The immigration section at Newark International airport was empty when we entered. The passengers arriving by the late evening flight from Frankfurt fell into one of the two lines: the US citizens and residents to one side, the rest to another. A flat-screen television nearby displayed images of violence in Iraq. Most passengers, like me, looked tired and sleepy: it had been a long flight. When my turn came I walked up to the immigration officer. Bald and bespectacled, he seemed the serious sorts, not too interested in casual conversation; he collected my passport and inquired about the purpose of my visit.
“I’m here to attend a conference in Las Vegas.” I replied.
“What kind of conference, sir?”
“Its a conference where we’re meeting some of our customers and partners.” I had gone through this routine before: the officer usually asked a couple of questions – as a formality, it always seemed – and let me pass.
“Sir, if I were to tell you that I was attending a conference to meet some customers, how much would you understand?” he asked, looking at me straight in the eye.
Half way through that sentence I realized this wasn’t going to be as simple as I had orignally thought.
“It’s a technology conference. I work for a software company – ”
“Indian?” he interrupted.
“No, a German software company.”
“What kind of customers are you meeting ?”
The speed of the interrogation threw me off balance. I tried to think of names, but only two came to mind.
“Kimberly Clark…. Pratt & Whittney…”
“Look sir, if you continue to be answer in generalities then I’m going to have you sent to a different section for further questions.”
I stared back at him, unable to say a thing. I could feel my pulse racing.
“Are these customers individuals, or companies?” he asked.
“They are companies, like Pratt & Whittney, Nike, Kimberly Clark…”
“How long do you want to stay in the US, sir?”
“When was the last time you were in the US?”
“In May this year.”
“For how long ?”
“Could you please place you right forefinger over there, and look straight into the camera ?”
I placed my finger on the fingerprint sensor and looked at the round webcam-like contraption that stood nearby. The officer stamped my passport and returned it.
“Have a nice stay, sir”
“Thank you very much.” I collected my passport and walked outside.
* * *
I spent the weekend at New Jersey with my in-laws. On Saturday we visited a temple nearby for the annual Onam celebrations; all Malayalis in the region seemed to have converged there, and the atmosphere was almost what one would find back in Kerala: people in traditional costumes (arriving in Japanese and German automobiles), South-Indian delicacies (served on plastic plates by people wearing synthetic gloves on one hand), hot and humid weather, dance and music programmes from people of all ages. There was one item by a group of boys and girls dancing to a medley of Hindi film tracks. Watching them – the girls dressed in long pants and shirts that covered most of their arms, and the pairs trying to maintain minimal contact as they danced across the stage – I couldn’t help thinking that this generation growing up in the US was probably far more conservative than their counterparts of similar ages growing up in Indian cities.
The next day we went shopping. My mother-in-law, who religiously collects coupons that offer discounts at various stores, asked if I wanted to benefit from a discount coupon she had. It was from a saloon – “We are getting a discount, so why don’t you make use of it and have a haircut?”
* * *
The four days at Las Vegas seemed to pass by like a blur. This was my second visit to the city; the novelty of the casinos and the fancy hotels had worn. The only banners that caught my attention were those advertising shows: “The Blue Man group” and “Phantom of the Opera” were running at The Venentian – where our conference was held – and I decided to watch “The Phantom” on the last evening. It was performance studded with stunning special effects, and the music was spellbinding. I now intend to watch the movie (something I have been putting off for quite a while, for no apparent reason).
That evening I won a hundred and sixty dollars at a slot machine. Next morning, before leaving for the airport, I tried my hand again – on the same machine – and lost a hundred. When I mentioned this to the taxi driver on my way to the airport, he replied that you are a winner if you leave Vegas without losing anything. He’d made me feel good, and I tipped him generously.
For most of the return journey I was lost in the dreamy world conjured up by Haruki Murakami, in “The wind-up bird chronicle”.