Tackling the moneybags of India - By M. J. Akbar Back   Home  
Nothing has changed at Heathrow airport except the scowl of a security guard with a beard from Hollywood's central casting, eyes borrowed from a B-grade movie, and an attitude that is from honest, genuine, home-grown, indigenous stupidity. So far all the checkpoints of one of the world's busiest airports, manned by government, have been cool, professional and cheered up by a little smile at the end.

After the breeze the barrier. This man is not government; he is airline security, outsourced, standing at the boarding gate of the Virgin flight from London to Boston (Boston!). He looks at my Muslim name on the passport and shuffles his shoulders in what Bertie Wooster would have called a marked manner. He clearly believes that his moment in history has arrived. Open your bag, he orders.

Decision time. Glare back? I put my bag in front of him and turn my back to chat pleasantly with the slightly-embarrassed Virgin (or not) ground stewardess who has welcomed me pleasantly enough. Keeping my role model in such circumstances, Bertie Wooster, firmly in focus, I babble about why I was the last person to board: didn't ummm hear the announcement, was trying Internet in the lounge which did not work, confused Gate 34 with Gate 4 before being rescued, all of it partially true.

Defeated by my chatty indifference, the Guardian of the West returned my passport with limp hand and limp eyes, unable to understand why a Muslim travelling to Boston should not want to blow himself up. In all fairness I should add that I had taken the precaution of disguise. I was wearing an elegant silk tie. When has anyone wearing an elegant silk tie, with a Windsor knot, ever hijacked anything? I challenge you to find a single instance.

My preassigned seat on flight VS011 is occupied. Two Asians, presumably wanting to travel together, and perhaps attracted by the extra legspace in the front row, have trespassed on one of the seats. The upper class is full and they try to postpone the inevitable with bluster. There is nothing like having the law on your side to get your way.

In a few minutes a friendly voice informs us through the intercom that anyone in the economy section of the aircraft who wants to stretch out and sleep by lifting the armrests dividing seats is welcome to do so. There are enough empty seats. This is the second law of travel in the post-September 11 era. The ladies and gentlemen on company expense with laptops are edgy in the crowded front, as they have to go where they have to go. Those who travel for pleasure are taking their pleasures at home.

From the sky America looks serene, beautiful, rich, imperturbable. New England is as rich and serene as America gets. Boats skim past rocky outcrops that guard the north Atlantic coast of God's preferred continent, confirming the Brahmin status of Boston. The serenity is infectious. A mild flutter interrupts the mood as we land from over the sea. Please keep your passport in your hands for inspection at the exit. This is obviously a new security procedure. No problem. A large policeman with an Irish twinkle glances at my three-tier passport and asks what I do. Sir.

Journalist. He beams. This is unusual. Journalists are not always considered good news. About ten feet away, a large lady at immigration is not so sanguine about either journalists or Muslims. She takes only a few seconds to make up her mind after tapping my name on her computer. "We may have to ask you a few more questions. Sir." They never forget the Sir. Decision time again. The options juggle through my mind. How should one respond? Grovel? Rage? Try the sniffy is-this-the-America-I-once-knew tactic?

I finally do what comes automatically. I shrug and say sure. A fleeting vision of interrogation cells appears in the imagination but reality is better. We stop at a vacant stand-up counter. Nothing so dramatic as a padded cell. When you are reconciled calm prevails. I take a seat on the bench and open a copy of Spectator. Soon, a thin-faced policeman fills the space at the counter and examines my passport which has been put into a plastic bag with gingerly fingers. I stick to the Spectator. From behind me my friendly Irishman suddenly reappears to tell thin face with a big grin: "He's all right. He's reading the Spectator."

Thin face replies with a smile of his own, and all is right with the world again. I ask my personal Irish saviour how he reads the Spectator in Boston. On the Internet, he explains grandly.

So now you know what to do on your next flight to Boston. Wear a silk tie with a Windsor knot at Heathrow and read the Spectator in Boston. If the first doesn't save you, the second will.

Winter, said the television weather woman on Thursday morning, was due in three hours. They can get very specific on American television in their constant search for the truth. Such experts are encouraged of course by the fact that in three hours everyone will either forget, forgive or simply not care.

If this was the end, summer was saying goodbye like a diva at the top of her form, dressed in the plumes of Paradise. The sun was softened and melted over the streets, complementing the cool breezes of impending change. The local citizens were out enjoying the sun in the afternoon, unhurried and gossipy. Boston has the intimacy of a small town and the confidence of a large city. The placid Charles river bisects the city, nursing the world's most famous educational institutions on one side and commerce on the other.

When I leave Boston to travel north towards Dartmouth and New Hampshire, the world along the way has become a dance. How many colours are there in brown? In red? In russet? In yellow? In green? In orange and lilac and peach? The trees along the road and across the hillside are an endless feast as they burst into colour before the monotone of winter - a riot, a whirl, an impossible orchestra conducted by nature in some frenzy of joy. If one has to die then this is the way to go. This is the last burst of colour even as the leaves begin to fall and branches turn bare to take the weight of snow on their thin limbs; soon, all will be white on the frozen ground and dark grey against the freezing sky.

I am a guest of Dartmouth College and put up at the campus hotel, Hanover Inn. A Halloween pumpkin sits on the reception; America brings in winter with a great, eerie, fun, foreboding festival. There is a fire in the lounge, and impressive books wait for readers with time. Charm and hospitality are all around you. My mobile has stopped roaming, unable to pick up a local host, which adds significantly to the peace. At the lecture I deliver in the afternoon, the students are less generous than the sprinkling of faculty and guests interested in a particular understanding of the history of Islam and South Asia. This is as it should be. The report in The Dartmouth (America's oldest college newspaper, founded in 1799) about this talk is remarkable for its accuracy and concise perception. Sadly none of these brilliant young men and women will become journalists. They want to conquer Wall Street instead.

The train taking me south starts from a track-level platform at White River Junction, in Vermont, across the water that forms the border with New Hampshire. It stops at similar sidewalks to pick up Real America from its small towns, and take it to New York, a city that belongs as much to the rest of the world as it does to America. They say that New York has become a kinder, gentler place since September 11, when the contestants of its permanent rat race sat back to consider what exactly they were racing for. Three thousand divorce applications were withdrawn within twenty-four hours of September 11. New York has taken another look at the mirror and found, at least for a while, the family. The first important bulletin I get from the local war zone - and in this city, it means the economic battlefield - is that the United States has begun pursuit and assault against the economic routes of terrorism. Trace the money and get your man. Sounds sensible. The talk shows are full of this second conflict now that the bombing of Afghanistan has slipped into a repetitive mode with not much forward action. How many times can you say that America launched its heaviest raids on Kandahar today? Television also needs visuals. Between the Pentagon and the Taliban, there isn't much footage available.

A government type in suit and tie appears on the screen to discuss the money supply lines of the enemy. He seems particularly interested in a transaction called "HowAllah". I wonder what God has to do with money-laundering. The expert notes that "HowAllah" is an established Indian practice; this is the way Indians transfer their money illegally and, amazingly, they put nothing down on paper. He looked both bemused and perplexed. It was then that the rupee dropped.

"HowAllah" was not a nefarious Islamic fund-transfer ritual practised between conspiring mullahs. He was talking about "havala", that old and familiar method by which loaded Indians fund their needs and pleasures abroad despite the fact that you cannot officially convert the rupee into dollars for such purposes. Now, this is a great story. The United States is going to solve a problem that the government of India has tried to solve for decades and quietly given up on. The FBI is going to pulverize those networks. I can hear the sound of chattering teeth from Kolkata to Mumbai via Delhi. We could see the emergence of a new Indian economy, thanks to the FBI, which already has offices in India, incidentally.

I always knew it would take nothing less than a world war to tackle the moneybags of India.
Published in Dawn, a Pakistani Newspaper.