Those were the carefree days of brotherhood and camaraderie and the limits that young blood could go to meet up with old friends that too in a foreign land. In hind sight, it was downright foolish on our parts to have even thought of crossing country borders without proper documentation.
Sitting on my lazy boy chair on the morning of 11 Jun 2020 in total lockdown condition, contemplating about the exponential increase in Covid19 pandemic infections in the Delhi NCR region and having seen the fatality numbers on the Coronameter of my mobile phone, I was unhappy about the situation in general and of having to discontinue the physical newspaper due to fear of spread of the virus. I powered up my laptop as usual that morning to read the many e-papers that were available online, my eye caught the title of a news article in the e-paper of ‘Times of India’ which glared at me with, “Sweden says 34-year mystery of ex-PM Palme’s killing is solved”. My eyes turned glassy as a fuzzy fog of memories flooded my mind’s eye dating back to thirty-four years ago as I was transported back to that fateful day on 28 Feb 1986 when Mr Sven Olof Palme, Prime Minister of Sweden was assassinated in the Swedish city of Stockholm. I was there on that day in the Swedish city of Goteborg now renamed as Gothenburg.
Well, the story goes like this, I was posted at the Indian Naval mission at Kiel, West Germany as it was known then. We were a bunch of personnel posted there for a specific purpose. On 26 Feb 1986 it was a freezing minus 13 degrees Celsius in Kiel and as we were having lunch that day, we got a message that one of our Indian Naval warships on her return passage from the port of Gdynia in Northern Poland to Mumbai was stranded in the port of Goteborg, Sweden as the sea had frozen up. She was likely to be stuck in harbour till the Indian Embassy negotiated a deal for getting an icebreaker to free her from her frozen berth. This topic was discussed amongst ourselves threadbare as we tried to find out if we knew anyone of the crew on our stranded Indian warship at Goteborg.
Slowly by evening of 27 Feb 1986, we got to know that a course mate of my senior colleague Satish (who is no more, God bless his soul) was the Captain of the stranded warship and my dear childhood friend Nanna from the city of Secunderabad were onboard. By night of 27 Feb, Satish and I decided that we would drive down to Goteborg on the weekend starting around Friday noon on 28 Feb such that we could reach Goteborg by nightfall. The intention was to stay the weekend, meet our friends and commence our return journey by road on Sunday evening 02 Mar 1986 driving all night so as to reach Kiel in the wee hours of Monday, 03 Mar 1986 just in time for the morning conference. We were confident of doing the 700 km journey in about 7 hours driving from Kiel through Copenhagen in Denmark taking the Roll On Roll Off (RORO) sea ferry to Malmo in Sweden and thereafter using the coastal road to reach Goteborg.
We embarked on our French Leave starting around noon armed with our white passports and a paper attachment which authorised us to travel without visa into Denmark as we often went there on duty. In those days, tourist and business visas were common for Scandinavian countries but we had an exemption letter only for Denmark. Our journey went smoothly except for the entry point into Sweden at Malmo where we argued with ‘passport kontrol’ by waving the exemption letter of Denmark that since we were Indian nationals and white passport holders, we had to urgently meet the stranded Indian warship in the port of Goteborg by nightfall. We were waved on and that’s how we entered Sweden without any entry stamping of our passports.
Our visit was welcomed by the crew of the stranded Indian warship with elation and after a night of revelry with drinks and Indian food prepared by the ship’s chefs, we turned in for the night sharing cabins onboard with our respective friends. The following day, we heard about the news of the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister Mr Sven Olof Palme the previous night, not giving it much thought at that time. 01st Mar 1986 was spent in sight seeing within the city of Goteborg. This beautiful city founded by King Gustav II Adolf in 1621 as a fishing commercial hub was located on the west coast of Sweden totally white due to heavy snowfall that winter resulting in the sea freezing up. It was a characterful town, very welcoming and right by the sea making everyone cheerful. It had a proud fishing heritage and was the birthplace of the Volvo car industry. We spent the entire day with our friends wining and dining in the seaside restaurants taking in the sights of the beautiful city and its monuments.
Sunday, 02 Mar 1986 was spent sleeping late and doing a tour of some museums. It was then my friend Nanna murmured that since they would be stranded in this foreign port for a long time till the sea ice thinned down, he was out of cash. Being in Kiel for quite a while, I had a booklet of Euro Cheques with me which were something akin to travellers’ cheques which I whipped out and wrote out a few for him. In return, he gifted me a sea cap from Gdynia as a token of love and affection. As evening approached, it was time to depart after thanking them for their hospitality of food and shelter onboard. There was much hugging and back slapping with our friends and other officers with a hearty farewell feast. The Captain of the warship very magnanimously offered me to take anything from his ship and I very sheepishly asked him for a bottle of Indian Old Monk Rum which I was missing in Kiel so much.
After thanking him profusely and with this prized possession carefully wrapped, we started our drive back. By about 8 pm we reached the Swedish ‘passport kontrol’ at Malmo for entry into Denmark. As we reached the vicinity of the checkpoint, we could see serpentine lines of cars and very strict checking taking place at the barrier. It was then that I broke out in a sweat. What would we say to the ‘passport kontrol’ barrier personnel because we had no visa for Sweden nor any entry stamp on our passports? I remember rolling down my window pane and asking a passing car driver in fluent German as to what was happening.
She looked at us up and down once again with a cold stare frostier than the frozen Swedish seas that we had left behind, took a few moments to contemplate and then reached for her hip holster.
In the meantime, I told my colleague Satish to take the wheel and concentrate on driving while I would do the talking to the security personnel as my fluency in German was much better than his. As our turn approached, we handed our passports for scrutiny at the barrier and lo and behold, the sentry immediately saw that there was no entry stamp nor a Scandinavian visa stamp. I curtly told him in German that we were Indian nationals travelling on white passports and had come to render assistance to the stranded Indian Naval warship in Goteborg. He just stood his ground and was not convinced at all arguing with me. He signalled for our car to drive out of the line to the investigation space. I quickly told Satish in Hindi that he should not get out of the line. In the meantime, on seeing our altercation, a superior officer, a giant of a lady came up to our car to enquire as to what was the problem.
I then softened my tone and told her in German that we had an exemption for Denmark, which should be valid for entire Scandinavia and that we were Indian Naval Officers on a rescue mission to our stranded warship at Goteborg in Sweden. She looked at us up and down once again with a cold stare frostier than the frozen Swedish seas that we had left behind, took a few moments to contemplate and then reached for her hip holster. My heart was in my mouth as I thought she would probably whip out her pistol and tell us to get out of the car. Her hand reached the holster and to my astonishment she whipped out a rubber stamp which she used to stamp our passports with a loud thump. It was then I realised that the ‘passport kontrol’ personnel had rubber stamps in holster like attachments on their hips. As the cars behind started honking, she waved us on and so with a huge sigh of relief writ on our faces we were in safe territory of Denmark once again.
This little adventure had taken more than two hours additional time from what we had planned and so Satish and I on entering Kiel precincts decided to go to our site office directly instead of going home and freshening up as it was already 7:30 am on Monday morning. Our colleagues and head of mission as they arrived at 8:00 am were surprised to see us dishevelled and unshaven. We mumbled some lame excuse to our colleagues about having a binge all night party and excused ourselves for a few hours that day. This French Leave would have proven very costly had we been detained at the Swedish ‘passport kontrol’ at Malmo or if our head of mission had got wind of it.
Those were the carefree days of brotherhood and camaraderie and the limits that young blood could go to meet up with old friends that too in a foreign land. In hind sight, it was downright foolish on our parts to have even thought of crossing country borders without proper documentation. But such remains the love for our naval brethren.
The story does not end here. In Dec 1988, as I reached my hometown of Secunderabad on some well-deserved leave after my return from West Germany, my parents welcomed me home with fervour as I had returned home after nearly three years. After sometime, my mother showed me a carton and said that a friend of mine named Nanna had left this gift for me about a year ago. I could not even guess as to what this could contain. On opening the box, I saw the best of crystal cut glass beer mugs and a crystal decanter from Poland gifted to me by my friend Nanna, I guess in gratitude for the small monetary help that I had rendered to him in Goteborg, Sweden.
“Aspi, Aspi, Aspi … what is wrong? Why have you been staring into space for such a long time?” I could hear my wife shouting, as I slowly returned from my reverie amid the hazy white landscape of Goteborg of thirty-four years ago to the present. I soon realised that I was still sitting on my lazy boy chair holding my laptop on my knees cursing the lockdown and the onset of corona virus upon humanity on this 11th day of June 2020 reading the news story “Sweden says 34-year mystery of ex-PM Palme’s killing is solved”.
A brief mention about the assassination of Prime Minister Sven Olof Palme would be in order. He was killed by an assassin close to midnight of 28 Feb 1986 while walking home from a movie with his wife. There were no security guards with him. No witnesses were able to identify the assassin nor recollect the incident vividly as the killer ran away on foot. A suspect named Christer Petterssen was convicted two years later in 1988 by a lower court but was acquitted by the Svea Court of Appeal for lack of evidence. The investigation was open for thirty-four years as the mystery was never solved about the assassin nor the motive. Investigators had interviewed ten thousand people and a hundred and thirty-four suspects had even wrongly confessed to the murder. The Swedish authorities now in the year 2020 blamed a small time criminal Stig Engstrom for the murder but due to inconclusive evidence and that the murderer having committed suicide in the year 2000 nearly twenty years ago had decided to close the case. Hence, on 10 Jun 2020, the Swedish government officially declared the investigation into the murder of Mr Olof Palme closed after thirty-four long years.
The lovely crystal cut glass set from Poland gifted to me by my friend Nanna still adorns my bar to this day and the sea cap from Gdynia continues to have a pride of place in my cap collection.
Read more from Aspi here: