Renewing my US Visa
I hurriedly tear open the packet, eager to see my new US visa. Nothing warms an immigrant’s heart like unfurling to the world a spanking-new H1-B. What is this what is this! A green slip. Oh. No. My beautiful passport is wrapped in a 221(g). No no no. My visa application is rejected. Did I mess up? Am I stuck? Will I get back to my job? “Must appear in-person for fingerprints.” Dammit. I’m in Pune and they want me to appear at the Bombay consulate for fingerprints. What a pain. Uff. I’m lucky I’m in Pune and can afford to hire a personal driver. What if I were in Jalgaon or Gadchiroli. They’ve already tenprinted me dozens of times. My fingers haven’t changed. I don’t get it …
I tersely discuss with Ma. She quickly books a driver for 5AM the next day. Time to make a day trip to earn the auspices of the United States of America. May my fingerprints be blessed at this darshan (holy audience). Indians used to make pilgrimages for darshan at Amarnath and Mansarovar. In this 21st century, we seek blessings at the US consulate.
I depart at 5AM. My parents see me off, quietly supportive. Pune is quiescent, the driver quiet. Four hours later, we are at the shrine. I stare at the drama slowly unfolding. Crowds of Indians cling like gnats to the consulate’s periphery. A smorgasbord? No. A cornucopia? An assemblage? No, there is no word for it. The rickshaws, visa supplicants, their well-wishers, family, distant relatives, cars, motorcycles, scooters, police, security swarm the consulate building in choreographed chaos. No word for it. Here, Bombay pauses and regards. Because an invisible force-field has created a bubble of order. American order. But Indian entropy probes that forcefield constantly. And a barrage of Indian security staff and Bombay police swat that entropy ad infinitum, enforcing the dance familiar to any Indian — the dance that occurs when anyone tries imposing order on India. Your eye pauses, spying, in the midst of this comedic sketch, the consulate building — part austere bureaucracy, part holy shrine, part a sketch comedy set. The high forbidding walls look like an event horizon, don’t they? Imagine a black hole that swallows visa supplicants at its event horizon and spits them out like Hawking radiation. Hah, yes, that’s the US consulate. The long line of visa supplicants is pressed against those high consulate walls, as ever, snaking around the corner. What would an American from, say, Texarkana make of this? I chatted with some retired Texarkanans (sp?) on a flight once. They’d never left the country. Or really traveled much it seemed. Yes, the irony of being a US immigrant who knows more of the US than its citizens. How many Americans have been to Slab City and seen East Jesus? Or Kayenta and experienced a Native-American majority town? Or seen glaciers, rainforest, and beach in one day on the Olympic peninsula? But here, I am the “other”. An immigrant. My dutifully-paid US taxes, my cherished US friendships, my appreciation of the United States count for nothing. Just the opinion of an anonymous US official.
Here, there are no Americans in sight. Presumably they are cloistered in the air-conditioned confines of the building, like exotic plants that wilt if exposed to Bombay heat and humidity
Time to check on my tenprinting. The Indian employees in sight have seen in all. They intone the same mantras like Buddhist monks: “Come back at 10:30”. It is now 9:30. Your green paper reduces you to a time. You are the 10:30 wallah.
You traipse back to the hired car. The driver perfunctorily turns down the Hindi radio news while desultorily checking his phone. He isn’t just a driver, he’s the grand master of whiling away time while the world machinates around him. Life consists of iteratively driving from A to B and waiting in between.
I have an hour to kill. I start writing postcards to US friends eager to receive an exotic Indian postcard. Hopefully they’ll appreciate the irony of writing these while waiting on the magnanimity of the US consulate.
Time seductively slows to a crawl as it does in India, and neither I nor the driver notice the cop striding up. Because, like 20 other cars, we’re in a no-parking zone, since parking is not allowed anywhere near the US consulate. The other cars, however, spot the cop and scoot while we become the bakras (scapegoats).
To anyone who has witnessed drama between cops and non-cops, what follows is textbook. The cop throws the book at us, demanding the sundry documentation that is coughed up by Indian bureaucracy, while the driver showers him with entreaties and pleadings. They joust back and forth but of course the cop gesticulates and exclaims fitfully, putting on a show of anger. Textbook. I peer from the car, completely unsure of my part in this drama. My Marathi is certainly not good enough to plead with the cop. “Ho, aika na. Aamchi galti zhaali.”. No, it’d be total fail. I’d come off as an annoying North Indian. So I stand awkwardly while they bicker. Both spy me and tell me to chill in the car. I continue giving them the awkward eye.
Anyway, it’s 10:15. I play the textbook and make a show of telling the cop that I have a visa appointment, and I have to leave my phone/money in the car, and won’t know how to find the driver. I try to nail the “I really need this visa, I’m stressed, so as the person in power you’ll be a bhaiya and help me, right?” in the manner of “I know we’re in trouble so I’m give you bhav (untranslatable but here it means a feeling of importance)”. The cop reassures me and sends me on my way. I figure it’ll be okay but who knows. The time is nigh.
Or not. I’m still the 10:30 wallah and it’s only 10:15. I am justly remanded to the opposite side of the road, along with other Uncle Sam pleaders. We squint at the consulate and try to count off minutes. Because phones aren’t allowed inside the consulate. All we have is paper and our tenprinter fingers.
When I explain my immigration situation to US friends, they are in turned shocked, dismayed, and then recommend simply marrying an American. It is an odd situation. You get an education, get a job, work hard, follow the law to a T, pay all taxes but that counts for nothing, doesn’t it? Convince a US citizen to tie the knot though, and you’re golden.
Still not 10:30. You pass time observing the comedic sketch. Rickshaws eagerly drift by the crowd trying to pickup passengers. One has the temerity to stop and is instantly set upon by a cop. Doesn’t the rickshaw-wallah know the US consulate is very important and no one is allowed to stop near it? They bicker, the cop the executioner and the rickshaw-wallah the supplicant. But you’ve already sat through my version of this. Yawn.
Soon enough you spy a crowd of supplicants rushing across the road, eager beavers all to tenprint their way to the land of freedom. You blithely accede to your role as Eager Beaver #30 or so. Time to stand like admonished schoolchildren on the pavement, while an Indian employee checks passports. Satisfied, you are move ahead to the entrance(!) No, don’t get excited. This is just the first entrance where another employee will check your papers. Behind you is a family with an utterly bored young kid. He can’t stand still and plays with the ropes and fidgets and whines. His father pleads with him “Please don’t do that! I said please na?”
Another Indian employee checks papers as we shuffle forward. My turn comes and I’m admitted onto US soil. Phew. Ten steps ahead is another paper checking line. Past that we sit for a few minutes before being motioned into the security check building.
Like all secure buildings, the walls have that odd color where your gaze simply slides off. I’m sure the paint company calls it “Secure Slide-off Beige”. In the security line, I spot eye-catching US tourism posters exhorting me to “Discover the Land” or something. Between me and “Discovering the Land” lies the security check. The same shibboleths are repeated in the security drone voice: “No phones, Fitbits, tablets ….” Nothing except your papers and your clothes and fingers (don’t forget the fingers!). I pass the metal detector and the pat down. Now I’m really getting somewhere.
Out through the building into what I term the waiting area of “suspense”. You know the like “how do you keep a fool in suspense?” joke? Well this is how they keep a bunch of Indians in suspense.
The waiting area is outside — all heat and humidity. There are rows of metal chairs under a giant metal shed. More Indian employees are examining my green paper. Indeed, the green paper is now the unit of selection. Genes can move over. The paper is duly selected for sequestering me to one particular metal-seat-row. TVs are arrayed above me, strangely reminiscent of sports bars in the US. Now a citrus-ey New England IPA would pair well with this US consulate metal-seat-barstool whatever. Should I ask for one? The TVs above flicker welcome messages about my rights and sparrows chirp about the TVs as if to say: “Yes, yes, if you are deemed worthy of the Land of Freedom then rights and laws await. If you pass the test. Chirp chirp. Haha.” Back in Cambridge, my immigrant status isn’t real. I live as Americans live. I know how to use “all set” (meaning we are done talking to each other) in Boston and “off da chain” (ironically only) in LA. I get what an American means when they say “we should hang out” (they don’t intend to hang out). I drink microbrews and go to brunch. I can drop references like “Yeah, well, that’s just like your opinion maaan”. But this is a rude reminder that it can go up in smoke. A 221(g) here and another there. And now you’re done. 7 years in the US is not enough.
The sparrow chirps blend into the ever-so-present Mumbai thrum of construction, traffic, honking, and always-present resurgent mass of humanity shut out just beyond the consulate walls. Even the event horizon of American soil cannot keep that thrum out.
In front of us is the actual consulate. A low, brown building where, presumably, the inscrutable Americans abide. I, as everyone, peer at these surroundings. Ah, they haven’t changed since my last darshan (holy audience). Unless they got another coat of “Secure Slide-Off Beige-Brown”. We stare into the blacked-out windows before us, straining to decipher the figure-8s of the shadows behind. What lies there? Another line? Another security check? Or the hallowed audience with the *interview people*? The seneschals of the American Dream. Here, to receive supplicants in this American Darbar-i-Am. How long does this magical realism of these infinite immigration lines and paper checks last?
The minutes pass. The incessant Bombay drone drowns out the conversations around me. I strain to hear them. It’s been so long since I’ve just heard real Indians talk. My head is is a tossed-up salad of everywhere and nowhere in between. Delhi, Bombay, Pune, LA, Cambridge. All I hear is American conversation. But here in the US consulate, it’s Indians everywhere.
I examine the sparrows, who I realize have an easier time getting in here than me. Peering more intently through the tinted windows, all I see are long queues of shuffling Indians. Ah of course. I’m still at the velvet ropes. The real queue is inside.
Presumably there are Americans inside there too, somewhere.
Time slows once more. I wonder what the Americans inside think. Are they bemused by this great drama? Maybe they’re sick of the heat, noise, and humidity? Do they at least enjoy the food? Or do they dream of their white picket fence and barbeque on the lawn with the kids? Or are they just bored? I’m bored. Do they think immigration benefits the US? Whom did they vote for? What will my tenprinter think of me? Hm.
I lazily think of Americans in general. How many immigrants does the average American know? Do they know the types of immigrant visas? The procedures? The bureaucracy? Did they know that I live and die by 221(g)s and I-797s? Or do they think we simply hop on a flight and walk into a job?
A friend once said everyone should try being an immigrant once. Maybe there’s something to it.
The increasing heat joins the noise to turn the wait soporific. Languid queues of immigrants-in-trepidation fold and unfold. I wonder how successful my driver is with the cop. I hope I can find him without my phone. Oh this could be a pain. Someone uses the loo. The stupor is broken when an Indian official gathers our passports. Sudden hubbub — “what does this mean? what does this mean?” — we make entreating eyes at the Indian-in-the-know. Certainly, he has rank and status higher than us. The Americans have said so.
Yet another Indian official soothes our jittery immigrant nerves,”You’ll get your passports back and then you’ll go in.” It sounds like progress. We are relieved.
My passport is returned with a post-it that says, “FP only”. So as long as I still have fingers when the time is right, I should be fine. Good.
Ah! The moment is nigh! I tremble as massive embassy doors open and engulf us, like phagocytes ingesting antigens for processing.
“42.” “Go to number 42 at the end.” I take quick strides before they can change their mind. See the numbered windows along the wall ahead. Oh! Behind the windows are … the Americans. Talking to immigrants via microphone and speaker. In other words, we are sealed off. I wonder how disembodied my voice sounds over the speaker. There are 4 tenprintees ahead of me at 42.
I am slightly discomfited by the cognitive dissonance of using microphone and speaker. Because what if I used a microphone and speaker to talk to my US friends across a glass screen? Isn’t this how prison inmates talk to visitors? If I met these Americans in a bar, we’d be human beings. Somehow, the window is jarring to someone who has spent over 7 years in USA and knows the country intimately. Far more intimately than the vast majority of Americans anyway. I canvassed for the last Cambridge City Election. I chatted with Cambridge city candidates. I know the issues. Most Americans know nothing of their local politics. Yet that matters not here. Should I be involved with Indian politics? Care only about Indian issues? Should I conscientiously pay US taxes, make dear US friends, have majestic experiences in the national parks, and then stay unfeeling? I’ll always be the “non-resident alien”, won’t I?
I see an abstract painting on my right. It is called “in between” by an Indian-sounding artist from Detroit. Detroit. A strange city in a strange land full of the most beautiful, abandoned, art-deco skyscrapers I have seen. A universe away from Bombay, India. That’s how I feel. In between. I await my turn. The anxiety rises. Is this just fingerprinting or a full-blown interview? When will I speak to my US friends again? Speak to them minus a glass screen and speaker?
I’m called forward. “Left 4 fingers. Right 4 fingers.” This is a ritual I have completed many, many times. I mutely press my fingers against the reader. It is I. Or so says the biometric system reading my fingers anyway. The friendly American asks my name. “Karan Gill“. “Both thumbs“. My thumbprints are sucked up. I am thumbs, a SSN, a passport, a H1-B, a I-797A. And maybe a human one day if I enter the Land of Freedom.
“Take your passport and wait by those chairs“. More waiting. Got it. I’ve been practicing. An Indian(!) employee behind the glass calls us, takes our passport, and says we’re free to go. I walk out, hoping I do get my visa stamp, and wondering if I should’ve asked them to expedite things so I don’t have to cancel and rebook my flight home. Oh well. Thankfully my driver is right outside and waves to me. The cop fined him Rs. 200 for the parking violation. I recompense him the 200. I call the airline and debate between rebooking and canceling and end up cancelling. All I can do is wait now. I just want to be back at work. With friends. Talking to Americans like normal people do. And maybe at home? What’s home anyway? All that will have to wait, though.
Epilogue: The tenprinting was on Friday. I wrote the outline that Friday itself on the way home. I got my visa on Monday. I booked a Thursday flight to the US and made it to work Thursday. I wrote out the essay 3 months later, first in Bryant Park in Manhattan and then in South Williamsburg.