I went recently with a friend to book an airline ticket to London. It was what is known as online reservation and took, after we had decided on the airline, exactly four minutes. A couple of days later, my friend was winging his way to England.
Things were not so simple or fast sixty-odd years ago, just after the war, when I was making my first trip to London as a student. The war had just ended and the political situation in India was chaotic. There was a viceroy, a military man called Wavell, and there was also a new government in London, headed by the Labour party and it was not quite sure how to manage things in India.
Political situation apart, there was also a shortage of ships going to England, as most of the ships had been converted into troopships during the war and were now busy ferrying British soldiers home from the East. The reservation of berths was handled by the government from Delhi, which made things difficult for passengers in Bombay.
I knew only Thomas Cook in Bombay but they were only agents. They, too, were more interested in handling British officers going home than young students like me who paid only Rs 400 or so for a berth. Since I knew nobody in Delhi - in fact, I had not even seen Delhi - all I could do was wait.
We were wondering what to do when a friend suggested that I write to the government in Delhi and see if they could help. Then, out of the blue, he asked why we should not write to the Viceroy himself, since he was in charge. "I am sure he will help," said the friend. "After all, are not viceroys like kings meant to help the aam aadmi in trouble?"
"Why not give it a try," I said to myself, and wrote a short business-like letter to the Viceroy, taking care to address it to the Viceregal House, one of those palatial buildings Mahatma Gandhi used to visit when he was not fasting. I sent it by registered post, in case the postman in Delhi did not know the address.
Ten days later, our own loyal postman came running to my 10 feet by 10 feet room in a tenement, with a yellowish envelope carrying a Delhi postmark. The letter was not from the Viceroy - he was too busy with the Mahatma, I thought - but from a deputy or under-secretary, who said they had written to the director-general of shipping in Bombay and I should await his reply.
Another long wait, I said to myself and warned the postman to look out for another official envelope. I had become something of a celebrity in the neighbourhood, first because I was going abroad, not a common thing in those days and was busy corresponding directly with the Viceroy, being the only recipient of a letter from the Viceregal House, much in the news at the time because of visits from the Mahatma.
I was sipping tea one afternoon when a car, or maybe a jeep, halted on the main road and a man in white shorts and shirt, the kind worn by navy people, stepped out. He asked an urchin for direction and I saw him walking towards our building. He had to climb 40 steps to my room, but he was young and held his breath. Then, he saluted me as if I was an admiral and he a mere ensign waiting for orders.
I did not know why he was saluting. Nobody had ever saluted me before, not even the peons from my college when I told them I was going abroad. Then, he took out the envelope from his pocket and handed it to me.
I saluted him back, the least I could do for a man who had come all the way from Ballard Pier to hand over my reservation. I couldn't offer him a chair because there were no chairs. I couldn't offer him tea either.
It was obvious the great Viceroy, the man who had fought the Germans in the Sahara Desert, had found time, in between his parleys with Gandhi, to get a young man his berth. After independence, I hoped to meet him in London, if only to thank him, but our paths never crossed, not even through letters.