Monthly Archives: October 2011

Who’ll Blink First?

” The party will be deported at 10am tomorrow” the man says to me. I am dumbstruck. The ‘party’ in question is my six-year-old daughter. The man delivering this astonishing statement is the inspector in charge of the Foreigners Registration Office in Gurgaon, Haryana. My mind is already in panic mode, ‘can he really do that?’ I’m wondering. Gathering my fleeing wits I look him straight in the eye and say, “you know she is six years old. How can you deport her? Her father and I are Indian citizens and we live here in Gurgaon. Where will you deport her to?”.  Contemptuously he turns her passport over and looks at the cover. “Back to the America” he says. I feel like I’m in some absurd movie, the kind that manifests in frenzied dreams. This guy is for real though, he’s ushering me out of his office with a lazy wave of his hand.

I know I can’t leave yet. This issue needs to be resolved. My poor unsuspecting daughter is in school, so I have some time to negotiate. I need to be resourceful. This little flunky is not going to defeat me, I tell myself. I look at him again though by this time his face is making me nauseous. I decide to grovel (you see, with the Indian bureaucracy making yourself into the littlest person you can, gives them a greater sense of importance). The look he gives me is pure contempt. “You allowed her visa to expire. Her visa has a non- renewal clause. She has to go. Now you go, lot of people waiting to see me” he says in his puffed up way. I won’t leave, I say, you owe me an explanation at least. “Then sit there in the corner till I take care of important business” he says, with the manner of a man who has no intention of listening to any plea.

As he deals with someone more ‘important’, I slip out into the corridor to call my husband. My panic is in full bloom now. When he answers his phone, I burst into a high-speed description of what just went down. “They will deport her tomorrow” I tell him, articulating the dread word. “Don’t be ridiculous” Naresh says to me, as if I was the one setting down that plan of action. Now I’m good and mad, at Naresh. “Get yourself down here now and talk to this cop” I say. Let him handle things for a change, I think and see how difficult these things really are. Then Naresh comes up with the single most horrifying thing I can think of. “He’s just jerking your chain. Just give him Rs.500 and everything’ll be fine”. You should have heard me screech at him. People up and down the corridor were turning to take a look. “Are you crazy? You want me to offer a bribe to a cop in a police station? Get here now you crazy man”. I kid you not, he laughed! According to him this happened all the time in cop stations in India, that all the inspector wanted was a small bribe. “Anyway, I’m walking into a meeting right now, can’t come there. Take care of it will you” he said as he hung up. Not even in the throes of labour pains have I wanted to strangle this man so badly and I came pretty close then.

So much for help from that quarter. I don’t think he even realized how serious the situation was. Well it looked like it was up to me. I straightened my shoulders and went back in to tackle the beast once more. I slipped back into the metal chair in the corner waiting for a lull in his business. He paid me no mind at all. I was ready for battle now. Arguments with Naresh inevitably help me straighten things out in my mind. I was willing to sit in his office all day, all week if necessary. I’d ask a friend to collect Aditi from school in the afternoon. And so I waited. It was a good hour before he stood up. Going for a coffee and cigarette break, no doubt. “Sir” I said, “please look over the papers again. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has given me the necessary clearance. All you need to do is stamp the visa”. He gave me a speaking look, ‘dumb cow’, it said. He stepped out, to return about half an hour later chattering on his cellphone.

I will spare you the details. The same sort of thing as before went on for another three hours at least, with me approaching him every half hour or so and him shaking his head and giving me that look again. Ok so I am a dumb cow but I will not offer him a bribe. This is personal now. This is Delhi (or at least the National Capital Region) and people get away with murder here. What had I done that was so wrong that my daughter’s security was being threatened? This was how it happened. My mom fell ill and I rushed to Mangalore at about the time I should have applied for a visa renewal for Aditi. When I returned after several weeks, I realized the mistake and went to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. I waited for ages and finally got the necessary paperwork in hand before heading to the Police Superintendent’s office in Gurgaon, where Aditi was already registered as a resident foreigner. All the man needed to do was stamp the visa on her passport. instead he was playing games with me.

My brain is ticking furiously. I’m wondering which of my uncles to call asking them to reach out and get me some help. If my father had been alive, this would have been resolved in minutes I thought.  Suddenly I had a brain wave of sorts. The inspector was sitting at his desk, fiddling with some papers. All his important work was apparently done for the moment.  I picked up my phone and dialled a number. He was watching me with great interest, as one watches a lizard on the wall creeping towards an insect. I called my friend Shirin. Her father, father-in-law and brother-in-law were or had been in very senior positions in the police force, albeit in the distant state of West Bengal. Their batchmates and friends were senior officers all over the country. Mind you, I was not looking for direct involvement but I had an idea for subterfuge that just might work on this reptilian inspector.

He listened in shamelessly to the most bizarre phone conversation I’ve ever had with a friend. I ask Shirin if their friend Mr. ____ was still SSP in Gurgaon. “He’s gone” the inspector says, as if unaware he’s eavesdropping. “What the hell are you on about” Shirin is saying in my ear. “Is your friend Mr. _______ still with the Delhi police” I ask her.  He has perked up considerably by now. “Is something wrong Nuthan? If you need help I can call my friend DCP _______ in the Delhi police’ she says. I repeat the name. He is sitting ramrod straight now, I can see out of the corner of my eye. I can hear the wheels in his head turning. “She’s not such a dumb cow, she knows people“. I zip through some more ‘important’ names and hang up telling Shirin I’ll call her later. When I hang up, he stands up. I know I’ve pressed the appropriate buttons now. Every lowly flunky in the Indian bureaucracy reacts the same way to the names of higher-ups. “I’m going to do you a favour and talk to my ACP”  he says in a phony magnanimous tone and walks out. He’s back in ten minutes flat. “Here’s what you will do” he says, sounding remarkably like Sister Carissima, my High School headmistress. “Write a letter saying you were at fault in not renewing the visa on time. Write that your child is only six and cannot be deported when her parents live here. Write that you will apply for a Person of Indian Origin card immediately”. He pushed a sheet of paper and a pen across his desk and asked me to come up to the desk to write. I felt like I was in primary school again, writing imposition, as the nuns liked to call it. It was a moment’s work to have it done. He took the signed letter and went to see whoever was in charge in that alphabet soup of officialdom. He came back, picked up Aditi’s passport and stamped the visa and residence permit as required. He handed me the passport and said I could go now. I thanked him politely and left that godforsaken office after what seemed like days but in reality was about five hours.

I was exultant. He blinked, he blinked!  My daughter would not be deported and I had stared down the cold-blooded monster. How on earth was I going to explain all this to Shirin?  I knew she’d understand. I called Naresh to tell him I had the visa. It had been at least four hours since our earlier conversation. “I knew you’d do it” he says coolly. I swear I could strangle this man, but that’s another story.

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How Do I get to Timbuktu?

It was all arranged so meticulously. I was to make the road trip from Nairobi to Namanga, where I’d cross the border from Kenya back to Tanzania. Another car and driver would meet me on the Tanzanian side to take me back to Arusha, and then on to Dar Es Salaam. I’d had a wonderful trip, travelling around Zanzibar before going to Nairobi and then the Maasai Mara. I was ready to go back to Dar Es Salaam, I missed my aunt and uncle. My hosts were a lovely young Gujarati couple in Nairobi, friends of my uncle (he has loads of them, all around the world). They had made my stay welcoming and comfortable. Now I was ready to get back to the house on Magore Street.

It’s true what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men…The drive was uneventful. We joined the queue at the border. My driver Paul said he’d make contact with his counterpart on the other side, so he’d be ready for me the minute I walked out the Tanzanian immigration building. I walked in to the Kenyan border post and had a friendly chat with the immigration officer as he stamped my passport. Then I walked up the few hundred yards that made up the no-man’s-land between the two border posts. When I got to the immigration building a peon of some sort said I had to wait outside till the officer was done with the bunch of tourists already in there. So I waited. And waited. It was taking inordinately long. I could see the air-conditioned coach they had come on, idling as it waited too. No one would tell me what was going on. Finally a group of 11 English men and women came out, quiet as can be, got on the bus and it chugged into the other side as a guard opened the Tanzanian gates.

I could go in now, so I went. Inside the building was an immigration officer at a rickety looking desk. He was rocking back in his chair with a big grin on his face. He waved me over and silently held his hand out for my passport. Without looking up at me he said “can’t enter Tanzania”. I’m pretty sure I squealed like a stuck pig at this point. “Your visa is cancelled” he said. “That can’t be right ” I said unwisely. He gave me a look that could have killed at two paces and flung my passport across the desk at me. “Next” he called loudly to the peon at the door. I had been dismissed. Already another group was entering the building. I looked at him in real distress but he refused to catch my eye. I stepped out and walked back towards the Kenyan post, beckoning to Paul. When he reached the gates I told him what had happened and that I was at a total loss what to do. “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it” he said. After a word with the Kenyan guard Paul asked me to walk back to the Tanzanian. With great dread, I trekked back there.

Paul went in the moment the group from inside exited. I stood there wringing my hands like a blithering idiot. Finally Paul emerged but he was looking downcast. He said he had tried everything with the man from begging to offering a bribe but nothing had worked. Another clerk inside had finally told him that no bribe would work this day. The English coach group ahead of me had harboured one with a South African visa. The man had demanded a huge bribe in Pound Sterling  from each of the eleven and was now sated. He need not take a single bribe for the rest of the month, the envious clerk had said. It was 1989, Nelson Mandela was still in prison and many African countries denied entry to anyone showing a South African visa.

Even as I took in these details my mind shut down. What could I possibly do? Telling Paul to wait there, I went in for a last ditch effort at reaching the man’s heart. I approached him cautiously, like he was a caged bear. “Sir” I said. The Indian in me knows the power of that word, specially on those least deserving of respect. He looked up, bored. He yawned hugely and did that rocking thing with his chair again. He called me over and asked me to sit. He took my passport again and studied it. “Still can’t get in. Still cancelled”, he said and smiled at his own cleverness. I knew the time had come to grovel. I couldn’t reach his acquisitiveness, perhaps I could reach his compassion. “Please sir”, I said in my most obsequious tone, “surely you can make it happen if anyone can “.  He looked up again but his cat-that-got -the-canary look was back. “But I won’t” he said in a tone of such finality. I was almost in tears by now. “Please sir?” I said again. He looked away and said “go now”. I’m pretty sure I was a genuinely pitiful sight because I felt like I was on the rack and he was  tightening the screws. “But where will I go sir?” I asked him. “Go to Timbuktu” he said callously.

I was aghast at his attitude. He turned away from me and picked up a file from his table. I stepped into the sunshine in a daze. What was I to do now? By now I was openly crying. I wasn’t a seasoned traveller, just a young woman on the adventure of a lifetime. A hand on my elbow made me look up. It was big, kindhearted Paul, he had waited. He led me back to the Kenyan side and took me to the small border post. Inside, he spoke softly to the officer on duty and gave him my passport. Through these exchanges I was a basket case, unable to focus on anything. “Miss would you like a drink?” the officer asked me. You could have struck me down with a feather. The Kenyan was being nice to me! The contrast was shocking. He called me over to the desk and said “Don’t worry, you’re welcome  in Kenya. You’re not the first visitor to sent back from that building”. He was busy with my passport and handed it back to me with a smile. I was so profuse in my thanks, he had to smile. “It’s all right, just doing my job” he said as he waved at me.

OK so now I  have a restored Kenyan visa but what do I do? In the end, Paul decided for me. We are going back to Nairobi he said and took me back to the cab. Back I went to my hosts in Nairobi. They were gobsmacked to see me back. Then began a series of phone calls between my host and my uncle. When I got to finally talk to my uncle, I burst into a fresh round of tears. Hearing the familiar voice was enough to turn me into a snivelling idiot once more. He told me he’d fix it, not to worry for another minute. So I spent a nervous couple of days in Nairobi waiting to get back to Dar Es Salaam and be with my uncle and aunt again. I got on that flight in Nairobi, a mass of nerves. I should have known better. When I got off the flight, there was my uncle at the gate, as dapper and suave as always. I rushed up to him and his smiling face calmed me down. He had an official looking man with him. “This is Mr. —- from the Prime Minister’s office and this is my niece”, my uncle said introducing us as casually as if we’d met at a cocktail party. The man smiled and said ‘welcome to Tanzania. I am sorry for your troubles at Namanga” he said. In the blink of an eye all my misgivings about Tanzania were shelved. We were taken into the Immigration Hall where an officer stamped my passport with a flourish and I was free to walk out into the sunshine of Dar Es Salaam. I felt as if I had escaped prison.

At home, in Magore Street, I looked with pleasure at all the familiar things, the Zairean parrots screeching away, the banana plants in the backyard laden with fruit as my aunt plied me with the most delicious fish curry and rice. It was the best food I’d ever tasted. My uncle told me that the immigration office was taking a no-holds barred look at the Namanga immigration post and the officer would be dealt with properly. I felt no sympathy for the man who had cavalierly told me to go Timbuktu. In hindsight, I think I should have asked him what time that bus left. At the time though, I had no room for sarcastic thoughts. I’d been busy being a sniveling idiot.

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Waiting for Kilimanjaro

The drive from Arusha to Moshi was exhilarating. I was bubbling with anticipation as I waited for my first sight of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In the distance I could see a lone Maasai tribesman standing on one foot, the other foot resting on his knee. This is a distinctive stance they can keep up for hours, I am told by the driver. As we neared Moshi we began to see more Maasai tribesmen, many of them with young sons, waving down passing cars to ask if tourists wanted Maasai pictures. I remember Maasai like these on my drive to Ngorongoro Crater. Tourist cars would stop, pay them a couple of dollars and just like that it was a photo op. Took the mystery out of the Maasai in a flick of the ubiquitous dollar. Everyone must make a living somehow I guess. The driver just grimaces and shakes his head in disgust.

As we neared the outskirts, the huge massif came into sight. It took my breath away. There it was, the mountain that defines east Africa. Its upper reaches were swathed in cloud. On this, the southern approach to the climbing trails, the mountain can stay hidden in its cloud cover all day. “If you’re lucky and are out early in the morning or in the evening, the clouds might part, good luck”, the driver says as he drops me outside the beautiful old, colonial style inn. Inside, a little piece of Europe has been forever preserved. It’s beautiful and warm. I am shown up to my room as the sun is setting, the last rays casting an incredibly beautiful light on the mountain. In the room I find I can see a side of the mountain, but not the cloud blanketed peak. The day ends early as I am quite exhausted from all the travelling of the past two days.

In the morning I wake up to a glorious day outside. Even before I have breakfast I step outside to see if I can see the mysterious peak. No such luck. So I step back in and have a hearty breakfast. I spend the morning  wandering around the marketplace. In Africa marketplaces are living, breathing things. It is always such fun and always unpredictable. You never know what you might find. In an hour or so I’m beginning to feel a bit bored and the book in the room beckons. I look up the slopes of the mountain wishing I had the ability to climb. I find I don’t even have the desire. As I walk back to the inn I am beset by little boys who want to help me find trails, caves, anything. I smile and walk away, dispensing my bunch of bananas among them. I am almost at the door when a lanky little boy comes right up to me. Jambo he says. I stop and look at him again. He has the sweetest smile. He isn’t quite a teenager, skinny, wiry and smiling. “What’s your name?’ I ask him. “Goodwill” he says, ” I ten”.  I reach out to shake his hand and in one simple gesture I have a new friend.

He wants to know my entire life history, where I am from, how old I am, have I been up the mountain. “You want see caves?” he asks me. No, I say, I want to see the peak without the clouds. “Hamna matata” (no problem) he says, “I show you Kilimanjaro. You give me dolla?”. You know what they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it must be. “You gimme dolla, I call you when you can see. What your room number?”. Still sceptical, I hand him a dollar bill and give him my room number. “Asante sana” he says as he walks away. I know the inn staff wouldn’t let him into my room. Today,21 years down the line, I shudder at my naiveté. That day, I was just elated at having made a friend in this little corner of the world.

After lunch I stepped back out and there was my little friend Goodwill with another little boy. They walked up to me, Goodwill thrust his right hand at me. In it were two ripe avocados. “For you, is gift”, he said. Then issued an angry exchange in Kiswahili. His friend obviously wanted payment. “No is gift for lady” Goodwill insisted, handing me the avocados. I thanked them. The other boy gave in graciously. They then bombarded me with questions about Dar Es Salaam where they both wanted to go when they grew up. We walked together for a distance. Then Goodwill said he had to go watch the mountain for me. I said I’d be right there on the terrace if he had any news. As the shadows grew longer I despaired of seeing the peak at all. I had only one more full day left in Moshi. It was almost 5.30pm and I thought I’d go in and get a cup of coffee when I saw Goodwill tearing up the driveway. “You come now” he said, “mountain will show”. Still doubtful, I walked to a clearing where the whole massif was visible. We stood about for a few minutes indulging in desultory conversation. Goodwill’s mouth was beginning turn downwards as if it were his fault the clouds hadn’t parted. Then all of a sudden he yelled out something in Kiswahili. I looked up and there like a painting being slowly revealed the clouds parted and I had my first glimpse of the snowy peak of Kilimanjaro. It was like a moment frozen in time forever. It was the most glorious sight to behold. I felt like Balboa when he first glimpsed the Pacific. I let out the breath I was holding. Now I could return to India satisfied. For me it was as close as I had ever come to a religious experience.  The curtain stayed parted magically for several long minutes as I drank in the sight. Then as suddenly as they had parted the clouds closed in again. Mount Kilimanjaro was once again simply a mountain, not a clue to the gorgeous equatorial snows.

I went to bed a happy camper. I slept in and woke up to another beautiful day. After breakfast, I stepped out and walked down the way to where we had stood the previous evening. But the snows stayed hidden from view. All at once a great clamour of bells began. All across the city church bells were ringing. I was alarmed enough to run inside the inn and inquire at the desk. My alarm receded as I saw smiles on every face in there. A waiter was doing an impromptu dance. “What has happened?” I asked the clerk at the desk. Never breaking his smile he said “Nelson Mandela is free at last”. I was pumping my  fists up and down in joy, my smile as wide as anyone’s. “This is the best day ever” I told the clerk. It was. It was February 11th, 1990. The church bells pealed joyfully all day. I’m sure they pealed everywhere in Africa that day. It was a great day to be alive. As for me, I will forever be glad that I was in Africa that day.

PS: I want to thank my Aunt and Uncle who lived in Dar Es Salaam then, for giving me the opportunity to travel and for encouraging me to go forth on my own. Thanks, it really opened my eyes.

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Fourth Grade Blues

Several someones (11 and 12 year old someones) have told Aditi that 4th grade is simply too hard to handle. This most suggestible of children has decided to take it to heart. She is convinced that it’s going to be impossible for her to do as well as she did in 3rd grade. Have you tried un-convincing your child of something her peers have told her? In spite of doing fairly well in her assessments, these days Aditi walks about with a frown when discussing schoolwork or doing her homework. This is because she has already decided, 2 months into 4th grade, that she’s going to be an abysmal failure. She asked me yesterday if we could return to India, as school there was so much simpler! That should come as a shocker for all you people with children in Indian schools.

Bravely I wade into the mess, sure I can fix it all.  “I’m going to help you understand things better”, I tell her. It’s been easy peasy lemon squeezy these past ten years.  I cleaned, band aided and kissed a boo-boo here, untangled the mess from a weird hair styling session with friends there, helped clean up paint and play doh off the carpet and so on. Up until now I never really had to help Aditi with homework or study, except for a short period when she decided to resist learning Hindi while in India (that foray wasn’t so successful either considering my own glaring lack of Hindi skills). This was business on a whole different scale though.

First off, we can’t decide on the best place to work together. She wants to be at her desk with the radio on. Suddenly I turn into my Dad. “No distractions while studying” I say, as my Dad would, on the rare occasions he or my mother ever deigned to show interest in our academics. It was laissez-faire at chez Shetty and how we enjoyed it. But then, that’s a whole different story. Anyway, Aditi’s radio is set to some station that blares out the most inane, current pop music played at eardrum assaulting levels. It gives me a headache in 5 minutes flat. So we compromise. It’s going to be the little dining table in the breakfast room. I turn on the iPod to play some sublime Hindustani classical music but she starts complaining right away. “Would you prefer me  to have a headache?” she asks with perfect pre-teen sarcasm. Off goes the iPod. Don’t want to disturb the little princess, do we? Oh no but we must have some music she says. Compromise #2. We switch it on to the classic rock playlist which we can both enjoy. We smile at each other as the Steve Miller Band rocks on. And there ends any semblance of mother-daughter understanding.

Everything that comes after that most resembles the shambles left behind by Alexander’s decimation of the Persians. In fifteen minutes we are at each other’s throats, One of us is screaming in frustration, the other is alternately weeping and being sarcastic. Every suggestion I make is met with a stony ‘that’s not how we do it in school”. Ok I’ll be the first to accept that I have no idea how it is done at her school. Still, there is a method to everything in science and math isn’t there? And me being such a History and Civics buff (and not such a dummy) surely I know the answers to most of these things. The thing I lack though is patience. I don’t envy schoolteachers who have to deal with about 25 of these creatures every hour of every school day.  I think of all those children whom I spared when I decided not to do a certification course in elementary school teaching. I’d probably come home and commit a horrible bodily injury crime on my family  if I had to deal with this all the time.

The upshot of trying to help Aditi with her schoolwork is that I turn into a screaming banshee and she into a sniveling, angry animal. It had to end didn’t it? We’ve decided to go our separate ways on this one. She’s muddling along all on her lonesome, trying to figure out the ‘awful’ 4th grade curriculum and I’ve decided I’d rather keep my sanity. So we give each other a smile as she sets off upstairs to her desk and her infernal radio while I stay downstairs serenely nodding along to Bhimsen Joshi, reading the book du jour.

Cheers y’all.

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Leaping into it

So I thought to myself this afternoon that I would like to try my hand at this. As those of you know me know, I always have a lot to say about all sorts of things. Annoying habit, I know. People I know have been asking me why I don’t blog. I guess that’s a nice way of saying “God you’re so opinionated”. I finally thought why not, perhaps some of my friends may even be interested. I need a hook to reel you guys in. I’m not sure what that is quite yet, but to paraphrase Mack Sennett (and rather badly at that) ‘if I write, they will read’.

As you can see I’ve taken my inspiration from Kilroy. As a young girl I was fascinated by the image of the little guy with the prominent nose peeking over the wall. No, no this is not a voyeur’s diary. I like the idea of leaving a little mark of your presence in the places you’ve been or the people you’ve met. In my life, I’ve been lucky to have been in so many places and seen so many amazing sights. But have I left my mark anywhere? I don’t really know. I have wandered through the earth and my life like a tourist. Not quite on the Osho scale of course. Who knows perhaps all this floating about will turn me into a new age Guru who sells sex and redemption to lost souls. Any takers?

The original Kilroy (J.J. Kilroy) worked at a shipyard and inspected rivets and boat parts. He is supposed to have marked those parts he had already inspected with this signature. It became a rage among Allied soldiers and airmen during World War II. The little cartoon wall with the big nosed guy began to appear all over Europe. He was called ‘Chad’ by English soldiers and ‘Foo’ by the Aussies. Hitler is said to have worried that Kilroy was an Allied spy. Apparently Stalin saw one of them at a restroom during the Potsdam Conference and wanted to know who Kilroy was. I bet you Stalin tried to see if he could ‘reach’ it from the urinal.

And therein lies my motto for this blog. Aim high and hope to reach it.

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