Departure

The International Departures section of an airport in India is a good place to get an impression of who is leaving the country. In the year 2000, when I first left the country as an adult, I was surprised by the density and commotion outside the international airport at Chennai. It looked more like an image we carry of Indian railway platforms: the masses we associate with second or third-class railway travel had turned up, carrying their life-long accumulations and accompanied by a good portion of their family tree. It took a while to figure out the location of the entrance (well hidden by the bloating crowd waving goodbyes) and quite some effort to make my way through that crowd into the relatively less dense environs inside the airport building.

My notions surrounding the exclusivity of air travel to a foreign land were shaken that day. Brain-drain from the country gets a lot of coverage in the media, but those intellectuals seemed a small proportion of Indians travelling abroad. This thought occurred to me once again a few weeks ago when I reached the Departures section at Hyderabad airport. The scene had changed little: you were instantly engulfed by people and their luggage cards laden with articles aimed at creating a little India abroad; there was little indication where the queue to the entrance began; once in the queue, you walked at an agonizingly slow pace, watched – perhaps with a mixture of envy and hope – by dozens of faces; you saw people ahead in the queue display emotions typical for someone going abroad the first time: anxiety, awe, confusion about the luggage, fear of having missed a document; you also saw others trying to figure out ways to smuggle in some relatives into the passengers-only section of the airport (“My baby needs attention – please let the grandmother in!”, “There is too much luggage and I have a knee problem – can I take my brother inside?”); you watched the security personnel attempting, through their hasty mannerisms, to bring order into this chaotic universe.

Once inside, I realized I was very early: the Qatar airways counter had not even opened. I parked my luggage cart in a corner and looked around. It was a small, rectangular hall, with check-in counters lined across two of its perpendicular sides. This meant that the queues near the edge intersected with one another, which had the curious effect of straight-lined queues (at the far end of each side) turning slowly into a formless mass of people (at the intersecting edges). There were many airport officials walking about: senior ones with wireless sets who gave orders to others; junior ones who were mostly hanging around, waiting for someone to tell them what to do next; helpers whose only job was to take the luggage from the weighing scale and transfer it to a side where all check-in luggage was gathered, a task that occupied not more than twenty percent of their time. And every once in a while the smartly-dressed crew of an airline would pass by, like a flock of pink flamingos amongst a host of dull-coloured birds, and not surprisingly many eyes would follow them across the hall.

* * *

When the check-in counter opened I placed my large suitcase on the weighing scale and handed my passport and ticket across the counter. The lady looked at the scale – it showed 31.5 kgs.

“Sir, your luggage is overweight.”

“No, it isn’t,” I replied. “I have an allowance of 35 kgs – see here.” I pointed out the ‘Allow 35’ remark on my ticket.

She looked skeptical. After a few moments she said: “Sir, each luggage piece can only be 25 kgs. You will have to split this into two pieces.”

“But I travelled to India a few weeks ago with the same luggage and there was no problem. So why should there by a problem now?”

“Sir, is there no way you can move something to another bag?”

“No, I have only this suitcase – so that isn’t possible.”

She looked unsure of what to do next. After some hesitation, she spoke to her colleague, a man in the adjacent counter.

“How heavy is it?” the colleague asked.

“31.5”

“That’s fine – allow it.”

The lady processed my ticket and handed me the boarding card and an immigration form to fill. “Have a nice flight sir,” she said, with a smile.

“Thank you.”

I walked across to the nearby wooden writing platform and began to fill the form with details of my departure. I hadn’t completed it yet when a man came and stood close-by, facing me. He was short, unshaven, and wore a dull over-sized shirt that hung loose over the bony outlines of his shoulders.

“Could you help me fill this?” he asked, in Hindi.

“Sure,” I replied, and pointed to the form. “Here you write your passport number, and here the flight number – ”

“Could you fill the form for me?” he asked, lowering his voice. “I cannot write.”

He pushed his form, passport and boarding card towards me.

“Wait till I finish mine.” I said.

After completing mine, I turned to his. “Where are you going?” I asked, when I came to ‘Port of Final Desitination’.

“Sharjah,” he replied.

His boarding card indicated a flight to Dubai.

“So you are going first to Dubai and then to Sharjah?”

“Yes.”

“And this is your address – in Karimnagar?”

“Yes.”

“Why are you going to Sharjah – for work?”

“Yes, for work.”

I checked the box next to ‘Employment’ under the point labelled ‘Purpose of visit’, and handed him the form.

“Fill in your signature here,” I said.

He took the form, shook his head sideways, and made way for a woman standing behind him.

The woman – dark-skinned, slightly plump, wearing a fluorescent-orange saree over a parrot-green blouse, with shiny-red glass bangles covering half her forearms – stepped forward and stuck her passport and immigration form at me. I found myself smiling at her, reaching out to collect her form.

This time it took longer: the woman could speak only Telugu and I struggled to construct basic sentences in a language I had lost touch with. Her passport was new; it indicated that she was in her mid-thirties and that she lived in Bhimavaram. She was travelling to Muscat via Dubai. Was she going there to meet someone? No – and this took me by surprise – she was going to Muscat to work.

She took the completed form back and asked where she should go next; I pointed in the direction of the Immigration hall.

I watched her walk away. Confident posture, purposeful strides. She didn’t seem dazed or befuddled with her situation – travelling alone to work in an unknown land, equipped with only the vernacular of her region. What was her story? And how would it end?

* * *

The immigration queues were long; I chose one that appeared the shortest. After a while the woman in the orange saree appeared, and seeing me standing in line, she chose the same queue and stood a few places behind me.

Our queue was moving very slowly, and after a while the woman shifted to another queue. It was a smart move; she passed through immigration in no time. But I wasn’t very concerned; I had a book with me, and standing for a while was good – there was a lot of sitting to do in the journey ahead.

The immigration officer at our queue seemed to take an inordinately long time for each passenger. It occurred to me that he had no incentive for being efficient; he had to work on a shift for a specific period of time, and whether he cleared 5 or 50 people hardly mattered to him. He also seemed to have this curious habit of sending people away on some ground. The sardarji before me was also sent away – “Get the other seal also in that document!” was what I could hear, a few feet away. It was my turn next.

The officer was an elderly man, bald and sporting an unkempt greying moustache. He wore an expression that reminded me of a strict school headmaster: a frown that could turn any moment into a growl, a general air of dis-satisfaction about the state of affairs. I braced myself for the worst.

“Where is your visa?” he asked, carelessly flipping through my passport.

“That’s the one, sir,” I said, when he came to the page with my German residence permit.

“Where are you going?”

“Frankfurt, sir. Via Doha, in Qatar.”

He looked at my boarding card, and then back at my passport.

“Where is the expiry date in this visa?”

“It is a permanent residence permit, sir. So there is no expiry date. It is written ‘Unbefristet‘, which in German means ‘Unlimited’.”

“How will I know? I do not understand German!”

“Sir, I have been living in Germany since seven years. I recently came to India on a holiday.”

“Where is the stamp showing your arrival in India?”

I pointed him to the correct page. He was not satisfied.

“I do not understand this visa. You go to my colleague in the first counter – he is the right person for such visas,” he said, and waved at the next person in the queue to come over.

The queue behind the first counter had about twenty people; I had no intention of going through the queue once again.

“Sir this is the third time I am leaving this country this year – you can see that in my passport. I do not understand why this should be a problem now?”

The officer was already examining the documents of the next person, but he addressed me: “For permanent residents there is usually a card – where is your card?”

“Sir, in Germany there is no such card. In the U.S they issue a card but for Germany there is only a visa in the passport. The only card I have is my German drivers license – ” I pulled out the license from my wallet and waved it to him, ” here.”

He gave it a cursory glance and went back to the other person’s passport. He then began to question that person. I stood my ground. After a few moments, still flipping through the other passport, he said: “Just go and show your visa to that officer and come back.”

At first I didn’t realize he was addressing me. When it struck, I asked: “Just show it to him?”

“Yes, show it to him and if he says fine then I will let you through.”

I walked over to the first counter, bypassing the long queue, and spoke directly to the officer there. I explained the situation and asked him to take a look at my visa. He took a quick look, said it was fine, and handed the passport back. The interaction took less than a minute.

Back at my original counter the officer was addressing a foreigner. I waited for a pause to break in, and told him that the other officer had found the visa alright. He did not reply, and went on with the foreigner’s document. A few moments later the sardarji whom he had sent away before me came back with his paper. “I have the other seal also,” he said, trying to hand the document over to the immigration officer.

Now there were three of us at the counter, a situation that would be impossible in the West – at least in Germany. But Indians are adept at multi-tasking. Shortly after I arrived in India on this trip, a visit to the local medical store brought back awareness of this trait I had almost forgotten about. The person managing the medical shop would simultaneously process requests from five customers: he would take money from one, ask another what he wanted, reply to the third that his order was not in stock, walk over to the shelf and pull out medicines ordered by the fourth and the fifth. Such a virtuoso performance could leave the Germans gaping. It could also, at times, be a source of frustration for those who feel inadequately attended to.

I repeated my statement to the officer. He collected my passport, looked again at the visa. He then got up and slowly walked over to the the officer at the first counter I had spoken to. I saw him bend over that counter, then immediately stand upright again and walk back.

The officer came back to his seat and completed the formalities.

“How can we understand if they print things in a foreign language?” he asked.

“That is correct, sir,” I replied. “They should put such basic information in English.” And it was true – there was no easy way for him to ascertain the validity of a visa printed in a foreign language.

He placed my passport on the counter and turned towards the sardarji: “What do you want now?!”

I picked up the passport and walked towards security check.

8 Replies to “Departure”

  1. Parmanu,

    I don’t think that it is Indian Immigration’s responsibility to check the validity of a foreign visa. Their job is to check the validity of your Indian passport (while you are exiting) and your Indian visa (while you are entering), and to make sure that the all the entries and exits are stamped.

    It is fairly logical.. imagine if your German visa was printed in English. Can the Indian Immigration official then know for sure whether it is a real visa or a fake one? Does he have any way of checking for the same? Can he memorize and check for the security features of, say, visas/passports of 100 countries?

    Obviously, he can’t.

    The task of checking your German visa belongs to the German Immigration officials. If they found your visa to be fake, you would be probably be deported by the next available flight.. might also pay a fine, or serve a jail term. The consequences depend on the country’s laws, of course.

    The reason they look at your foreign visa (in almost all countries).. is to just add a very thin layer of reducing hassles (for everyone involved). You might also notice that they check your passport and visa at the check-in counter also.. while they have no expertise in testing the validity of either document. All they are required to do is to match the name on the passport to the one on the ticket.

  2. Vivek,

    Thank you for your comment.

    You are right about it being “a thin layer of reducing hassles”. But some officials, like this one in Hyderabad, take it too seriously at times. I remember another occasion at the New York JFK airport when I was taking a flight to Paris – the lady at the check-in counter decided I could not enter France simply because she couldn’t understand the German visa on my passport. It took 20 minutes and another official (who could read German) to resolve the issue.

    But these are elements that make travel interesting, and give us stories worth sharing.

  3. This idea that visa’s are only checked on arrival is incorrect. In many parts of the world, they check and ensure you have a valid visa for the place your departing for. Simply part of greater security measures.

  4. Hey there,

    This is a nice post, although a little depressing, especially the portions concerning the absolute lack of Indians’ sensitivities to queues and other peoples’ time. But then, considering that I have been in India all my life so far and will probably be here for some more years to come, I guess my mind screams out aloud, ‘Oh Darling Yeh Hai India’ !!

  5. parmanu:

    looks like bips and i have managed to force you to switch :-).

    re: immigration – i think i asked this question on some other blog and don’t remember what answer i got – why do they call it immigration when you are leaving the country? should it not be the emigration (or some such) check?

    i disagree with phoenix. the folks at the departure should not really check for the visa or landing permit at all. at least, i’ve not had that happen in the usa (or maybe it was because i’ve never travelled to anywhere out of usa except india!). anyway, any check that is done leaving usa is by the person manning the airline’s counter, not a uscis official. leaving india, there is a whole bunch of ‘immigration’ officers that are in charge of this check. i wonder how it is elsewhere (i believe in dubai, frankfurt and hamburg – the three airports i’ve hopped across to the usa in the recent past – the checks were done by airline staff).

    – s.b.

  6. hey nice narrative skills used in the article. well are a nice man since you were helping those passengers~~~but now i think the situation has changed~~~there are more delays~~cancellations~~~chaotic situation and lot of things added to that

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