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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ze Embassy

London is many things. London is Belgrave Square


Is it cheating to say that the embassy buildings looked, er, stately? In the mid-morning mist, flags flexing their damp sinews, they certainly did.

Belgrave Square was so different to the one that whizzed past me yesterday. Today, the quiet park that lay in the midst of various countries’ UK embassies and high commissions was draped in the cool curtain of imminent English drizzle. Yesterday, at this very time, I did not stroll through the cobbled streets and past the Bentley’s carrying bored old men. Yesterday at this time, I sprinted from Hyde Park Corner bus stop F, across roads, through underpasses and in between angry cabs, holding my falling jeans in my left hand and a crumpled appointment letter in my right.

I was hopelessly late for my visa appointment at the Germany embassy. The tube strike had totally thrown my google-mapped plan into the Thames. The double-decker bus did its uncanny best to reach every traffic signal just before it turned red or rumble up to a zebra crossing just as a Spanish tour group moseyed on across. My appointment window was between 9 and 9:30. It was 9:15 by the time I reached Marble Arch. I’d left the quiet roads of Chiswick over and hour and a half ago. The bus stank of commuters’ frustration.

Marble Arch at last. I asked the universe to take pity on my today and tore down the road to the next bus stop. Making one’s way through a school of angry but more importantly, late, London commuters isn’t easy. I think most people wanted to strike the tube workers right back. I really didn’t care for anyone else’s fortunes that morning. I saw the number 148 out the corner of my eye and raced it to the bus stop, jostling people out of my way. My cause was more important; they had to take one for the team.

Miraculously, the bus reached Hyde Park Corner station at 9:19am. 4 minutes, just like had said. Heart pounding, head spinning, jeans almost past the point of no return, I bound uncoordinated down a road that looked something like the in the colour print out flapping around in my hand. I started to see big, square, white buildings with flags and pillars. This was embassy country. I asked an elderly guy who looked like he worked in the area. I expected a crisp response. What I got only exacerbated the situation: out of his mouth rolled slow, unrelenting Cockney. I cannot stress on just how slowly he talked, explaining the route to me like I was an idiot. “Just turn raw-ight he-a and wowk dehwn this way,” he twanged, “You’ll see the flehg and even though the road veers left, daaan follow it, you jesh keep going dehwn...” I started running before he finished.

9:23am, you glorious, glorious speck in space-time. I arrived at the embassy panting uncontrollably, inconsolably. I was always slow runner but I convinced myself I made up for it with “stamina”. Yeah right. The German embassy was comically German. It wasn’t an imperial looking English building like the others. Instead of a cream colour town-house like the others, it was a rather boxy, ugly, modern grey structure with big black windows. The bouncer at the entry to the visa section and a pretty girl by his side were the welcome party. They both smiled as they saw me run towards them, thrusting my watch and my appointment letter in their faces.

“Calm down,” zey said, “Take a deep breath, you’re OK”

“Tube… strike,” I panted, needing about five exhalations between the two individual grunts.

“Ja, but I’m afraid if I used zat excuse I’d be fired,” chuckled the hefty German man, as he ushered me through the metal detector.

“Just take a deep breath, calm down, turn off your mobile phone and take a token from my colleague inside,” said the blond girl, smiling reassuringly.

Thank you, universe. Thank you for 9:23am.

The Afghanis

As I settled into my seat, fighting off the last of the panting and wiping the sweat from my brow, I saw three fairly normal people enter the chamber. There were airport style seats and this South Asian family took their place next to me – on either side of me, in fact. I’d come to realise at a later time that this was strategically done.

The father was well dressed. He sported a very smart navy blue suit jacket above and off-white shirt. His greying moustache gave away his age. He certainly looked like someone who had been through this all before. His wife was dressed in a kurta, and looked considerably more weary – timid, even. While her husband had his poker face on, hers conveyed a 7-3 off-suit. She smiled a broken smile, as we exchanged glances. They were sat to my right, while their twenty-something, turban-clad son plonked down on the chair to my left and unceremoniously thrust a beaten-up looking application form in my face.

“What this?” he asked nonchalantly. He was pointing to question number 7 on an application form for a German residents permit. I told him it was asking if the person had ever been to Germany before and if so, when. I spoke in English at first, but after seeing the stress lines appear on his forehead, tentatively changed to Hindi. My Hindi is absolutely awful. I can just about hold my own in a swearing match and rattle off a shopping list to my driver back home, but that’s about it. But on we trudged, on through the dense marshes of that residents permit application.

After testing me out on question 7, he asked what number my token was. I told him I was number 34 and him and his parents’ heads all whipped up to the electronic screen, at the big red number 24. Instantly, somehow in unison, the three of the, using different words and phrases, asked me to help them with their application. I had nothing else to do, so why not. This guy was never going to be able to wade through the mangroves of simple English instructions without my help. He had spelt “retired”, ‘r-e-t-e-r’. He was filling out application for his parents. His father, despite looking as stately as the buildings in the area, did not speak a word of English. It was only when we got to a usually mundane question, number 14, that I was truly intrigued by them and their situation. The question asked whether they could go back to their home country. This is usually a straightforward “yes” so I was actually tempted to tell him to simply tick the yes box like I’d done for some of the other ones and move on. But for some reason I asked him which country they were from.

“India? Pakistan?”


His answer came as a shock to me. They weren’t Muslim. Here were actual Afghani citizens. I asked him whether they were allowed to return. He said, “No”. I thought he misunderstood me, so I rephrased in Hindi.

“If you want to go back to Afghanistan, can you?”


Stories blossomed in my head. All the prejudices I had about them from the minute I saw the, disappeared, replaced by new fantastic tales of exile and escaping the Taliban. But I dare not ask. We clambered through the remaining 5-6 questions he didn’t understand. But all the while my mind raced, conjuring up new stories for the family. What were a Sikh family doing in Afghanistan? What did they want in Germany? The mother had been to Germany three years ago – why did the father not go? Who was waiting for them in Germany? Were they seeking asylum? Why couldn’t they return to Afghanistan? What had they done? What had been done to them? Why couldn’t their son speak English and why wasn’t he going with them?

My number flashed across the screen. I patted him on the shoulder and he thanked me. His parents shook their heads in acknowledgement and gratitude as I walked towards the visa desk, like only those of Indian origin can.

“Afghanistan”, I dreamt to myself, “Throw in a girl and subtly address immigration and you’ve got yourself Cannes.”

Indian Jones

I presented my documents to the lady behind the glass. She checked with her supervisor. Everything was fine. This was not how it was supposed to be. I could collect my visa tomorrow. I got a green token and was almost home and dry.

The Indian fear, respect and reverence of visas and passports, as I discovered, was a self-fulfilling prophecy. We expect the process to be tough. We expect the proverbial booby-trapped tunnel that Indiana Jones faces at the start of the movie, where he has to swap the holy golden three-month multiple entry Sheghen statue with the bag of sand and then run down past flying arrows and giant bureaucratic boulders. We expect a struggle so we plan for it and we get it. But in the west, amongst ze civilised, it does not work this way. There is a human being on the other side of the glass. There is a person who you can talk to and reason with and explain yourself to and most crucially, they want to see you get to where you want. It takes us by shock. They can smile and this takes us by shock. My visa was ready within 24 hours. Unthinkable, impossible, mind-boggling! I collected it this morning and staggered out of the embassy, away past the Rolls-Royces, totally overwhelmed by how true the ‘efficient German’ cliché was.

I remember my coming of age in India – my first bribe. It was a Rs 200 gift to the security guard at the passport office in Bangalore for getting me the right form. The pink form instead of the orange form. I put the cash into the guard’s hand as instructed by him. It was a joke. I had to apply for a new passport because I had turned 18 and was accompanied by an uninterested man from the travel agency. Lucky for me they were petrified of my mum. So this tall, bored looking guy walked inside the high-ceilinged building with me and directed me to the right counter. He sat me down and told me not to move. I saw him approach a security guard with a rifle in a brown uniform. They went inside the bathroom and came out five minutes later. The security guard stood right back where he was, pre-shady-exchange. I was advised by the now interested travel agency rep that when the guard signalled, the passport officer’s chamber would open up and I should stand at next to the guard so I was first in line and avoided the queue. I did as I was told. I don’t know how much the guy paid the cop because he never told me. He just asked if everything was in order once I emerged and pushed off.

So you know what I was expecting. And here I was, standing next to a fragrant green park in the mid-morning drizzle. I felt an emptiness, looking at the Sheghen visa. The emptiness where I’d carefully stored all my stress and inevitable anguish at failure was cold and spread throughout my body and psyche like a lost bird.

I filled the space with a kebab and thought about Cannes as I looked out across Hyde Park. No need for the whip today, Indi.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chanting by the Banyan Tree

As a kid, I used to be scooped onto an inter-state bus by my sprightly granddad and taken to a small a village every now and then. As I grew up, obviously, the frequency of these trips slowed. It’s only now, looking back on the 2-3 day expeditions to the sleepy little temple-hamlet, that I “get” it. I understand why I was taken.

As a five year old, it was all an adventure. The 10-hour bus ride was fun. I would lie down on my granddad’s lap and sleep or look out the window at the windy hill roads with fascination. I was five. My time in Sakori would fly by. My granddad’s sisters were all priestesses from the age of 11 or 12 in our ancestral temple there. But to me they were just cheerful old ladies who pampered me with sweets and even the occasional afternoon of TV. We own a little room right next to the temple’s impressive cobblestone entrance. It is nothing more than a first floor room, to be absolutely honest. The floors were crude stone and there was a stove in an adjacent “kitchen”. There was a door that opened onto a front balcony that overlooked the village’s courtyard and temple gate. There was a backdoor that opened onto an exposed path that led to the “bathroom”. No heated water or flushing toilet. There was a hole in the floor and a bucket with a 1950’s electric heating stick. A tattered mosquito net lay folded on the sofa. It sounds like a refugee camp, but I was five. It was all an adventure and I barely spent any time in the room anyway. In the interiors of India, there are plenty of things an enthusiastic grandfather can do to keep a five-year old entertained.

Inside the temple complex were trees to climb and cow sheds to explore and sacred rooms that were occupied by former swamis. There were the children of the cooks and temple clerks to play with. I remember being taken to see the cows, one morning. They were so big and intimidating, with great big scary eyes that followed you. I remembering being frightened, even of the tiny calf. I would run through the various rooms of the temple, muttering playful prayers as I passed each deity. Lunch was served in a stone-floor hall, on rickety wooden tables. I would restlessly finish my food and speed off with the other children to go climb a new found tree: a new challenge to fill my day with. In the evenings I would go for long walks with my granddad, along the sugar-cane fields and right into the heart of poor, rural India. Those vast sugar cane fields hid mud huts and dark skinned children with clay-like hair. But I was five, I ran ahead, chasing a farmer on a bicycle.

Going back there five, seven, ten years later, things changed a lot. I’d lost my innocence and the place had lost its charm. Going to Sakori was a chore that had to be done to please grandparents and ancient, ailing priestesses and the Gods, I guess. The yearly pilgrimage became something I had to ‘endure’ with my sister or younger cousin or whoever I was going with. I hated everything about the place. There was suddenly nothing to do. I no longer spoke Marathi and therefore looked shiftily at my feet when introduced to the same children I’d frolicked with years earlier. The food suddenly went from being food to being tasteless/spicy vegetarian food. The bus ride was excruciating; the windy hill roads became a nightmare that I tried to sleep through. No more tree climbing or cow milking. The temple was now a place where one’s shoes could get stolen. The ground I used to walk on barefoot, carelessly, suddenly was a minefield of sharp stones and prickly gravel. It’s amazing how bored I got at the thought of going to Sakori. Shambhavi and I would start taking cards along and playing cards at the end of a particularly boring day would become its highlight. The evening walk into the sugar cane fields became a time where I could daydream of Hong Kong or London or wherever I was currently living at the time. Perhaps saddest of all was my grandfather’s inability to draw happiness into me from the place he too had grown up with. He’d enjoyed afternoon naps with the three docile dogs in the temple courtyard. I was no longer five.

The room became a prison - the village itself, an island of boredom and punishment. I would yearn for the bus or car to whisk us back to civilisation, back to my cousin’s big house in Colaba.

And yet I found myself thinking about Sakori, the other day. I was stuck in the kind of traffic at Mahim Junction that makes you want to get out of the cramped taxi, jump into the sea and swim the rest of the way to suburbs. Out of the blue, I remembered the view from the balcony of our little room, at sunset. The immeasurable peace brought about by the orange late-afternoon light and the shadows it beams through the nooks of the old banyan tree. Immeasurable. I was taken back, so that I was sat next to the thin men who rest cross legged on the edge of the water tank that flanks the food hall. I was taken back to the men and women from the city who take care not to get their white kurtas dirty as they make their way across the square, to the temple. I remembered the reverberations of the chants themselves: the intoxicating energy of chants you’ve repeated subconsciously as a child. I remember the way a hundred voices echoing inside the main room weren’t loud, just powerful. All the chaos of the road, all the heat of the afternoon, all the humidity on my brow suddenly flooded back and drowned me and I wondered where Sakori had gone.

There is something abstract, something intangible about that tiny, tiny temple town that keeps my uncle and parents and relatives going back every once in a while. I think sometimes we all want go back in our minds to climb trees and run amongst cows and feel the warmth of priestesses prayer.