exasperation I suggested to the bloke that we go into his office. The sudden spark of interest in his eyes was a blatant giveaway as to what he expected when we entered the confines of his office. Sitting down across from his desk I asked the gentleman whether he had a cutter or a blade he could lend me. Being handed over a penknife I slit the sealing tape and opened the carton and went into full theatrical mode. As dramatically as I could possibly be I pulled out one pack of the tea bags, got hold of the tear tape and VERY slowly unsealed the cellophane overwrap which I crinkled into a ball with the plastic making that grating crinkly sound which I accentuated by continuing to roll the ball as tight as possible. Pushing the ham acting to the limit I requested that the gentleman loan me a scissor and would he please throw the cellophane ball into his dustbin before passing the bin across to me. Had he been a cartoon character, at this point of time the inspector would definitely have had at least a couple of question marks floating over his head.
The bin having been pushed across to me, in extremely slow motion I picked up one tea bag from out of the pack of 100, held the tag and in a ‘playing with a yo-yo’ motion jerked the bag for it to be suspended at the end of the string. Getting hold of the bag I snipped off the top, poured the two grams of tea into the bin and ever so slowly wrapped the thread around the now empty bag which I replaced in the packet before lifting out the next one with which I went through the same drama. As I was reaching for the third bag, my friend pulls my had aside:
“What are you doing”?
“I explained to you that I need to take the product back with me to Colombo because of a printing mistake”
“Since you are insisting that you can’t allow me to bring tea into the country I’m emptying out the tea bags”
“The carton has 3,600 tea bags, so the exercise may take some time, so please bear with me”
“Can you please show me your passport”? This from the inspector.
Flipping open my passport and saying it out aloud, read out “Gurrinder Singh Khanna” before asking “You are Sikh”?
My response in the affirmative had the gentleman promptly close my passport, hand that back to me and say, “Sir, you please go and please take the carton with you”
It works! Turban or no turban, it’s a known fact that we’re a community of folk who, once we’ve dug our heels in, the heels stay firmly dug!