Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 62

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

In connection with our research and meetings in the MacArthur network we did a considerable amount of international travel. Let me now turn to a whole series of my travel-related stories, some in connection with this network but mostly outside it and in different periods of my itinerant life.

When I start thinking of my travels the first thing that comes to mind, as it does with many others from India, is a whole series of anecdotes relating to authorities in western countries trying to block or hinder our travel in various ways. Let me unburden here some of them. Many decades back, before I got the much-coveted ‘green card’ (it actually looks rather pink, not green) for permanent residency in the US, I was standing in the long line for American visa one early morning in New Delhi. The line started forming even before daylight, hours before the Embassy doors opened, and it soon snaked around the Embassy building, under the scorching sun. When I finally reached near the counter in the air-conditioned interior, in front of me there was one other person, a woman of probably 27 or 28 years of age. She had told me that she had been admitted in a graduate school in the US with a fellowship, and we discussed her prospective area of research. But when she reached the counter the surly visa officer looked at the file, examined all her documents, then for a minute or two looked at her, and suddenly closed the file with a thump, and said, “You don’t look like a student to me (he probably meant that she was a few years older than the usual graduate student), No Visa for you! …..Next!” Standing there she started silently weeping, and I was next. I reached the counter and said, “Is this how you decide on visa, by looks of people?” The man growled at me and said, “Do you want your visa or not?” Things may have improved since then but at least those days it entirely depended on the arbitrary decision of one visa officer, and there was hardly any scope for appeal. While in the line I had already overheard some students discussing that the visa officer at the American consulate in Chennai was rumored to be a bit kinder than officers on duty elsewhere in India at that time, and many Indian students were making a special trip to Chennai to try their luck there.

When a few years later I applied for the green card, it took more than a year to be processed by the US Immigration Service (I am told it is much longer now). If during the processing period the applicant had to go out of the country (as I had to in connection with my lectures and conferences) you had to get a special permission, which gives you a status of what the Service sweetly called “parole” (which ordinarily means early conditional release of a prison inmate). So during that year several times I waited at the immigration line on my return to the US, and when the officer saw my file they’d loudly say, “Oh, you are on parole! Step aside, and wait for the parole officer to come and talk to you”. I stood there trying to avoid the stare of the other people on the line probably speculating about the nature of my crime.

My next story is about the British consulate in Los Angeles, involving the British visa for my son Titash. He by then was working for a software company in the Bay Area and had the green card. The company asked him to attend a meeting in New York, and then move on to a meeting in England. He sent all the documents for a British visa to the Los Angeles consulate for the short trip to England more than 2 months before he was to go for those meetings, and enclosed a paid Express mail envelope for the passport to be sent back. But even after 2 months the visa did not come, and it was of little use to call the consulate as it was almost impossible to get a human on the phone. So when Titash left for his New York meeting he asked me to express mail the passport to his hotel in New York in case it arrived in the next two or three days; if not he’d have to cancel his trip to England.

Next day I desperately tried to get a human at the Los Angeles consulate by phone; after a full hour or so of pressing this or that button and getting only unhelpful machines to talk to, I finally managed to get hold of an extremely bored woman with British accent, and explained the urgency of the situation. Through numerous suppressed yawns she told me that the visa would be processed ‘in due course’, and nothing could be done to expedite it. Then rather offhandedly she said, “What’s the name again—‘Titus’? Where did I come across the name Titus?” I said she might be thinking of Titus Andronicus, the Shakespeare play, where Titus was an extremely violent Roman general. Then I added, “If you want I can tell you the story of a different, and a much softer, Titus”. She perked up and encouraged me to tell the story.

I said, “Titus is the name of the son of the Dutch painter Rembrandt. He was Rembrandt’s only surviving child, and soon after he was born, Rembrandt’s wife Saskia died. Then a woman named Geertje was hired as a wet nurse for Titus; soon she became Rembrandt’s lover. I have at my home the reproduction of a 1660 painting by Rembrandt, which I procured from Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where he dressed up a teenage Titus in a Franciscan monk’s habit. In this painting the downcast eyes of Titus, with his face bathed in light, suggests quiet introspection”. I sensed some thawing at the other end of the phone; she abruptly told me that I was going to get my son’s visa immediately. I said, “When should I expect it?” She said “Tomorrow”. Such is the power of story-telling, as Scheherazade knew well! (I did not bother to tell the British lady that my son’s name was not Titus, it was Titash, which is the name of a river in Bangladesh (not very far from my father’s ancestral village), and there is a famous Bengali novel, “A River Called Titash” about the life of the fisher community along this river, written by someone from that community. Kalpana had translated this novel, which University of California Press published, and given it as a graduation gift to Titash).

Once at Heathrow airport a British immigration officer was lazily leafing through the multiple pages of my well-worn much-travelled passport, and suddenly chanced upon a page with an old stamp from Bogota airport. He suspiciously asked me, “What were you doing in Bogota?” I felt like saying “replenishing my supplies”, but I knew immigration officers looked down upon such humor (I once saw in Houston airport a big board spelling out the different “Don’ts” for passengers, and one of them was: “Do not make jokes”), so I told him that I went there to give a lecture at the University. A Colombian friend once told me that on his Colombian passport he used to be always interrogated about drugs in foreign airports, but after September 11, 2001, for a period he got some respite—the airport authorities were so busy looking for Muslim names that Colombian passports were waved away. A Pakistani economist I know who has been a Professor at Harvard for many years told me, after 2001 he was regularly taken out in airports to a separate room for interrogation not just when he was entering the US, but even when he was going out of the US.

Another time at Heathrow airport the immigration officer did not quite believe me when I told him that I was invited to give a lecture at a British university. He asked me if I had the paper that I’d be presenting. It so happened I had the print-out of the paper in my bag, so I gave it to him. But that was not enough, he started to ostentatiously read it, and made some inane comments on the paper. Next morning at the lecture, I started with my Heathrow experience and expressed my confidence that my lecture would elicit better comments there.

My next story is about the German consulate in San Francisco. I was invited to give a lecture at Heidelberg University. They were going to put me up in a hotel but my British friend, Clive Bell, then a Professor there, and whom I have known for many years both in England and the US, had graciously asked me to stay with him. At the consulate they told me if I was not going to stay in a hotel, my host in Germany had to go to a police station and register there the information about my staying with him. They’d not issue a visa without some proof of that registration. I did not want to harass Clive with this, so I told the officer that I was withdrawing my visa application, and I’d tell Heidelberg University that I was going to cancel the trip for this reason. In a day or two, the University might have done something or made some special request, as the consulate soon called me and asked me to come and pick up my visa. (Later my Indian friends told me that this requirement of a hotel stay was there with some other European countries as well. So even when they were actually staying with friends, they’d routinely make a reservation in a reputed 5-star hotel, get the visa and then cancel that reservation).

I also know of many cases of cynical opportunism of some Indians and their attempts to game the system. Let me just mention one somewhat related case. I was once going from San Francisco to Delhi via Hong Kong. After arriving in Hong Kong I found out that my connecting flight was delayed by 5 or 6 hours. It was late at night, I went to the gate area of that flight, found it rather deserted, and decided to lie down on a sofa in a dimly lighted area. I fell asleep and woke up when I found a turbaned young Indian sitting down on the same sofa. He seemed eager to talk and asked me where I was going. When I said, India, he said, “Oh, you’ve been deported too?” Apparently he had been in Canada for the last few years, overstaying his temporary visa there, was finally caught and deported. It was not clear to him why any Indian, unless deported, would willingly go back to India.

One time a kind and alert train conductor saved me from possible deportation. I was invited by Prince Hans-Adam of Liechtenstein to a conference on Indian democracy to be held in his palace (the conference was mainly organized by Atul Kohli, a Princeton Political Science professor—I know him since the days when I was on his doctoral dissertation committee in Berkeley). Apparently the Prince was interested in political issues like democracy and had written books. I knew that Liechtenstein was a tax haven like Switzerland, but was not fully aware of its location. I found out that it was a tiny kingdom, on a short train journey from Zurich, and Swiss visa would be enough for entry. When I bought my train ticket in Zurich railway station, nobody told me that there was no train station in Liechtenstein. In the train the conductor had checked my passport and saw that I had Swiss visa. A short while later in one small Swiss train station when the train was about to depart he ran to me and asked me to get off. He told me that I should take a taxi from that train station to Liechtenstein, as the next station was in Austria, and my passport did not have Austrian visa. If he did not warn me in time, apparently I was in some danger of being deported from Austria. (These were days before the introduction of the Schengen visa, by which a visa for one West European country would serve as visa for a few others as well).

I have heard an interesting deportation story about illegal Mexican immigrants in California’s Central Valley. This is from the days when after the illegal immigrants were caught they were punished but not their employers. So from time to time the immigration authorities were organizing large-scale raids in the Valley’s agricultural fields to catch illegals. One time the Valley’s producers told the authorities that this was much too disruptive for their production or harvesting, and much too inefficient as the immigration agents had to run and chase workers through the mud and dust ultimately catching only a small number of illegals. So they made a deal: instead of raids by the authorities the employers would agree to hand over to them every month a stipulated number of illegals. Every month there’d be a lottery drawn among workers on a farm and a small number of them would be handed over to the authorities—the workers who lost in the draw would be arrested and deported; while saying good bye to the others on the farm these unlucky few would place their hats for donations, which would be used to pay the ‘coyotes’ who were to help them to migrate again.

My last story in this chain is not about immigration but about the police and foreign visitors in the US, and it is about a German woman. I heard this story from an American friend who was a professor at an east-coast university. He had a sister who was mentally unstable and for a time assigned to a mental institution. My friend used to go and visit her on some Sundays. One Sunday in an open area inside the institution he was waiting for his sister when he found a woman aimlessly loitering around and muttering audibly to herself in German. My friend knew German and thought that somehow she did not quite belong there. He started talking to her in German and found out her story. She lived in a remote town in Germany and was coming to the US for the first time to attend the wedding of a relative. She did not speak a word of English, but some relatives were going to pick her up from the JFK airport. Immediately after she cleared immigration and customs and before she could come outside to look for her relatives, she was mugged and the mugger ran away with her handbag which had the passport, money and all the local contact information she had. After the mugging she went hysterical. The people around and then the policemen who were called did not understand what she was saying. Nor did she have any local contact information to give them. So in their wisdom the police decided to put her up in a nearby mental institution. If my friend did not come to her rescue, she would have rotted in that institution for a much longer time.