Bobby Sebolao, who is completing a five-month teaching placement in India through the British Council, was amazed by the ambitious plan his Indian friends conjured up to try and help him out of a tricky situation.
My winter holiday started smoothly enough. I had boarded the northbound Netravati Express train from Varkala to Allepey earlier that morning with my Indian friend Jaijea and my fellow teaching assistant Shivani. The plan was to meander our way north for the remaining twelve days of the winter break, travelling mostly by train up to Delhi with a few tourist stops along the way.
Shivani and Jaijea, my two travelling companions for the first leg, were napping in two of the carriage’s many vacant bunk beds. As the train pulled out of Karunagapalli railway station, running on time and with us all on board, the uniform greys of the typically elongated Indian station platform outside gave way to the lushest shades of green. Nothing short of an extremely early monsoon could derail this wonderful journey through the countryside of Kerala.
Just then my phone rang. I winched it halfway out of my pocket with two fingers for a glimpse at the on-screen caller ID before answering. It was my room-mate and fellow teaching assistant Fraiyah, who was also leaving for her holiday that morning.
'Hey, Fraiyah, what’s up?'
'Hi, Bobby. I’m fine, thanks. Erm, I’m looking for my passport in the hostel and I can’t seem to find it. Do you think you might have accidentally picked it up?'
'Err, no, I only took mine from that table on the side. Hold on, though. I’m checking my bag now just in case. So, are you about to leave for Madurai?'
'Not yet. I still have a couple of hours before my train leaves. I need to be at Varkala station for about three.'
'Oh, right. So, you’ll have time for one last lunch at the seafront, then. One sec, I’m just looking through my stuff…'
'Yeah, I’m going to meet the others there in a bit, just need to tidy the room and shower first.'
'There’s not too much to tidy, right? I mean, apart from the sand that got everywhere, I don’t think I left anything…'
As I pulled not one, but two British passports out of my rucksack, I didn’t think it worth finishing that sentence.
The next 45 minutes were fretful, as I mulled over possible ways to return my friend’s passport within the next few hours without missing my own connecting bus in Alleppey. The now-gliding train had already put more than a hundred kilometres between Fraiyah and me, and even if I got off and turned around at the next stop, the timings of trains going in the opposite direction just wouldn’t have worked. I wouldn't have been able to make both appointments. It was a zero-sum game.
Luckily for me, there's a distinctly Indian social and linguistic concept of ‘jugaad’ – the art of finding a low-cost solution or workaround to any problem in an intelligent way, even if a solution is conventionally considered impossible. Some jugaads straddle the line between plausible and far-fetched well enough that they just might work. Others, like a makeshift plastic deckchair-cum-wheelchair that I once saw in Kerala, are very clever. And some are just plain funny. A friend from work, Dheeraj, recently made me laugh with his low-cost solution to household broccoli stalk wastage – simply cut off the stalk before weighing and paying at the supermarket. Genius.
So, if anyone was capable of turning this zero-sum game into a win-win one, I figured it could be someone with a knack for jugaads. I apologetically stirred Jaijea from his slumber to explain what had happened and, after the laughter subsided, to ask for help. Within minutes, he was making phone calls.
The solution that Jaijea whipped up was this. His friend Frako, who already happened to be driving in the direction I needed to go in, would wait outside the next train station. I would meet him there, seamlessly hopping off the Netravati Express and onto the back of his Bajaj Pulsar motorcycle. Then, we would gun it to Varkala, so that Fraiyah and I could complete the handover and still have time for a chai or three before our respective transport links departed.
So did it work? Sort of. Frako and I arrived in somewhat bedraggled fashion at Varkala railway station, and reunited Fraiyah with her passport… half an hour after her train had left without her. Luckily, she instantly saw the funny side, and we all burst out laughing. With hindsight, it was a hilariously optimistic plan that came surprisingly close to working. But at the very least, Fraiyah had her passport again, and we had plenty of time for those chais.
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