A bolt from the Blue! 

Philip John

Life was going well. Very well! I was now settled in and enjoying the work, sport, and social life in Cochin. The J. Thomas catalogue was making progress. You have to have a pioneering spirit to truly savour success. The Cochin JT team was out on a mission! 

I came in on a Monday morning slightly hung over. Xavier, the peon had been waiting for me to reach the office. He walked in and announced that Saar wanted to see me. Saar is Malayalee for Sir. I was addressed as John Saar. Richard Warren was Saipu (a respectful Malayalee term for a white man). But the term Saar was reserved only for the boss-man. Satyanath wanted to see me.

“Philip, do you have a passport?”, he asked. “Yes”, I replied. He wanted me to go to London for further training with our UK counterpart, Thomas, Cumberlege & Inskipp. “When?”, I asked. “Any day this week. The earlier the better!”, came the reply. I kid you not! 

I did tell you that Satyanath was known for quick decisions and quicker implementation. But this, I thought, was stretching it a bit! Mind you in the 60’s Indians did not need a visa to enter the UK. And there were daily flights to London from Bombay. So, it was doable. 

But I had to organise clothes, a suit and a jacket and such. Buying clothes in London I heard would cost an arm and a leg. I pleaded for more time and we settled on the following week.

Once all of this sank in excitement gripped me. I informed my parents in Delhi and my father started preparing a list of contacts in London. And he also got me accommodation at the Fitzroy Square YMCA for international guests. This was near Warren Street Tube Station, in the heart of London! There was a big waiting period to get in, but my father had contacts. 

On the following Thursday, I bid farewell to my colleagues and friends and boarded the flight to Bombay. I chose a Swiss Air flight to London. They gave a stopover in Zurich before connecting to London. They also gave me a night halt at Taj Hotel, Bombay!

I arrived in Bombay and took a taxi to India’s most iconic hotel – The Taj Mahal Hotel. This majestic hotel was built by the founder of the Tata Empire, Jamsetji Tata in 1903. Please click the link below and have a look at this magnificent hotel. https://www.tajhotels.com/en-in/taj/taj-mahal-palace-mumbai/

I checked in and unpacked a bit and ran a bath. In those days it was more civilised to soak in a tub rather than have a 5-minute shower! I had a dear cousin Ravi who lived close to the Taj. He had been expecting my arrival and dropped in to see me. He suggested that we should have Tea at the Sea Lounge on the first floor. It was his favourite place and had a great view of the Gateway of India and the sea beyond and served the most wonderful cakes and scones and delicious Darjeeling Tea. 

It was wonderful to catch up with Ravi and we talked of everything under the Sun, from cabbages to kings. After Tea, Ravi suggested that we stroll down to the Gateway of India. The Gateway was a splendid edifice built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gateway_of_India 

This was the meeting place in Bombay. It was popular with the young and old – right at the doorstep of the Taj Mahal Hotel. After a while Ravi said goodbye and walked back to his place close by. He invited me but I felt I should have an early night and prepare for my long flight to Zurich. 

I entered the Taj through a side door and decided to take the Lift rather than climb the flight of stairs to the second floor where my room was located. When I reached my floor, I sensed something unusual. There was a battery of Housekeeping staff running up and down busy with mops and buckets in their hands. I got to my room and was surprised to see the door was open and there were people inside. 

I turned to see the Manager standing beside me, “Sir, you left your Room with the tap running in your Bath! Water has overflowed, the carpet in your room is floating on water and it has even come down the stairs completely soaking the carpeting.” I stood there dumfounded but could feel the squelch under my feet! 

“Sir”, he continued, “Do you have any idea how much these carpets cost? Last year an oil Sheik came and stayed with us. He opened the windows to let the rain come in. He was coming from the desert and had not seen rain like this. He wanted to wet his face!
Do you know how much we charged him?” I didn’t want to know.
Horrible pictures flashed in front of me. There I was, unable to take the flight, spending the weekend in jail instead! 

I kept my composure but apologised profusely and said it was truly an oversight. I sought his cooperation and hoped for the ingenuity of the Housekeeping team to save the carpets. But I had the presence of mind to ask for a ‘dry’ room for the night. The Manager was a practical guy. He had sized me up and knew he couldn’t get 2 cents out of me. He decided to wait for the next Sheik to come along to recoup his losses!

I was still tense the next day at the airport and only began to relax after I had boarded the flight and heard the air hostess ask us to fasten our seat belts – we were about to take off to Zurich!     

Even though I was off to a difficult start the thought of familiar names like Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Oxford Street helped me to switch off from the events of the previous day. I was going to taste and see London and these wonderful places I had read about in history books and magazines.
Also, this was my first trip by air. For a 20-year-old this was what dreams were made of.
I was on my way to Zurich!


I landed at Zurich and took the shuttle to the airport hotel. There were also shuttle buses to the Centrum (city centre) every 30 minutes. All European cities have a Centrum which is where the main train station is located. 

I was struck by two things about Zurich. First, the incredible cleanliness of the city! This hits you especially when your last port of call was Bombay. 

And second, the streets were empty! There were hardly anyone walking about. Another departure from Bombay or any other city in India. 

Since I did not know anyone and also wanted to conserve my precious ‘foreign exchange’ I had a Wurst (German sausage) and a beer and headed back to the hotel.  

Next morning, I left for the airport earlier than necessary as I had shopping to do. Having now travelled a zillion times I smile at the anxiety I had about this flight to London. I went to the Duty Free and bought two one litre bottles of Teachers and five cartons of Benson & Hedges. Zurich Airport was fabled to have the lowest prices among duty free shops. 

The flight to Heathrow was a quick 2 hours. Landed and walked to the Customs a little nervously. “Anything to declare?” was the question. “Yes, 800 cigarettes!”, I replied. The officer’s eyes widened. “Sir, you are only allowed 200, don’t you know?” “Yes, I have 5 cartons. The whisky and one carton of cigarettes are as per my allowance. I am declaring the extra 800 cigarettes and am willing to pay duty. I find it’s cheaper to pay duty than buy them in your country!” 

“Is that so?”, he asked incredulously. And then did a few sums. “You are right, Sir. Have a good holiday!” and waved me through to the Exit! I thought that was a sporting gesture. Couldn’t help thinking what would have happened if it was the Bombay airport. 

So here I was on British soil. I can’t quite remember how I got to the YMCA at Fitzroy Square, London. I certainly could not afford one of the London taxis. 

They gave me a nice room with an en-suite toilet (a bit of a luxury for less expensive accommodation). I had the weekend to sleep off the trauma of my long travel from Cochin. And get ready for my first day at Thomas, Cumberlege & Inskipp, at Mincing Lane.

3 Responses

  1. More nostalgia! Your memoirs revive my own memories of the London training stint in ‘76. Nothing much had changed then from your time. The experience, barring your Bombay shenanigans and other personal vignettes, were almost identical! I suppose that is true of most of us from that era.

  2. Hi Out the outset let me wish you a ,” Happy International Tea Day”
    Yes, Philji, your narration brings me some nostalgic memories of yester years,My trip
    Cochin/Bom/ FrankFurt/ London in the 70s, Fitzroy Square IndianYMCA, Warren st tube . My off Ewart Kerr & Hope was in Sir John Layons House on Bank street and not in Mincing Lane those days.(Mincing Lane operations were closed by then).
    One year with Teas of different growth was indeed an excusite experience
    We used to have quick lunch at the pub down below “Samuel Peeps” a very old pub on the banks of river Themes. One day as I was entering the pub whom did I meet? Sat who was jst visiting ur off . Immediately he greeted me and said ” come W C , we will have drink.”
    Oneyear jst passed and it was time for me to return. And Mr OommenThomas was gracious enough to book me back on the Luxuary liner SS Lyod Triestino , It took me 40 days to reach Bombay

    ’cause the S canal was closed and had to come by Durban, and had a chance to visit Nairobi auction centre
    Well those were the days.,of my training itinerary., unforgettable experience

    1. Wow, that’s amazing! Your experience was better than mine! Coming back on the Luxuary liner SS Lyod Triestino takes the cake! Must have been fantastic! So good of Oommen to let you enjoy a luxury sea voyage!
      And Sat would loved to see someone from Cochin!

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