Travel to the United States of America has never been an item on my priority list. Even when a lot of my classmates at IIT-Roorkee talked about their dream of travelling to the US for higher studies, I neither shared their enthusiasm nor quite understood it. For me, education never got any 'higher' than good, old graduation. That itself appeared to be a Mount Everest for poor me. How can you go any higher than that? Anyway, many of them now live there, some have taken up American citizenship and a few have even come back (after ensuring that their children were born there and have US citizenship!).
The lady who is now my wife was working there when we got married. Out of her love for me, she happily came back to live unhappily ever after with me in India. As for me - I have been to the United States twice, both times on official trips (as a senior police officer) and on an official passport. Now, a word about what's called "an official passport". Only those who have held that cherished document can appreciate the experience of travelling as an ' official'. There are no perks, no exemptions, no chance in hell of evading any frisking at any airport for a holder of that passport. Yet, this grey-coloured icon in a sea of blue Indian passports makes you feel different if not entirely eminent. What this feeling means to an Indian babu
or 'government servant' cannot be fathomed by ordinary and ordinarily employed mortals. An official passport places its bearer on a pedestal, gives a sense of purpose to his travel and makes all those inane conferences, seminars and trainings that we attend seem completely essential and in national interest. Sadly, some among the ignorant masses and privately employed classes of this country are only concerned with the huge public expenditure on such strategic movements of humble government servants and talk of them as 'paid holidays', 'jamborees', etc.
These unfortunate, ill-informed hordes are obsessed with a few hundred crores that get 'wasted' on such 'meaningless jaunts'. They don't appreciate the 'exposure' these travels provide our officialdom, the 'awareness' they create and the benefits they bring (to us, not the nation). We, the humble government servants of this country, come back immensely enriched by such experiences provided liberally to us at tax payers' expense. We may not improve or even try to improve professionally after such foreign visits but that is not the intended objective at all. The personal development of us civil servants at the cost of our scarce national resources is an accepted fact and also the prime motivator for several young civil service aspirants who slog to get 'in'.
Earlier this month, a catastrophic calamity befell me. I had to go for a visa interview to the US embassy along with my wife. We had planned a summer vacation visit to my wife's cousin who lives there. My sons were hyper-excited and that reminded me of my Delhi-bred classmates in college who had in their own minds accepted US citizenship many years before they actually set foot on the American soil. Uncle Sam is known to have that impact on middle and upper middle class people from the Indian metros and Punjabis from anywhere and everywhere.
Meanwhile, let's get back to my visit for the visa interview. When we approached the window where our visa was to be decided, my wife for the umpteenth time asked me to look 'normal' and not to ( even remotely) display any sense of self-respect or personal pride - a small price to pay for a US visa.
But old habits die hard!
When you've spent a lifetime waiting for people to ask you "what work do you do?" so that you can with great pride and some arrogance tell them about your government job, it is impossible to answer this question simply and quietly .
What transpired is as follows:Visa officer:
Have you been to the US before?Me:
Yes, twice. Both times on an official passport (my wife raised her eyebrow in annoyance)Visa officer:
What work do you do?Me:
I am a Deputy Inspector General in the National Security Guard
(My wife banged her forehead. I was tutored to simply and apologetically say "Ma'am, I work for the Government of India)Visa officer:
We need additional information. Please go to window number 1 (Window One actually means Visa None)
On reaching there, I was given an elaborate questionnaire seeking information which made me very proud and confused at the same time. For example, they wanted to know the 'real' reason for my intended visit to the US. I was really embarrassed to disappoint them as the only, mundane reason was meeting a relative and sight-seeing. I tried to think of a higher purpose but could not think of any. For an Indian civil servant, to suffer brain fade when asked to concoct, fabricate or lie is quite uncharacteristic and unexpected, but it actually happened for once
Further, they wanted to know if I intended to undertake any research, etc. If only they had known that in college, I didn't undertake even the basic, minimum study expected by society (and paid for by my father).
That was last month.
I have submitted the details asked for and now my application status is "Your visa application is under administrative processing". Which is American for "You are a bum, please don't come".
The present delay and the eventual denial of this visa won't hurt me a bit. I am not exactly dying to visit the "home of the brave and land of the free". It is the constant heckling by my two sons that has me worried. I have just realised that their love and longing for a short US trip far exceeds their affection towards me. They mock me, taunt me -and my wife nods approvingly. They believe if only I had been a little careful they would have not been deprived of this vacation in the US.
But we haven't given up.
I am trying to look and sound less threatening, have stopped even speaking to those friends whose names and surnames can be included in the US government's "don't let these guys in" list. We have even stopped mentioning the words 'Iran' and 'North Korea' in our home.
Visa or no visa - I shall forever live in awe of their hyper-efficient and ever-alert visa scrutiny system. How good they really are at spotting potential threats and illegal immigrants! Also, one has to applaud their heightened (although misplaced) sense of self-importance. Thanks to thousands of our best-educated, most talented Indians dying to get US citizenship, they genuinely believe that any and every Indian, irrespective of his education, job and social profile, is a potential illegal immigrant.
I love America.(Shalin is presently posted as DIG of the National Security Guard)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.