Overheard at JFK while waiting in the long queue for the immigration clearance – “Papa , yeh airport bada hai but achcha nahin hai. Sirf decorations achcha hai.” The kid is obviously not fascinated by the airport and the father looks tired . Standing behind me is another couple from India and their infant just starts screaming out of hunger. The mother hurriedly prepares the bottle of milk and tries to comfort her baby . Another child stares at the crying baby and dragging her backpack, she looks at her mother and says, ” Innum evala neram ? ” She needs to use the washroom urgently. Her mother , meanwhile is worried on two accounts – the kid’s grandmother who was wheeled in is now lost in the crowd and they have a connecting flight in the next hour or so and they still need to collect their luggage and go through the check in process. ” But didnt you check in your luggage directly to your destination ?” I asked her as she was transiting through JFK .” No, I cant, this is some American security procedure as its JFK, ” she says.
Looking around me , I dont just see Indians in the visitor’s queue but an amalgamation of nationalities. Some are transiting, while for many like me, it is their first trip to US. I wasnt surprised to see the number of Indians around me. US was always on every aspirational Indian’s list and I remember as a teenager picturising the suburbs where the Indian diaspora lives as an upscale version of Pondy Bazaar . After all, there is Saravana Bhavan everywhere . However I pinched myself out of my reverie and told myself ” Come on, Im in America, in JFK, THE airport , in New York City,…” and all I felt was exhaustion as I waited for my turn for the stamp.
A traveller’s diary has to begin somewhere. A date, an incident, a thought..mine probably started in Chennai at the visa office or even much earlier when I applied for the visa.The interview itself was a cake walk, except that you still need to get burnt in the sun even though procedures say you can come a few minutes before your interview. A couple of girls waited with me in the queue for the interview – one was attending a conference and another was going there on a project. No prizes for guessing, they were both from IT. ” Are you going on work ?” one asked. ” No, as a tourist, ” I replied and found myself saying the same thing to the US official clad in a kurta and peering through his glasses at my passports and looking for an excuse to deny me a visa. I looked nonchalant and then came the question, ” Do you work ?”
I said, “as a consultant yes, not for a corporate. ” “Thats still work ” he quipped , probably suggesting that I am lying to him about my reason to visit US .I shrugged and a few moments passed as he flipped through the passports and looked at the stamps of various nations. And then he smiled , looking at an Australian stamp way back in 1992. ” Ah !youve been to Australia, what were you doing there ?” He probably thought I was a student there . ” A tourist again,” I replied, and added ” I like travelling to places..thats my passion and I do some bit of travel writing as well..” I chose not to elaborate further and he nodded and decided I was speaking my truth . Just as I was leaving, he suddenly asked ” Do you have kids ?” When I answered in the negative, he smiled and apologised for the question and added inadvertently,” Im always asked the same question too..been married for many years and I dont have kids..collect your passport later. ” I smiled . He was just doing his job, I guess.
But the man at the immigration counter was a different cup of tea. He was clearly bored and looked irritated. He had just finished asking a lady from the Middle east a barrage of questions and when it was my turn, he just signaled he was taking a break. I waited for another ten minutes and finally he was back and gestured me to come over. I handed my passports to him with the immigration card bookmarking the US visa stamp on it. His first question was ” Which passport has the US visa ? ” When I mentioned it was the second , he immediately snarled at me, ” So why are you carrying two passports then ?” I didnt reply for I wasnt sure what to reply , but I realized he didnt expect a reply. He just painstakingly removed one staple after another and tossed my old passport at me. Then came the formalities. And finally before I left, he just showed me a page on my new passport . It was dated 2007 and a transit Dubai visa was stamped on it . As I had a few hours before my connecting flight to Germany, I had decided to step out and had got the visa at the airport. The official had stapled my baggage tags to the page along with the stamp and the immigration man was pointing to it. I wasnt sure what his problem was , as I had travelled in 2007 and I told him the story behind it. He seemed impatient and didnt let me finish ..” But you have wasted a page..why have you stapled the baggage tags ? ” he snorted back. I was trying hard not to laugh, but muttered I will inform Emirates next time and left the man to harass the next visitor to US.