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When I was in high school, circa 1974, travelling abroad was a big deal. Even a one-day trip to Nepal or Sri Lanka gave you unlimited bragging rights. It seems funny and unreal in today’s times when people routinely visit Europe or Latin America on vacation. It is certainly one metric of our progress and the multi-fold improvement in the quality of our lives and general well-being over the last five decades or so.

Back then, the average Indian just could not afford foreign travel. Let alone foreign travel, most salaried people travelled Third Class Sleeper or at best Second Class, by train. Costs of First Class tickets rivalled air fares. Air-conditioned coaches had not yet made their appearance on our national scene. Even in residences, possessing a window air-conditioner, which was again, mostly imported, was the ultimate luxury. So, air-conditioning of trains was farthest from the average Indian’s mind.

Owning ‘phoren’ stuff set you apart in a crowd. If you owned a ‘Made in China’ Hero fountain pen at school, you used it with a flourish so that your classmates noticed. If you owned a Japanese television set, you announced it by inviting the entire neighbourhood to your house for a ‘black and white’ cricket match or a movie. Community viewing of popular Doordarshan serials such as ‘Hum Log’ or ‘Ye Jo Hai Zindagi’ was commonplace. If you owned an imported car, you were rich – period.

The desire to possess foreign goods was so intense that people returning from an overseas visit would resort to innovative measures to conceal small stuff inside their clothing to evade customs duty. The Customs officials were equally innovative and had their own methods of detecting such ‘smuggling’. This was often the theme of several spoofs and skits of those days.

I vividly remember a skit titled ‘Customs CLearance’ staged by the local community during a function. I don’t know how I got to sit in the audience as an eleven-year old because going by the behavioural norms of those days, the skit was definitely rated ‘A’. The storyline went something like this. A pretty, young and shapely woman lands at an international airport after a foreign trip and is going past Customs. The handsome, young and very suspicious Customs Officer asks her if she has anything to declare. Despite her replying in the negative, he orders a thorough check of her baggage. When nothing is found there, he insists on a physical check. Remember, those days there was no female Customs official or a female attendant as is mandatory today. So the search progresses and one by one she is asked to shed her clothing, jacket onwards, in a slow and mildly erotic fashion, till she is stripped to the bare essentials. Thankfully, the skit ends there and she clears the Customs check with flying colours.

Today, as I checked in for a domestic flight from one of our airports, I was struck by the similarity of the Customs skit of my school days to the modern day security check. Laptops, chargers, coats, jackets, belts, shoes, watches, wallets, keychains – almost everything goes into the X-ray machine. Thereafter, all passengers are subjected to frisking. Depending on the security official performing the frisk, it could vary from a respectable metal-detector procedure to a thorough rubbing-down. The entire procedure is extremely intrusive. Thankfully, we have women security personnel today to do the honours for women passengers.

How times have changed! Modern crime, terrorism and our humiliating hijack experiences of the past have created a fortress mentality in our psyche. We kept creating walls around ourselves in so many ways, adding layer after layer of security. While there is good reason to enhance security, it’s implementation needs much thought. Maybe we could examine global best practices and see if there is a better way to handle security. Blatant intrusion into private space must be avoided, if possible.

It will be wise to remember that the walls we build around ourselves may help in keeping miscreants at bay but they also turn us into prisoners of our own making.

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