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.
“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.
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?”
“And this is your address – in Karimnagar?”
“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.