Our apartment was just too expensive. As time went on the costs involved with the two nannies as well as me and the girls was mounting. With no idea when we would be leaving India, we couldn’t stay in the Lalco building for much longer. Manju came to the rescue, by telling me that a friend of hers would rent us a modest flat in central Powai. We moved the following week, much to the disappointment of Faskia, in the Lalco reception, who said she would miss us, hugged me and gave me her email address. I told her we’d miss her too, and thanked her for everything she’d done for us. The small two-bedroom flat Manju took us to was tucked down a narrow side street. Inside it seemed, if not exactly luxurious, then comfortable enough. That is, until a couple of days later the drains flooded. Within a week we realised that this was not a one-off, it was happening all the time. The sanitation system was totally inadequate, the flat smelled awful and to make things worse the young boy who slept on the balcony and did the cleaning actually did very little. He would chat to the nannies and then wander off. Perhaps because he was paid so badly by the landlord. Our side street was off a main road. Traffic was heavy, but at least we were not directly over the road, as we had been in the previous apartment. The trouble was, walking back up the street I kept falling into the potholes, and some of them were deep. Navigating my way down the smelly, hole-filled street, I hoped fervently that we wouldn’t have to be there for too long. In the evenings, before the cleaning boy went to sleep out there, I would step onto the balcony for a cigarette. It overlooked a car park, next to which was a building site with some kind of building which appeared to have been abandoned in the early stages. Perhaps the builders had run out of money. Around the car park and the site there was a pack of street dogs, perhaps 19 or 20 of them, running wild and barking incessantly. These dogs were everywhere in Mumbai, no-one could afford to keep or feed them and with so many people struggling to survive, dog-rescue was hardly anyone’s priority. The dogs just roamed the streets, lean and hungry and noisy. On the building site there was a security guard. One lunchtime as I stood smoking, I saw him drag an old wooden chair from his small hut close to the electric gate and then disappear back inside to emerge with a glass of water. As I watched he purred it on the tarmac in front of the chair and then he sat and stared at the pool of water. I disappeared back inside to play with Amritsar and Tara for a while. When I returned to the balcony the guard was still there, staring at the pool, which had shrunk to maybe half its size. I went back inside and half an hour later I returned for a cigarette. He was still sitting their staring at the pool of water, now very small. By the time I had finished my cigarette the stain of water was all but gone. The guard got up out of his chair and disappeared into his hut, returning moments later with a very large stick. He stomped out of the gate and into the building site and started lashing out at the dogs, which were barking and running everywhere, swinging his stick as he went. He shouted something intelligible and continued to thrash his stick at the dogs for a while. A few minutes later he calmly put his stick down and walked back to his chair on the tarmac, where he sat and looked into space. This sad scene haunted me. I felt the guard, there day after day for what would have been a pittance, ignored, under-valued and with nothing to do, must have felt his soul was destroyed, to the point where all he could find to do was to watch water evaporate. It made me question my own value in the greater scheme of things. I felt pretty broken myself, but watching the guard I realised that there are always those so much worse off. It was on that same balcony that I stood and watched the moon. The monsoon was in retreat by this time and the moon was clear again; luminous and golden. It always comforted me to see it, knowing that at home John could see it too. There had been seven full moons since I arrived in India, and I still had no idea how we were going to get home.
Mr Rodriguez, it seemed, had a general dislike of the British and an acute loathing for me in particular. He had warned every agent who did business with the FRRO that I was to be avoided at all costs. So now that I finally understood I needed an agent, I could not find one. An agent, I now knew, could by-pass the long queues that formed daily at the reception desk in the FRRO by going straight to the other side of reception. Here there was another corridor and a couple of rooms where the agents and the FRRO staff would do ‘business’. And then, lo and behold, you would find your paperwork processed. Kayla told me that it had cost her £150 for an agent to speed up her children’s visa application. Plus, the agent’s fee. She had gone to the FRRO with the agent and voila, all the boxes had been ticked and she was free to go – and to take her children home. All this I learned too late. And meanwhile Mr Rodriguez still wanted the elusive document, tying me and John together. But with the British Consulate doors firmly closed to us, we had no way of getting it. I was, by this stage, barely eating, and I was beginning to lose a lot of weight. Most days I was having little more than a chapatti and a small portion of channa (chickpeas) or dal (lentils). In my state of distress, the effort of cooking and eating had become too much. I had been looking for ways to publicise my plight – father trapped in India with two babies.
In an effort to get things moving. When I went to see her for some documents, Maria the social worker at Hiranandani Hospital where the girls had been born, had been shocked by my appearance. I had actually been quite beefy when she first met me, but by this time I was skinny. She told me she knew a CNN correspondent and that they might do a news
story on my situation. I decided to go on hunger strike, hoping it might help. For the next week I ate nothing, and took only water. In the event CNN did not do the story, and when I went back to see the lawyer Pratik, I told him what I was doing, he shook his head sadly. ‘I am sorry you are doing this Andi, but remember that here in India many people go without food – what makes you more special than them?’ He was right. Why did I think refusing food would make a difference to anything? Besides which the nannies, seriously worried about what was going on, had threatened to walk out if I didn’t eat. I stopped the hunger strike and began eating again, although I still had very little appetite. In a last-ditch bid to get things moving, John spoke to Anne-Marie Hutchinson, a lawyer in London who was helping us with a parental order for the girls, making us both equal legal parents to Tara and Amritsar. Anne-Marie was a noted human rights lawyer with a lot of clout. John had got to know her when he applied for the Parental Order, which had to happen within six months of the births. The Parental Order would make us full, equal parents to the girls, as opposed to parent and step-parent, and it would allow the girls to have British birth certificates. John explained to Anne-Marie the difficulties we were having and she spoke to the man at the Foreign Office who had so far been no help at all. This time he got his team to speak to the British Consulate in Mumbai and ask them to give us the document we needed. ‘Go back there tomorrow,’ John said. ‘I think they’ll help now.’ I was not at all keen to see Daisy or Zubin again, having been unceremoniously packed off and told not to come back. But needs must.
The following day I got Ram to drive me to the Consulate. Inside I asked for Daisy. She was not available. But then Zubin appeared. He, with evident reluctance, led me off to a side room. He then made a note of what we needed, disappeared and came back with the
necessary document. Stuffing it into my bag before he could change his mind, I shot out of the door and into Ram’s waiting taxi. ‘Success, Mr Andi?’ he asked cautiously. ‘Success Ram, I have the document. Let’s have a celebratory samosa.’ Ram chuckled and head-wobbled. ‘This is very good news Mr Andi. I think this is possibly a two-samosa moment. From the very best samosa maker in Mumbai. I am very happy, very happy indeed.’ After a detour to visit the ‘best samosa maker in Mumbai’ a claim validated by a couple of excellent samosas, Ram took me home. ‘We’re on our way, girls,’ I said, picking up first Amritsar and then Tara and dancing round with them, much to Nikki’s amusement. I called John and told him the good news. ‘Thank goodness the FO man came through,’ he said. ‘I was beginning to wonder if those people at the FO actually did anything at all to help stranded British subjects.’ ‘I’ll take the document to the FRRO as soon as I can,’ I told him. ‘Surely Mr Rodriguez has got to give me the visas now.’ That evening when Manju arrived, I told her the good news. ‘This is good Mr Andi,’ she said, nodding sagely. ‘But as you have had a lot of difficulties getting your visas, you will need to give an extra payment. Do you know what I mean? I think you would need to give 70,000 rupees.’ I looked a bit stunned. She meant a bribe, I understood that. But the sum she mentioned was the equivalent of over £700 and was more than three times the usual 20,000 rupees. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked her. Manju nodded firmly. She always seemed to know what was going on. In fact, I was fairly sure there was some kind of network going on between the nannies, the agents and the FRRO. I duly organised for John to transfer the 70,000 rupees, which I went and cashed. It came in 1000 and 500 rupee bills, so I ended up with a very big wad of cash. How was I going to ‘slip’ that to the FRRO staff without their security cameras picking it up? Manju had told me she would let me know when it was the right day to go back to the FRRO. Any day that Mr Rodriguez was not around would have suited me, but I kept quiet, took Manju’s advice and on the appointed day Ram and I set off, the cash stuffed into my bag along with the vital document. It was only four days after my last visit to get my own visa extension renewed. By this time, I had visited the FRRO at least 15 times and I was becoming uncomfortably familiar with its bleak corridors and blank-faced officials.
I left Ram outside and went to stand in the queue. When I got to the front, I asked how Tara and Amritsar’s visas were progressing. I spoke to a pleasant girl, Praju, who said that their files were all in order. I handed over the final document, the piece of paper that had taken so much time and effort to get. Praju looked at it, then looked up at me and nodded. I took this as a signal. There were security cameras everywhere, so I slipped the wad of notes out of my pocket and into one of the two files that were on my lap. ‘The money is there,’ I whispered conspiratorially. Praju’s eyes widened in horror. ‘No, this is not a good time,’ she said, hastily passing back the folders. ‘Go outside to the hall and sort this!’ Heart pounding, I grabbed the folder and backed out of the door to the hallway, where I sat on one of the metal benches and tried not to hyperventilate. I would make a terrible spy, I thought ruefully. I couldn’t spot an agent to save my life and now I couldn’t even manage to slip Praju a bribe without messing it up. Sitting in the hall I put my hand into the folder to take the cash out, intending to put it back into my pocket. I looked up – there was a camera at the end of the corridor, but I hoped it was too far away to pick up what I was doing. I wrapped my hand around the stack of notes, pulled them out – and dropped them all over the floor. It felt like a slow-motion disaster scene as notes flew everywhere. After a brief, horrified moment of paralysis, I fell to my knees and began trying to scoop them up, ignoring the puzzled and curious stares I was attracting. I was so nervous that I grabbed notes and, unable to stack them neatly, scrunched them into a ball in my hand. Except that the ball got too big and notes started falling out of it, so that I was dropping them as fast as I was scooping them up. Praying that the camera at the end of the hall hadn’t recorded this fiasco in full-colour detail, I finally managed to get all the notes into my pocket where they formed a large, awkward-looking bulge. I went back into the office and over to Praju, gave her the folders and said, ‘I think I had better go now’. She nodded, clearly lost for words, and I turned and left. That evening when Manju arrived, she looked at me, hands on hips. ‘Mr Andi, the deal is off.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I tried not to look embarrassed. Had she heard that I’d botched trying to bribe an FRRO official and then made things even worse by scattered wads of cash all over the floor? ‘I do not know what happened, but I am hearing that Mr Rodriguez is not happy with you. All he wants is to make you uncomfortable. He wants to see you…what is it when the fish is on the hook?’ ‘Squirm?’ ‘Yes,’ she nodded vigorously. ‘He wants to see you squirm.’ My heart sank. ‘So, you’re saying there’s nothing I can do? I got the document he wanted, and I’m offering money too, and none of that is enough?’ Manju nodded again. ‘Yes, that is what I am hearing. Mr Rodriguez does not like it that your Embassy phoned to ask about someone who does not work there.’ I could hardly believe what I was hearing. We were completely trapped – John his end and me mine. No-one was budging, either end, to help us.
On the phone later that day we discussed wild plans to get around the deadlock. It was something we’d been doing with increasing frequency, as the situation became more and more fraught and apparently hopeless. ‘One of the people from the Foreign Office told me that your best option might be to head for the Nepalese border and bribe the border guards,’ John said. ‘Of course, it was unofficial, they’d never admit that they said that. But if that’s the best the FO can come up with, maybe we’ll have to try it. You could take the train to the border and I could fly into Kathmandu and get to the border the other side. I’m sure we would be able to get you over.’ ‘It’s a 24-hour journey to the border this side. And even if I could manage that, if I’m caught, I could be accused of child-trafficking,’ I said. ‘Even though they’re my children. I can’t risk that. The only way I could do it is if Rehanna came along, since she is down as their mother.’ I took a breath. ‘I think I might have to marry her. I know it would be bigamous in the UK, but here our civil partnership is not recognised. I could marry her and we could probably get the girls out of the country.’ Rehanna had been turning up so frequently that I was giving her around £130 a week in handouts, most recently for her ‘sick mama’ who now needed a cataract operation. I had been keeping her onside in case we needed her to help us get the girls out and so far, she’d cost us over £2000 (in addition to the surrogacy fees she received from the clinic). Her mother could have had many dozens of cataract operations and a few spa days too, based on the amount Rehanna was creaming from us. John was silent for a moment, and then I heard a small sob. ‘You can’t do that.’ ‘Oh John, I’m sorry, I don’t want to upset you. I’m just so desperate.’ ‘Not that desperate. You’re not doing that. That woman has been milking us dry and I would never trust her to help us. Imagine what she would charge us if we gave her that kind of power. Besides which, I couldn’t bear to think of you marrying her, even for show.’ He paused. ‘I’ve been thinking that perhaps we could charter a boat and get the girls out that way.’ I was taken aback. I wasn’t the only one resorting to wild fantasies. ‘Er, where would we go?’ ‘Well, what about the Maldives?’ ‘You mean those little islands in the middle of nowhere a few thousand miles away? Are you nuts?’ ‘Actually, they’re only one thousand miles away, a good boat can get there in a couple of days, and from there we could fly home. I know it sounds like a long shot, OK a crazy long shot, but what else are we going to do? I reckon we could give the Harbour Master and the Captain a brown envelope, slip the girls aboard and off we go.’ He was serious. And I had to hand it to him, he had thought of something that just might, failing all else, be possible. But it was fraught with problems, not to mention ridiculously expensive. Chartering a good, sizeable boat plus crew would cost an arm and a leg. ‘Well it beats my other idea,’ I told him. ‘I was thinking of strapping the girls onto my back and swimming to Saudi.’ We laughed. At least bantering like this about near-impossible ways of escaping from our miserable dilemma cheered us up, if only for a few minutes. ‘Let’s wait a bit longer,’ John said. ‘We will get a breakthrough soon, we must.’ ‘I hope so,’ I told him. ‘I’ve got nothing to wear. I sent everything back with Manuela and I’ve only got four t-shirts and two pairs of trousers.’ I knew that we both tried to stay upbeat, for each other more than for ourselves. And we always tried to say goodnight on a positive note. But I suspected that John’s ‘we’ll get a breakthrough soon’ sounded much more confident than either he or I felt.
Diwali, the five-day festival of light was in full flow over the next few days. It marks the Hindu New Year and is a celebration of new beginnings and of good over evil and light over darkness. I hoped it might bring us our own small slice of good fortune. I stood on our balcony at night, looking out over the car park behind us, where there were many people, men, women and children throwing fireworks. Small children gazed on, fascinated by the coloured lights and the bangs as fireworks exploded. Health and safety were notably absent, as small boys picked up the remnants of still-smouldering fireworks and firecrackers popped along the street as people walked past. Nikki told me that she and her husband had been selling fireworks in the days leading up to Diwali. Apparently, they made some good money, and after Diwali she went out to buy many plastic rattles and small toys for Tara and Amritsar which was so generous. She also brought us home-make pakoras, potato and chickpea flour fried snacks. I ate one, and spent the next 24 hours on the loo regretting it. I had learned to be incredibly careful about food, although as the pakora story showed, I still made mistakes from time to time.
I used to shop every few days at the local Haiko supermarket and I often bought chicken to cook for supper. I’ve always been a bit paranoid about food hygiene, having trained as a chef, and never more so than around chicken. So, in the supermarket I always asked for polythene bag in order to pick up their packs of pre-packaged chicken portions from the fridge. I didn’t know who might have been handling them and how much salmonella there might be hanging around. One week I turned up to find that a lady in a sari had been assigned to stand beside the chicken cabinet with a pile of plastic bags. She would then open the door of the cabinet and put the chicken into the plastic bags for the customers. ‘You see,’ the manager said to me. ‘We are seeing you ask for the bags to put the chicken and now we are providing assistance.’ ‘Thank-you,’ I said. ‘That’s very thoughtful.’ In India there was someone for every job, no matter how small. The chicken lady smilingly offered to get my chicken out for me. But I said no, she was picking up the chicken with her hands and goodness knows what else she had touched. I stuck to my own method, although I did appreciate their jobcreation initiative.
It was during Diwali that Rehanna arrived again, with a bag of sweets and a smiling request for more urgent funds ‘for Mama’. Wearily I handed over yet more cash and ushered her out of the door. Almost every night I lay awake for hours, listening to the drone of traffic from the main road and wondering what else I could do. I felt close to despair. Then, tossing and turning through long, hot and noisy night, I made a decision. Early the next morning I got up, packed my few belongings into my rucksack, woke Manju and the girls and told them we were leaving. ‘I’m sorry Manju, thank your friend and tell him I will pay the rent I promised, but I can’t stay here any longer.’ Manju nodded and after we’d fed the girls, she began packing their belongings while I called Ram, who arrived half an hour later. We piled into the taxi and I asked Ram to take us to the Marriott’s Lakeside Apartments. After many weeks of managing in rundown apartments, I’d had enough, I needed cleanliness and I needed drains that worked.