Eight hours, 25-odd flights, four cups of coffee and some 3,000 faces later, ANANTH KRISHNANrealises that it is not easy to be a customs officer

From the teeming, noisy mass of people waiting outside Chennai’s international airport, its insides couldn’t be a bigger contrast. It’s about half-past nine in the evening when I make my way past the milling crowd into the swanky new Arrivals hall… and it’s a ghost-town. I’m starting to wonder if it wasn’t the brightest idea to spend a night watching the Customs crew in action – I was expecting sniffer dogs, dodgy-looking smugglers and seized blood-diamonds, and there I was confronted by two sleepy janitors working the floors.

K. Engineer, the joint commissioner at the airport and my host for the night, senses my initial disappointment. “Don’t worry,” he assures me. “This is just the calm before the storm.” True to his word, within minutes, a stream of passengers appears out of nowhere and fills the hall with noise and chaos, and the Customs team springs into action. The Men in White, as he calls them – though there are a fair share of women in the Customs team – are the city’s first line of defence against smugglers.

His team of thirty officers spends every night scanning thousands of faces, bags and passports, for those smallest signs that are, for them, often the biggest clues. “People think we have a glamorous job from all the movies about smuggling,” Engineer says. “Five thousand people pass by here everyday, and sometimes we only have one or two catches from all the people we check. It’s very monotonous.” This night was anything but.

It only takes half an hour for them to get their first catch of the night, and it was one of the biggest seizures of the year so far. A routine scan of a rather harmless-looking brown duffel bag reveals a stash of drugs worth Rs. 50 lakh. Cleverly hidden away among some 100,000 prescription tablets are some forty little home-made packets of the drug Ephedrine which is used to make, among other things, the party-drug Speed. “Ingenious,” Engineer says, almost in admiration, but with an unmistakable contempt. The catch means a long night for Engineer and his team.

Twelve-hour shift

His teams work 12-hour shifts, from six to six, but with all the paper-work and processing, it won’t be until the next evening before he can go home – almost a 24-hour work day. Most catches occur at night, between nine in the evening and around three in the morning – that’s when most flights from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, two of the biggest smuggling hot-spots, arrive. Some 25 flights will touch down in this time, bringing in around 3,000 passengers and many possible suspects.

A decade ago, smuggling was largely confined to gold, and officials had a network of informants and intelligence to help them out. As drugs replaced gold, smuggling has become more sophisticated. Now, only one out of every 60 catches is based on prior intelligence. Officers have to rely more on carefully watching the body language and behaviour of the arriving passenger. I quickly discover that doing so is not just extremely difficult, but mentally exhausting.

Starting at around midnight, a slew of flights begin to arrive and it all becomes a little too chaotic. 12.05 a.m.: Lufthansa from Frankfurt. 12.15 a.m.: Air India from Singapore. 12.25 a.m.: Air India from Doha. 12.45 a.m.: Jet Airways from Brussels… I try to keep track, but I quickly give up. Face, after face, after face appears, coming down those escalators, and there’s all sorts: European businessmen, Belgian holiday-makers, Indian labour traffic returning home from the Middle East and dozens of college students from the U.S. (the hooded sweatshirts and sad attempts at gangsta-walking are dead giveaways).

It’s fascinating if you like people-watching, but it can be a nightmare if you’re an officer. I try my hand at their job. What tell-tale signs do I have to look for, I ask. An officer tells me that fidgety passengers are a good bet, and so are the ones who are first and last arriving at the airport for departing flights. “Anything too normal or abnormal is a warning sign,” he enigmatically concludes.

Minor catches

It’s about 2 a.m. before the crowd has dispersed. There have been minor catches like television sets that hadn’t been declared and needed screening, but it’s been a relatively quiet night after the Ephedrine haul. Screening can be a thankless task – some 100 people are closely inspected every day, and sometimes there are just 1 or 2 catches. The bizarre ebb and flow of flights, and faces, carries on until 5.30 a.m., after which there’s a lull until the late morning. It won’t be long before Engineer’s tired team will get to go home and their replacements arrive. The hall is deserted again, and it’s deafeningly quiet. It’s almost hard to believe that in a few hours, it will be teeming again with noisy travellers.

As the sun rises, I’m absolutely knackered, feeling a bit like Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation”, surrounded by a sea of hundred faces, people coming and going, and time standing still. It’s been a long, surreal night: 8 hours, 25-odd flights, four cups of coffee and some 3,000 faces. On my way out, I pass by a posse of thirty men, briskly making their way to take up their posts, all dressed in white.