Many of the readers of my blogs loved the one in which I lose my passport in Dublin. They liked it so much that I thought I must give them a sequel. So I managed to go and lose my ‘green card’ in Delhi. Readers will be pleased to note that I followed all the same steps: got worked up to a frenzy, almost losing my renowned calm demeanour; harassed people to aid and help me; waited and worried at the Police Station and the Embassy—and finally managed to leave the country. This time, not the next day but a week later. And not on having found my documents but finally succeeding in getting them replaced.
I could try and be funny, but it was actually only painful.
I had checked in at the excellently ‘manned’ counter of British Airways. It was eight in the morning, faces were fresh and bright, I was hardly paying attention to anything since there was nothing to particularly attend to. Travelling long distance is easy. I mean, how much oftener could a person travel than I do? In 2014 itself, once in January, four times in March, once in May, twice in June, once in July, twice in August….I (figuratively) yawned. I read novel after fat novel. I was in love with Hillary Mantel.
Yet, for all this international travel, what I don’t have is a separate wallet for passport, travel documents etc. I think the reason is that in my twenties I despised those faux leather things they tried to sell in the name of ‘travel planner’ with pockets for everything. So bourgeois. I do it the bohemian way. I stack up the cards I don’t need and put a rubber band around them and put them in a safe place, and replace them in my wallet with the cards I do need. Then I reverse the process. In the middle the packed-up cards in the rubber band repose in the back of a suitcase, or in my cupboard, or simply on the desk I am using. It may sound inefficient but it has worked so far.
So, on the eve of this journey, I sat in my room, undid the cards and stuck them in my wallet, starting with my passport, then credit cards, green card, drivers license, medical insurance, etc. etc. I packed up in turn the Indian credit cards, pan card etc. It didn’t take a minute.
I had checked in and had turned around to go. The smart young woman behind the counter was training a new person so was busier with her than with me. As a postscript she added to my back, “Can I have your green card please?” Bored, I gave it to her.
She handed it back. “This is not it.” I had the weirdest physical sensation, as if the bottom had fallen out from my stomach region, as when your elevator might lose control and dash down to the ground. I knew in that split second that I did not in fact have my green card. The green card was in a jacket, a little white case of a smooth paper, that had a problem in a corner so that it was difficult to insert the card in without a struggle and I derived pleasure form watching all the solemn passport control officials of the world humbly struggle at this before managing the insertion and returning my card to me. I had given her another card in a jacket, and that was the wrong card but it was the only card I had in a jacket. When she said “This is not it,” I knew I could search and search but I had no other card in a jacket.
She was the best kind of professional—humane. Usually it is women, not men, who achieve this perfect blend of the professional and humane. She let me search. While I searched my bag, she kindly searched my wallet. While I searched my wallet, she took over my bag. She made a bare murmur of “May I?” Then got my suitcase back and invited me to search comfortably. Heart sinking, heart sunken, I searched without conviction. I fumbled for my phone. “Let me call my daughters,” I said foolishly. “They know my habits.” “You remind me of my mother,” she smiled encouragingly at me.
Irfana had just landed at Mumbai and not gotten connected yet. She still had the wrong sim card in her phone. Nandini was in the throes of sleep. I forgot that it would be four a.m. for her. She could not help.
I was turned over to the trainee and gently moved to one side. My luggage tags were removed and my boarding pass torn up. The trainee was a radical sort. As I fumbled inside my suitcase once more, she suggested, “Should we throw everything on the floor?” I thought grimly, “Very funny, kiddo,” and shook my head. It took some time for them to escort me out because there is a whole procedure to reversing the official entry inside an Indian airport.
Now what? I took a taxi to the American Embassy. I knew that the card had to be replaced with a travel document of some sort that would allow me to travel. The consular section where these things are done was invisible, literally a hive hidden behind a swarm of bees. There must have been hundreds of people thronging the entrance to the visa and passport services. They were not standing in line, they were pushing at the cordons around the entrance.
The ‘system’ was ‘down.’ Nothing could be done that morning. I stood on one side and waited. I knew in my hunting-gathering bones that you don’t just believe something and go away, you hang around for the ambush, for another sight of the prey. And sure enough, the crowd gradually thinned as people put their tails between their legs and went away and only a few stalwarts like me remained. I went into an unnecessary narrative about my plight, knowing it was pointless, but needing to talk, and the guard nodded wisely. He was just a young man, probably from Bihar, trained up and uniformed up for the job, but he was a nice man. He took my passport and went to the phone that hangs at their desk. I was full of hope.
But no. The person who handled these things was not at his desk.
Reader, I am ashamed to say that I threw a tantrum. As I did so, I realised why children have faith in tantrums. I simply wanted attention. I wanted him, and all the six guards there, to realise that I was a special, distinct case, and they somehow had to do something for me, that I was not going to take that kind of an answer lying down, that I would fight to the finish, that I was a worthy adversary, that they had better look out, that I would do—I didn’t know what, but I would do something. The only think I could do was rave and rant.
The whole tenor of what I said standing there over the next hour, and then over the next five days, was, “But there must be something to do? Surely there is something to do? How can there be nothing to do?”
The guard advised me to call the embassy number. The receptionist at the number called the same desk the guard had. The first time there was a voice mail. I left a jumbled message. Then they disconnected or switched off the voice mail. I called a dozen times again, and there was a sickly, downward spiralling tinkle to the phone ring as it was proved to me again and again that there was no one at the desk.
I thrashed around, paced around, stamped around, screeched and shouted, then whispered and pleaded, “Surely there must be someone else? When will this officer come back? Can I not speak to anyone?” The answer was no, we don’t know, there is no one else, we can’t say, no, no. no. I finally left with ‘Kafka’ ringing in my ears.
I went to the Police Station. It was calm and orderly. The main inspector at whose desk I sat was fast as well as poetic. As if he were an E.M. Forster character, he recited a couple of Urdu verses during the course of the work, humming the rest of the time. He had his subordinate, sitting next to him, write my FIR. This charming young man called him ‘janab.’ They were not native Urdu speakers however. The inspector was from Ballia but had lived in Delhi now for decades. I imagined him, going home to his village once a year, with presents for everyone, being treated like royalty by his family.
FIRs are now typed and printed on the computer. It took one hour but I had lots to observe in a Delhi Police Station and was quite happy. They made me feel as if the Force was behind my cause and I left full of optimism.
Later that day I e-mailed my college and got immediate responses, much like the Police force. I was gathering up my army. But the other side was an unbreachable fortress. On Monday they told me that the missing officer would be back Tuesday or Wednesday. On Tuesday they said Thursday or Friday. On Tuesday evening I got in an appointment with ‘Information’ for Wednesday. On Wednesday they said not to be foolish but wait until Thursday or Friday, on no account to try to contact anyone to support my cause, it would all be pointless, there was a procedure, and yes, indeed, it was in the hands of one man, but he would be back. On Thursday they said no way. On Friday they said, no, not yet.
It was then that I glimpsed this man, sailing away on a yacht somewhere, calculating, in a way all too familiar to me from my long management experience, that if he could just stay away a few more hours, the long weekend would be his as well. Monday was Labor Day.
That is called “the tipping point.” I saw with furious clarity that I should never give up, that like Babar or Humayun, even when all the odds were against me and even my own soldiers had refused to fight further, I had to make one last push. I swallowed my pride and wrote again to my one slender Embassy contact, well after we had said, “Fine, goodbye, thank you.” I put my soul into it. How could it be, I asked with dignity, that the Embassy had had no knowledge that the one single officer in charge would be absent from work from Monday to Friday, followed by a long weekend? How was it possible? Could I not have been told?
I checked my e-mail for a reply every minute. I sat at the dining table ostensibly talking and typing, but my soul was battering away at the fortress. I did not acknowledge, even to myself, that I did have alternatives planned. In my diary I had planned, “Get documents on Friday, do ___. Get them on Tuesday, do ___. Get them on Wednesday….” and so on for another whole week. In my notebook was a detailed plan of action. I was going to achieve a lot if they could not do my work. But by God, they had to do it.
And the e-mail did come. I picked up and left. I sailed into the Embassy. There was the person, back from his sailing trip by the might of my will power. He took what I needed to give and told me to pick up my documents the next day. Saturday? Yes.
As I lingered on the pavement outside, wondering if that was an ice cream cart I saw around the corner—when the crowds are large the ice cream carts are right there—a guard came up to me and said, “Can you wait? They called to say you can pick up your letters right now. There’s a long weekend coming up….”
I waited, of course, and got what I needed within the hour.
I will never know, nor do I expect anyone to know, how it works. I firmly believe that if you put your whole will behind it, you get it. I have this idea from Hindu mythology, but also from the American myth of I-can-do-whatever-I-want, but most of all from my hunting and gathering ancestors, who never actually rested when they were in need of food. They knew you can get a prey only by terrific coordination of the mind, body and will. You have to look sharp and jump and nab. You have to focus.
Well, so long from California, till what I hope will never be the next account of my losing any travel documents whatsoever, much as you enjoy reading about it….