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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Mission Statement: Desis Against Climate Change

My name is Shravan Bhat and I’m an Indian journalist based in New York. I want to start a youth-led conversation around climate change in South Asia by meeting once a month in cities around the world to eat biryani. Yes, you read that right. Read it again if you like.

Why? Two main reasons. First: climate changes poses the single greatest threat to our region since Ricky Ponting’s 1999 Australia team. But seriously: it will make all our problems (poverty, gender-based violence, religious persecution, etc.) much worse. I believe climate change will hit the subcontinent harder than most other parts of the world because our societies are comprised mainly of low-income farmers who are therefore hugely vulnerable to bad monsoons, volatile temperatures, unseasonable drought and so on. Second, it poses perhaps the last remaining opportunity for real intra-regional cooperation, since it is the only issue that basically everyone agrees on. Global warming does not care if you’re Hindu or Muslim or if you speak Bengali or Urdu; it will strike across man-made borders indiscriminately. Let’s not sit in silos and bicker, let’s use this common challenge to build peace and reach solutions through compromise. To summarize in cricket terms: climate change is Australia and I’m proposing we put together a combined subcontinent team.

Don’t take my word for it, just look at this recent article from The World Bank. Thankfully unlike the Americans, we don’t have to argue the science behind the threats climate change poses to our part of the world. There’s plenty of reading material out there if you’re curious. How can we help people living in low-lying coastal areas in Bangladesh and the Maldives prepare for rising sea-levels? What can we learn from the work that’s already been done? The melting Himalayan glaciers have worsened floods in Pakistan — what are we going to do about it? My country is either ghosted or ravaged by monsoons ever year — do we have a plan? The environmental damage will impact us across national, provincial and linguistic borders. We are in this together. Are we just going to accept that our governments like to make enemies out of one another? Are we OK with the status-quo? I am not. 

I want to (try to) start a movement where instead of constantly fighting each other, South Asian countries work together to solve the challenges posed by the man-made climate emergencies we are already experiencing. If you’re from (or connected to) Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka and you’d like to be a part of this movement, please Like our page on Facebook.

Since our politicians care mainly about making money for themselves, we’ll have to do this from the grass-roots level. So how are we going to do this? That’s where biryani comes in. I am going to reach out to young people here in New York to meet once a month to just sit around a table, eat nice food together and talk about the impact climate change is having on our home countries and communities. I will share video clips or news reports about recent climate catastrophes on this page, which we can use as a discussion point to get the conversation going. I’d like you to try the same thing in your cities. Maybe we’ll fail and maybe we won’t be able to do a damn thing about the rising temperatures and their cataclysmic effects on our region — but then at least we’ll have made some new friends. Maybe I’ll fail and no one will show up to the meeting — but then at least I’ll get to eat biryani.
Why am I doing this? Is it because I don’t have any friends? (Kind of.) Do I need to get a girlfriend? (My god, yes.) Or is this just a desperate effort from a not-yet-cynical writer who wants to be able to look his kids in the eye when they ask him what he did about the preeminent existential threat to our species? You can decide for yourself.

I welcome your ideas for how we can start and sustain meaningful conversations around this issue. My hope is that everyone who comes to eat biryani, leaves thinking about how they can help those vulnerable populations who will be impacted by climate change. If you’re a lawyer, maybe you’ll think about getting into environmental litigation? If you’re a financier, maybe you’ll consider lending to sustainable infrastructure projects? If you work in the corporate world, maybe you’ll advise your company to view climate change as the single greatest wealth creation opportunity of the 21st century? If you work in the media, maybe you’ll convince your publication to dedicate regular coverage to how climate change effects ordinary people every day? If you work in I.T., can you help us design systems to monitor air pollution? If you are an accountant, please can you help me do my taxes? I am bad at maths.

Let’s give this a shot? Let’s give this our best shot. There is really nothing more important in the long term than climate change and nothing more rewarding in the short term than biryani. 



Saturday, February 23, 2019

Disappointing Women of New York: Part 2

Rain Check?

I always loved the idea of dating a lawyer.

She would have all the skills I don’t and teach me how to think more logically about the world. She would be able to read and focus and focus on reading. In my imagined life together, we would debate policy and pause the Bill Maher show to shout at him, his guests and/or each other. I can figure out who the bad guys are and she can put them in jail. She would actually finish the book I gave up on and make me feel silly for missing the ending. She calls me out on my conjecture and ratifies inklings I am too timid to act upon. It’s a nice dream to escape to, especially when you’re surrounded by 30-year olds who seem to have something similar already.

I matched with a lawyer on a dating app a few months ago. We had both lived in Israel, so I used that as an opening line. The conversation was bland. She did not really ask questions, which shouldn’t surprise me anymore but always does. I think she did corporate litigation in the financial sector—there was a dispute between an insurance company and its asset manager, if I remember correctly. Really riveting stuff. This is surely what people go to law school for. The long hours and the $300,000 in student debt and the charcoal-grey pant-suits are worth it for that triumphant moment when you help a multinational financial conglomerate save that extra dollar. Of course she didn’t have time to ask me questions about my boring life. She was important.

Dating apps—and the awkward texting that follows the 1-in-10 matches that actually illicit responses—make you question your communication style. Am I being too clingy? If I don’t ask questions, will she think I'm self-interested? It takes so much effort to get someone to actually show up for a date. Remember, they’re important people with busy, hectic lives and often two phones (with which to ignore you). I have realized now that how someone texts is a good reflection of what kind of communicator they are. Remember: people in America are scared of phone calls because calls too intimate and require you to be genuine and in the moment and this is terrifying for people who are used to having a carefully curated digital presence. If they’re a good communicator and they like texting, it’s a joy because you can take time to measure your words and send each other podcasts/articles. If they are a good communicator and don’t like texting, they’ll tell you that and I think that’s fine too. But most won’t. Most will not make the effort to accommodate, even slightly, someone who communicates differently.

After a week of Ms. Litigation being busy and me second-guessing my communication style at every turn, I decided to give her a yes or no choice. Monday night, take it or leave it. She said yes and I swear I even sensed a hint of enthusiasm. There was an emoji and I believe and exclamation mark—she may have felt a feeling. I realized that with these important, busy types you have to give them easy decisions so I suggested a place and a time and she said yes. We fixed on Monday 7:30 in Brooklyn, near both our apartments. I had a date.

I went straight home from work instead of going to the gym. I was surprised she could get off work so “early”. I told her about the bar that played live music and the epic Cuban sandwich nearby.

That exchange happened at 7. "No problem", I thought to myself genuinely. Then at 7:30 I got the following:

I’m not going to be one of those clingy guys, I kept saying to myself. “It’s totally fine. People have busy jobs and plans change – don’t take it personally. You’re always weird about people showing up late to stuff or canceling at the last minute, just learn to go with the flow. Be cool.”

I used my new-found time to vacuum the house, do the dishes and even passive aggressively clean up after my housemate. 8:30 comes around:

“9 is perfect” I lied, as if I hadn’t just sat around for 2 hours like a total loser. If only I was important and busy, I wouldn’t have these problems. Are all lawyers like this? This was hardly my first time embarking on damned intimacy with an attorney. The two I had briefly dated prior to this were exactly the same: cold, driven and constantly seeking laughter and love from me. They never asked questions. They shortened “very” to “v” and “morning” to “am” and I wonder what they did with all the time this saved them. I remember with one, I decided to do an experiment and curb my enthusiasm for just one day. I didn’t text her, let alone share memes or articles or music. I suspended my personality one evening and waited. I had only seen her 3-4 times but we had had good dates. Finally at 4pm the next day I get a text that simply exclaims“Shravan!”. I think she expected me to have sent her a joke or asked her about her boring client in D.C. It was nice to feel “wanted” I guess – it would have been nicer if she’d asked a question or shared a thought. But she was working on the Acela back from D.C. and I guess I was her monkey.

The lawyers I have dated have largely been the corporate types, not the non-profit warriors of grad-school folklore, so I’m sure I’m being unfair. Besides, do people’s personalities become a reflection of their jobs? I would argue, in many professions: yes. I think in highly specialized professions, you make choices to get to certain positions and those choices are largely dictated by how you think. I find journalists generally to straddle the continuum between skepticism and cynicism. Artists are hot, cool and weird—hot because they’re cool and cool because they’re weird. Engineers are logical, inquisitive and charmingly void of style. Those in medicine, I find, are able better than anyone else to compartmentalize—to separate their lives at home from the pain they see in the hospital, even if this means ignoring the pain they see in the world. Lawyers, as we’ve discussed, are the fucking worst.

9pm rolls around.

Put yourself in her shoes: She has been at the office all day answering emails and trying to please her boss as best she can. She has been working and traveling non-stop. All those law school tomes and that draining legalese. It’s a stressful job. Any client service job, I now realize—especially investment banking, law and consulting—is a 24/7, 355-day/year job. You get 10 days paid leave where you craft a joyful Out-of-Office mailer and go to Thailand to take elephant selfies. These firms charge their clients so much that their customers feel entitled to squeezing every last drop of effort from the team sent to solve their problem. I have so many friends in this city who earn 3x what I do and they work weekends and holidays. Would I trade with them? They are people who will always put their job first. Their job comes before friends and certainly before 1st dates with over-eager reporters. 

It was now 10. I was more bored then tired. But I would not be the clingy, lame, rigid guy that gets annoyed when someone is held up at work. Work is so important – especially corporate litigation. I psyched myself up: I would put aside any sense of entitlement to her time (or my own time) and reframe this as a great chance to meet a smart, hard-working person who at least on some level, at some point, wanted to meet me too. I put on my shoes and texted her just to make sure this was still happening.

I can’t tell you how many times I drafted and redrafted a response to her “I’m sorry”. I thought about being honest and telling her what a waste of time this had been; I thought about being overly nice and telling her it’s totally fine. I can’t believe people are like this – that they’ve been raised be this inconsiderate. Even the “Raincheck?” came about 20 mins later. An afterthought to make her feel better. Obviously, she never responded to my final proposal. Important people will always expect you to make the first move, to keep the conversation flowing. Once you show a propensity for endeavor, a desire to be liked and a space in your life carved out for them, you’ve lost the battle. They take you for granted because they think they are better than you. Their time is more valuable and the fact that you’re able to give yours away means its probably not worth very much.

The lesson from this episode is obviously not “don’t take lawyers”. That much should be obvious to all of you anyway. The lesson is that ascribing hope to strangers is foolish and we should not expect the best from those who aren’t invested in our lives. This is my flaw. I am a romantic and an optimist and I spend too much time focusing on the potential upside. How does one temper hope and is that a good thing in the long term? Never mind forfeiting hope in strangers’ best: do we want to get to a stage where we’re always expecting the worst? This is a sad pulpit from which to view the world, I think. “No one is looking out for me, so I won’t look out for anyone else” is a Jenga-tower of an emotional irrationality—a scowling face you wear as you race to the bottom.


Every time I think back to the impish emptiness of her final offer, I laugh. And I wonder if somewhere there is sat a woman blogging away furiously about the pitfalls of dating journalists or Indians or Arsenal fans or men in general. I hope she feels better when she’s done writing this. I hope she’s a lawyer.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Disappointing Women of New York: Part 1

The Mirage

It was the New York dinner party of beautiful 30 year olds that you see in movies and on TV. In a 3rd floor apartment in Greenwich Village, everyone was kind, curious, successful. You know the party you’re picturing in your head? It’s that. Apologetic Ivy-League lawyers and consultants telling you how it’s a GREAT time to visit Costa Rica. It was utterly infuriating. How was everyone so happy? Why was no one else dying inside? I didn’t feel like I belonged. I still don’t. 

It was too much, so I sat down in the corner to brood. These were my friends and I loved them deeply but I wanted to wallow. And then this woman Valerie came and sat next to me and we talked for one hour. 

Her eyes would get really small when laughter spread across her face—laughter that was frequent and genuine. She was brilliant. Undergrad at Harvard and law school at Yale - though it could have been the other way around without making any real difference. She looked at you with encouragement as you spoke, like how someone watches their youngest sibling get on the stage at graduation, listening to you with bright blue eyes. It goes without saying, she was beautiful, because everyone here was beautiful. 

The hosts were a gracious couple, bubbling with anecdotes but pausing to hear yours just as readily. They waltzed from guest to guest, taking turns serving snacks and refilling glasses: imagine a pair of synchronised swimmers but in even better shape. Where are the normal people? This party had exquisite home-made pizza. Where are the people eating pizza out of pizza boxes, where the excess oil has created an Exxon Valdez spill in the corner? 

I had known of Valerie and spoken to her briefly before at some other dinner party. I thought: man, whoever gets to hang out with her is a lucky guy. I was projecting, of course. She may have been a total psycho. But she wasn’t, as I was finding out. She was even lovelier, more tenacious and eager to learn than I could have imagined. I couldn’t believe she cared about my rant on why healthcare and education are never election issues. Even I have gotten bored of that rant.

I found myself falling for her when we began talking about the things we despised. The fickle nature of the stock markets, cliched pet-peeves, Skrillex, lawyers and American faux-politeness. 

I dropped a reference to how much I loved one of the many movies no one else had time to see and she lit up. I think it was “Embrace of the Serpent”. She had seen it too. She loved going to the movies too. There are a few of us who actually go to the cinema to watch films and stay for the credits and stand in line to buy overpriced popcorn with all the old people because we like the experience of going to the movies. She asked for my number and told me she was in a movie club she wanted to invite me to. 

Was this real life? My mind couldn’t process this. I had never been in this situation before. You know when things feel too perfect and you check your pockets to make sure you have your keys and you do have them - and you’re just having a great day? What the hell was happening. We exchanged numbers. While half my brain was engaged in the conversation, the other half was playing a side-game, imaging a life together and a future of indie cinema and squinty-eyed laughter. The cynic was too busy being utterly infatuated. 

We were just sitting there, finishing each other sentences. I felt a sense of belonging among those talented, shiny Senior Associates (some were junior V.P.s, I’m sure). 

“You should definitely come along to our next film club meet,” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder. And then it came. “Wait, actually you should meet Eugene, I feel like you guys would totally get along.”

Oh no. No Eugene. Please be the gay best friend. Please Eugene, I need this. 

But Eugene was her boyfriend or fiance or husband or something. Strapping, gentle and totally confident in Valerie’s regard for him. He strolled over and shook my hand with a smile. They kissed the kiss of a couple in love and I made an excuse about having to go to the bathroom before Eugene could ask the thoughtful question he was about to ask. 

I have thought about that conversation a lot. Have I ever been someone’s Valerie or God-forbid, someone’s Eugene? Until I fix my own insecurities, I’m sure I will project unfairly onto suspecting strangers whose only crime has been to have been human. Until then, I fear I will always wait for a Eugene-shaped Exxon Valdez to come out of nowhere and send me back to my one-seat movie theatre. 

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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Everything was Soft

She went to take a shower right after I came out. It was 8:16 am. It was a bright Spring morning but cold enough that you felt the dry air pinch you in those desperate seconds between the warmth of the duvet and the embrace of the water.

She didn't say anything as she passed me on her way out of my room. She just smiled and closed the bathroom door quietly.  

She had made the bed. Her clothes were neatly laid out on it. I closed the door to my room and put my office clothes on the bed next to hers. And couldn't help but I look at her clothes. I'll never forget how different they were, those two sets of clothes lying there without bodies to fill them.

All her clothes had gentle curves. Mine were all straight lines. Her shirt was smaller than my shirt. Her jeans were bluer than my jeans. All her clothes were soft, all my clothes were taut. Everything was soft.  

My belt was heavy with a thick metal buckle. Her's was braided, woven. 

My shoes were size 10. Her shoes were zip-ups. 

My socks were black. Her's were gentle pink with sky-blue polka dots.

We had used the same soap but she still smelled better than me when she walked into my room, draped in a damp towel.

I wore cologne and she wore laughter. 

"Can you, like, wait outside please?" she said. "I need to change."

The silence of an empty kitchen reminded me what a gift those mornings were. Mornings spent together.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Turtle Pond McDonald’s

When we were living in Singapore, my parents would take us to McDonald’s once every month as a big treat. This is probably weird for most of you who grew up in the developed world. I understand. It’s pretty weird for me, thinking back on it now, but I think about those trips in a slightly wider context. Let me explain.

We moved from Bombay to Singapore in the summer of 1995, when I was four, my sister was one, my dad was 33 and my mum was 28. It was our first move abroad, our first plunge into the expat life of milk and honey.

We lived in a nice flat in a decent condominium called Spanish Village, which was a nice mix of professional Singaporeans and expats. It wasn’t as boojie as the flat and apartment complex we later lived in in Hong Kong – at least that’s not how I remember it. Our car was a Honda Civic. Most evenings were spent by the big shared pool in the middle of the all the apartment blocks.

Once a month, my parents would pick us up and take us to McDonalds. The McDonalds at Queensway had a koi pond and lush greenery around it. It was unique. Though it was never said explicitly, it became ingrained in our minds that fast food was to be a rare treat. We never associated it with being cheap and readily available. It was just something that was done once a month. McDonalds meant a morning out at the turtle pond. My dad would talk up the “big breakfast” like I now describe a filet mignon. My mum loved the hash browns. McDonalds and the turtles that swam below were for savoring.

I don’t know to what extent my sister would agree, but after that it never occurred to us that cheap, unhealthy fast food could be had on a daily basis. It never occurred to us that you could go to McDonalds more than once a month, let alone once a week. It’s not like we didn’t have the money. Despite being a rotund little tyke who loved his food, I grew, because of my parents, away from the clutches of burger-craving. It was a trap I could easily have fallen into when I had more autonomy to buy my own food later in life. My parents had subtly, profoundly influenced my thinking. It was a masterstroke on their part.

How did they know?

How did they know that that strategy of setting up fast food as a monthly treat would save me from the fast food trap? Did they know? Did they sit together and plan it? Did it just fall into place? Were there other such maneuvers that we weren’t privy to, that have made us the young adults we are today? Did they just wing it? Will I just wing it?

I think about these questions as I see my own friends begin their journeys into marriage and parenthood. There’s nothing I love more than seeing two young people take a chance on each other as they jump into the unknown. There’s nothing I find more exciting. The chance to have someone there who will take the plunge into koi-pond Happy Meals with you. Is there a manual for how to do these things?

Zaheer the vacuum guy

I remember one day, when I was about nine and we were living in London, I was talking to my mom about cricket. I had just discovered cricket and I couldn’t get enough. I would practice in our back garden with a tennis ball. I broke windows. Then, like now, I never shut the hell up. It was glorious infatuation.

One of our family-friends gave me a video-cassette of the 1996 Pakistan tour of England. Pakistan’s two legendary fast bowlers, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, were at the peak of their powers. I loved that Pakistan team and I must have been yammering on to her about it as she was reading something in bed. I remember this clearly. Major kudos to my mom, who tried to engage me in some cricket conversation. Major, major kudos to my mom, who somehow remembered Zaheer Abbas, the great Pakistani batsman and started telling me about him.

He was before my time and I didn’t know who he was. “Who is he, the vacuum guy?” I asked.

Some context: I had recently watched Home Alone, where the hotel’s concierge says to Macaulay Culkin, “You know, Herbert Hoover once stayed here on this floor.”

Culkin replies, “The vacuum guy?”

“No, the President,” the concierge says.

After my mom told me about Zaheer Abbas, I said to her, “Who is he, the vacuum guy?”

I was just repeating a cool line I had seen on TV, as kids do. I didn’t know what it meant, it just sounded cool. But she perked up immediately and asked me what I meant by that. I was a bit taken aback. She asked me again. I explained the reference and she explained again who Abbas was.

Maybe she thought that I had associated a Muslim name with someone who works in a “less respectable” job? I think she was weary of me having picked up some sort of anti-Pakistan/anti-Muslim sentiment and wanted immediately to nip it in the bud. I remember this so clearly. I already loved the Pakistan team but she wanted to make sure there was no sign of disrespect shown to a guy named “Zaheer Abbas”.

I’m telling you this because I find these largely unseen, often forgotten interactions between parents and children fascinating. I think it is these little cut-away moments that forge character. It is those potentially malignant wisps of child-like thought that can turn into prejudice and morph from subconscious throwaways to acted-upon behavior. I wonder if my parents had a talk among themselves to sharply correct any such indiscretion. Or did they just wing it?

Are you supposed to check in with your partner and figure out how you’ll respond? Do you de-brief after an event and pick up the pieces?

How did they know?

Did someone tell them? Did they read a book? Did they learn it from their parents?

How did they know?

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Visa

7am: Calming Nani

Nani has been awake for hours. She hasn’t slept all night, tossing in slow motion, in nervous anticipation of the big day. She’s like this for every big day. She can feel when someone in the house is stressed and takes it on as if it’s her own.

Tests are stressful, after all. My 10th grade exams, my SATs, my GREs, were all tests my family faced together. In an Indian family, life is a team sport whether you like it or not. Nani has been awake in one way or another since 1941, making people their favourite breakfast on big test days to calm them down.

Today is US visa interview day – the most important test of them all – and I am calming her. No, I do not need to shave, Nani. My beard is not that long. Yes, I have got everything I need. No, you do not need to iron my shirt. Yes, I WILL have that extra cheese dosa.

I quadruple-check that I’ve got all my papers: my cover letter, my parent’s bank statements, my income tax returns, my university acceptance letter, copies of my most recently published work and every other piece of bureaucratic application material that the land of freedom demands.

You’re not allowed to take any electronics into the US embassy so I order an Uber upstairs and leave my phone behind when I head downstairs to meet the driver. That’s it. Kisses goodbye from mum, dad, Nani and every courier delivery guy and domestic-help wonder-lady that’s currently scrambling around our little Mumbai flat. All of a sudden, after taking the Indian family for granted, you’re all on your own in a stranger’s car. The big day has come and it’s on you now. Adulthood sneaks up on you like that, in the lonely silence of an Uber ride to America.

8:15am: The Great Leveler

The line outside the US Embassy is one of the great equalizers of urban India. There are the affluent 20-somethings in sunglasses and flip-flops, slouching against the wall as they apply for the privilege to summer in Manhattan. There are the earnest engineering students, with glasses on their faces and flowers in their hair, ready to join the post-graduate fellowship program at Georgia Tech that they’ve worked diligently for. There are sprawling families, including of course a screaming baby and a Nani, proudly wearing a sari and white Nike sneakers. There are portly, balding, 30-year old IT workers, hoping for a business visa so they can help a Silicon Valley with their cloud-based architecture (or something?) – their struggle has been no less vigorous than anyone else's.

They were probably the smartest kid in their school, the hardest worker in their college and now a small fish in a faceless global tech outsourcing firm, earning the most anyone in their family has. A posting to America is the icing on a cake that’s been baking since they went to 6am math tuition and 6pm English tuition every day from 8th grade onward. Behind every placid face and every tech-park ID card that hangs from tired shoulders, is a story of academic pursuit – of forgone college sports and undanced high school proms.

The line outside the US embassy is a leveler not because everyone has to stand shoulder to shoulder. You get that on the local train and at the cricket stadium. It is a leveler because everyone is nervous. I’ve done this song and dance at so many embassies around the world and I’m still scared every time. Because in the eyes of the West you are not rich or poor or dark or fair – you are simply Indian. A person from the outside trying to get in.

Every Indian person in the US probably has a visa story. Queuing up in line in the 80s, back when things were different, back when India was a socialist quagmire that had to be escaped. India has changed, but that embassy queue hasn’t.

Only people with 8:30am appointments – the first of the day – are initially allowed to queue. There is no such thing as a formal appointment time at the US embassy since getting from the outside of the building to the glass interview window of destiny takes about 3 hours – and you’re only allowed to queue up 15 minutes in advance. The experienced among us calm the others in the line. 

"Don’t worry – you haven’t missed your appointment," we tell them like jaded veterans consoling excitable infantrymen.

It is hot even at 9am and the handkerchiefs are out from the back-pockets of both those in line and the hundreds of onlookers. It’s quite a scene. Drivers of the rich look on in bemusement as their employers have to stand in the sun while they rest in the shade. Nervous fathers and their nervous moustaches pace up and down across the street from the stately building near their daughters, who confidently clutch their visa folders in the shadow of the barbed-wire fence.

Make no mistake, the sweaty queue outside the embassy is designed to make you feel small. It doesn't matter if you have lived a cushy life of privilege, like me, or a difficult one. You are paraded single-file before security forces with outrageously vintage rifles.

As you reach the front of the queue and an embassy employee asks you to take out your DS-160 and your appointment confirmation letter, you suddenly remember why you’re there. You enter the building and you enter America.

10:30am: Window to Another World

After another hour of queuing in the embassy’s outdoor courtyard, making sure the photocopy of your mother’s dental records is clear just in case they ask for it, you get to the inner sanctum. You scan your fingerprints and reach the air-conditioning once again, the room where you can see and hear visa interviews taking place just feet away.

As you inch closer to the windows, you stop rehearsing your spiel and instinctively start listening to the interviews roaring away through tense plexiglass. Some interviews are over in a matter of seconds. BANG. Rejected. White people telling brown people they’re not welcome – the optics are not good. You can see people who have tried really hard, get rejected in real time. Where else do you see that these days? My heart starts beating faster. For every successful application, there is a rejection at the next window. Lives are changed in this room and I can’t stress this enough. It is terrifying.

At window 14, a young woman is applying for an F-1 student visa. I think it’s because she has a new passport but I couldn’t hear her clearly. You can pretty much only hear the consular officers because their voices are projected from microphones. The consular officer behind the glass is not in a good mood. She’s the kind of lady Nani prayed you don’t get.

“Why did you think you had to give me both passports?” the officer said sarcastically. The young woman cowered and spluttered as I would have done. I could feel the silent indignation in every person stood in line watching.

“Why would you think I need this,” the officer barked again, holding up the woman’s old passport. The young lady mumbled something which seemed to tranquillize the officer for a moment.

“Wait, where’s your I-20?” asked the officer again, a scowl slowly appearing on her freckled face. She examined the flimsy 3-page document the kurti-clad woman handed her.

“I think you’re in violation of your I-20,” spat the officer. The young lady now pleaded her case. It was hopeless. “You have been denied a visa at this time. Please look carefully at this document for further instructions. Have a nice day,” muttered the officer nonchalantly as she printed out a generic rejection letter and slipped it to the young woman through the gap under the glass.

Maybe the young woman was in violation of her I-20. Maybe the consular officer had had a terrible day. It was scant consolation to us, shuddering in the line.

“Next in line to Window 14,” said an Indian embassy employee, indifferent to the drama she must witness every day.

Behind another window, a stately, emotionless American man questioned an equally stately Indian man about the temporary business visa he was applying for. The confidence of the Indian business owner assured everyone else in line. He answered every question with technical knowledge.

“So, your business makes hydraulic pistons?” probed the officer, “Why do you need to go to Tucson to meet American customers? Why can’t you just call them?”

“Sir, we manufacture highly specialized automotive components for use in heavy industrial vehicles,” said the 50-year old man, suddenly channeling his inner salesman from 20 years ago, “We operate in the B2B space and this conference in Arizona is the largest meeting of suppliers and procurers of the year. We have bought a stall and I have to oversee it.”

He was approved. He looked around as if to say, "Are you not entertained?"

All of us in line, craning our necks to hear the exchange, high-fived each other (spiritually).

There are so many stories I could tell you. Stories of quiet triumph and loud failure. Half the officers need “Goo-ja-raati” translators to help explain why a family’s outward flight is to D.C. while their return flight is from Toronto. You see confident young men with slick answers, turned away inexplicably. You see single, young, lower-middle class women being rejected because the officer thinks her American holiday is just a ruse to meet a young man and completed her arranged marriage. Maybe it is?

I guess for most people in the developed world, getting a visa for another country is a rarity and when it's required, a done-deal - an irritating formality. For those of us from the developing world, even the lucky few like me who have had the extraordinary privilege of growing up in the first world, the visa interview is the rich world sizing you up. Flights have been booked, plans – years in the making – have been laid, and here you stand in front of St Peter at the pearly gates.

The plexiglass is power. On the other side are humans who have been trained to act like robots, to process visa applications like emotionless machines. Sometimes their humanity shows through and I feel for them.

“Sir, you need to show me that you have the means to fund your stay for 3 months! Do you have any bank statements with you? Do you have a letter of sponsorship? I’m really sorry but I can’t help you at this time.”

I feel sorry for the consular staff sometimes. What must they think, doing such a thankless job? What must they feel, being posted to the acrid air of Mumbai? This was probably not what they signed up for when they took their first steps to being a diplomat. Lots of future Madeline Albright’s will have probably cut their teeth on those plexiglass windows, trying to help promising would-be immigrants realize their American dream. Nani prayed I get one such officer.

11:13am: Your Time Has Come

Suddenly, the moment has arrived. I don’t want to be dramatic here, but I will.

The walk towards the window takes a life-time. I can feel my stammer rearing its head. It so often strikes at the worst moments – when there is no room for weakness. All the long nights studying for my GRE, all the long days writing job applications, all the essays I wrote at university and the articles I wrote at the office, every achievement I had every put any effort into was for this. They would be null and void if my work visa application was rejected. We had a plan, since high school, that I would one day live and work outside India just like my parents had done. I told you that life in an Indian family is a team sport and we had come a long away. This was the final hurdle.

Let’s be clear: I was not applying for an immigrant visa. I don’t want to settle in America. My company was sponsoring me for a 5-year work visa. If I was rejected, I would probably leave my job and make a life for myself in India. But I wanted to live in New York for a few years. I had worked very hard for this. This was it.

My St Peter was a kind-eyed, red-headed 30-something man who had made an attempt at a goatee. I had my speech prepared but his first question threw me.

“How did you lose your old passport?” There was emotion in his voice.

“Oh, FedEx lost my old passport in the mail, when they couriered to the wrong apartment. I’m sure as hell using UPS next time,” I said, trying to use humour to hide my insecurities as I’ve always done.

No real reaction from him.

“So, you’re already working on your F-1 visa?”

“Yes, I’m currently on my OPT,” I said before spilling my prepared speech with minimal stammering – Thank God.

“How long do you plan to stay in the US?” This is a purposely tricky question: they know you want to stay in America as long as possible but if you sound too enthusiastic – like you want to stay permanently – it’s an instant and unwavering rejection. For some reason, I decided to make a “joke”.

“I’ll stay until my company realizes I’m an idiot and fires me!”

Miraculously, he laughed at my horrendous attempt at inappropriate humour. I added quickly, “No but seriously, we’ve applied for a 5-year visa, I think? So, it won’t be longer than that.”

Now there was a lot thinking behind this response. I said “we” to highlight my company wanted me there. I said “I think?” to make it seem like this was a formality that I wasn’t too bothered about. Of course I knew we had applied for a 5-year visa. Do you know how many months have been spent agonizing over this damn visa?

“Hmm. And what’s your highest level of education?”

Now, I am usually a bit embarrassed to tell people that I went to Yale. Some people will laugh, others will scoff. “You went to Yale? Well la-dee-da. You think you’re so smart?” If you went to a ‘good’ university, this comes with the territory. But today, I decided to own it. I went to Yale so I could get a good job that would give me a chance to live and work internationally. I stood up straight and looked him in the eye and decided that pride be damned.

“I have a Masters in Global Affairs from Yale University, focusing on renewable energy finance.”

“Wow, that’s a good school,” he said as he looked back at his computer, “OK, your application has been approved. You can go. Thank you and have a nice day.”

That was it. 

All that build up and it was over in 90 seconds – like the first time you have sex.

“Um, don’t you want to see my application materials?” I asked, half-pulling my pile of documents out of my folder.

“Nope, you’re good.”

He didn’t look at a single piece of paper. Even for my student visa appointments, which were also usually a minute long, they had at least demanded to see a piece of paper. This was ivy-league privilege at its starkest. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis had anyone been more grateful for an anti-climax.

I walked outside the embassy in euphoric disbelief. There was no one to celebrate with except the bemused taxi driver who took me home.

“Mila kya?” he asked me.

“Haan yaar, mil gaya! Mil gaya!” I said as I high-fived him. This was an actual high-five, not a spiritual one. I wanted to hug him and jump with him. He wanted me to give him American money because it was supposedly his daughter’s birthday. I explained I didn’t have any American money and I was too happy to be annoyed by his nonsense.

I just smiled to myself in the taxi home as he tried to get American money out of me. I would have given him a $100 bill if I had one.

A visa is a big deal and it was done. A visa is a constraint you usually don’t have control over – you either get one or you don’t. It’s not like a job where if you get rejected, you can apply for another. With a visa you usually get one shot. Now it was done. It was finally over.

There’s nothing I hate more than uncertainty and not having control of things in my own hands. This visa issue had been hanging over my head ever since I got to grad school. Who would sponsor me? Would the visa be granted? Would everything go to plan?

There is no way to call your family when you’re done so you just sit quietly in a taxi and braise in silent joy. I rang the doorbell and returned home to hugs and tears. My relatives in Delhi called us to hear about the news. Life is a team sport, remember?

I went the next day to collect my passport. There were so many of them piled up behind the window. Mine was just another life-story in that leaning tower of visas.

Maybe I had made this visa thing a bigger deal than it was? Maybe my family had fed off that?

Nope. A work-visa is a big deal. My family has already been blessed with prosperity. But this visa has meant I’ve become financially independent for the first time in my life. So many things have had to fall into place. So many months of job rejections and uncertainty. The final hurdle had been crossed. “The plan” has come together.

Beyond the finish-line is the pristine unknown. For an Indian family, it is the sweetest victory.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

I saw a Father

I saw a father last summer. I saw him park a modest car on Hillhouse Avenue as his family peered wide-eyed out the windows. By the way he adjusted the mirrors and looked down at the gear-stick, it wasn't his car. It was a sunny, still day and regal Hillhouse lay there, soaking it all in like a lion stretching in the afternoon.

His son shot out of the passenger door towards Undergraduate Admissions with a piece of paper clutched in his hand. The boy must not have been 18. His wife tore the airport baggage tag from her handbag, clasped her young daughter’s hand and called to him to wait. The boy turned around and shrugged his slender shoulders in disappointment. I think they were speaking Spanish, but it was melodic enough to be Portuguese. I couldn’t tell from the other side of the street. They were not American or European. They were not dressed that way. Father put money in the parking meter and walked back to the car. His wife looked at him. His son looked to him. His daughter looked past him, at the majesty of the oak trees behind him. He nodded, ushering them on ahead. He put the parking slip behind the windshield of the rental, closed the door, turned around to face Hillhouse and sighed heavily.

I’ll never forget that sigh. It was not weariness or weight. He was his son’s excitement. He was his wife’s curiosity. He was his daughters stoic silence. This was no patriarchal nadir, no crisis of masculinity. This was a father feeling his pride, perhaps for the first time in a long time. He closed his eyes for a second and breathed deeply again. I think he was thinking about all those long nights, all the forms and the doubt. All the tax forms. All those times his son had looked to him for direction. Who did he look to? How was he supposed to know what to do? Could they afford the extra classes? Had he made the right decisions? Yes. He enjoyed his moment alone on the pavement, free from burden and from aspiration – soaring over some imagined chasm. He looked left and right and his shoulders finally settled and his chest swelled out. The man looked down at his watch like he belonged in that moment.

When his son got in, he got in. His whole family got in. Maybe his whole country got in. It seemed like that to me. There was no entitlement. This was new to him. Maybe he had been responsible. Maybe things were going the way he dreamed.

It felt like he was whispering to himself. “OK. OK. I’m here. We’re here. OK? OK.”

I thought I saw a smile. But then he turned back towards the building and strode purposefully toward it. He wouldn’t allow himself the shame of celebration. There was much work to be done and he was responsible for it all.