“Police!” No police in sight. “Where is the nearest police station?” Nobody would reply
The year was 1987, and the month, April. As the Al Italia flight made its slow descent to the Leonardo Da Vinci airport, Rome looked majestic with the meandering Tiber looking like a sash on a soldier’s torso. It was half past six in the evening and the chill had not left Rome even on the threshold of Spring. I herded my family into a taxi that sped off to Largo Argentina and checked into a convent at 16 Piazza San Calisto.
Day 1 of the visit started with a trip to Basilica S. Pietro, where as many as 160 Popes remain interred. The Colosseo of Rome took us back many centuries. Day 2 covered Fontana di Trevi, the expensive shopping street, aka ‘Parading for Women’; Mura aureliane, the Aurelian City Wall stretching over 11 miles; the Portuguese Park that once belonged to a king; and the Presidential Palace.
The next day was set apart for Piazza S. Pietro. The day, coinciding with Ash Wednesday, turned out to be our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Pope, face-to-face. Armed with Pass No 1732, for Prefettura della casa Pontificia, we reported at Basilica S. Pietro on time and positioned ourselves along the driveway along which the Pope’s carriage would pass. It was an exhilarating experience to be facing the Pope at hand’s length amid the ecstatic shouts, nay cries, of “Papa, Paappa” from the crowd. Next was a visit to the Vatican museum, which lasted two hours. On our way we passed the Sistine Chapel.
On the morning of the final day of the visit, we roamed around Rome, walking along paved streets and resting in verdant parks. Exhausted, we boarded City Bus No. 64 plying the route Via Aurelia from Vatican to the Termini, the railway station. As the bus was mostly empty, we sat comfortably scattered in different parts of the vehicle. At the next stop, a few more passengers got in, partly filling the seats. One more stop, and now the bus became so crowded we could hardly see one another. On reaching our destination, each one of us hurried towards the exit and managed to wriggle out. As the bus started moving, we realised that Salil, the youngest one, was still inside the bus. To our horror, the bus accelerated like a rocket and went out of sight.
“Police!” No police in sight. “Where is the nearest police station?” Nobody would reply. Either they did not know the answer, or they did not understand our question. I walked frantically, searching every signboard on the left and the right. No sign with any similarity with the word P-O-L-I-C-E! At every turn I asked passers-by for directions. The brisk walk turned into a slow race. I began to lose count of the turns I took.
Finally, I came across the signboard, Polizia. With a pounding heart, I slowed down. At the Stazione di Polizia I spurted out rather loudly: “I lost my kid.”
The officer stood staring at me. The look on his face told me he did not comprehend what I was trying to tell him. I gestured, outlining in the air the shape of a child, and repeated: “Small child, six years old.” He stood there with a stony face, like a marble statue. “We are tourists, came by Bus No 64.” This time he looked perplexed. Pointing in the direction from where I came, I went on, “We disembarked there, but the child is missing.”
Finally, the statue showed signs of life, and uttered a few precious words. “How – much – money – in - it?” He thought I was there to report a case of pick-pocketing! Impatiently I emphasised: “Not purse, not money. Child, my son, a six-year-old boy.” Shaking his head and throwing up hands, he expressed helplessness.
It was a sinking feeling. “Can you arrange a taxi for me? I want to follow City Bus No 64”. The policeman responded in the negative. Either he did not want to help, or did not have a clue of what I was asking for. The gravity of the situation suddenly shook me. We were to take the Rome-Bombay flight in six hours.
Then, out of nowhere came a radio message to the police station that at the final stop of bus route 64 a kid was reported ‘lost and found’ by a good Samaritan, an Irish priest. Abandoning the search we headed to the police station at the Termini. Yes, it was our own, precious, cute, little Salil, sucking on a lollipop, oblivious to the turmoil, and enjoying the sight of the police vehicle and its flashing red-and-blue light on the top.
We did catch the flight back that same day. The hero of this real-life story, Salil, is today all of 30 years old, and a successful executive in Mumbai.