A day at a visa centre. Many days at a visa centre. At New Delhi, India. From getting a rubber stamp as a routine process to filling up forms which resemble novellas and procedures which require reasonably upper end computer literacy – visa applications have come a long, long way.
But some things do not change. The touts are still there, with their vehicles securely parked in the NO PARKING part of the pavement, and mini offices with printers, laptops, net connections set up in the back seats. They start off with the usual spiel as I disembark the cab, and stroll in with what I call my “lost silly old man amble special”, something we learnt as cadets headed ashore. Always look lost and foolish, it will ensure that the locals do not get aggressive, and has been a great strategy all my life.
It is a bit like landing up at a party at an ultra rich and affluent location in an old small car, preferably battered, or letting them know about it – this I learnt from one of India’s ultimo top industrialists, he was “Hamara” before his offspring made it “The Favourite” or something eminently forgettable like that only. Ambling through the first point checking by bouncers and security guards, wearing neckties but their un-polished shoes give them away, watching and tuning in. The number of refugees of different nationalities carrying, often, green coloured passports or travel documents – is also interesting to observe.
Most people are dressed up. Sort of Western Smart Casual meets Sarojini Nagar meets amusement park dress code. Even the rural persons have been togged up. Jackets and more in the middle of a hot heatwave. So I usually go to these visa centres dressed in an old cotton kurta with a button or two missing. Pays to be different.
Never fails – the security guards treat me nicely as one of them, the baba/baby log staff speak to me in convented Hindi – and then I watch their faces carefully as I reply to them in what I think is reasonably decent English with a variety of accents. Start with Bangalore Techno, shift to Panjim/Bandra English, then quick shift again to Savantwadi/Dadar Angrezi, from where it is a seamless move to Delhi/Anglo fast-speak. In and out, sometimes, with Sino-Ludhianvi MTV type deliveries.
Those people behind the visa counters, they work hard, and relentlessly. Getting a smile out of them when they realise the Old Man in front of them is just being jovial is my reward – in the fervent hope that they don’t let this stressful job overtake their lives. It’s probably not a great job – handling dis-oriented people paying huge sums of non-refundable money for visas on one side and processes from foreign embassies on the other.
The cost of the visa fees is whatever it is. Probably bilateral, and if not bilateral, it should be bilateral. But it is the ambience of the crowd lining up patiently for visas of all sorts that is fascinating to observe. Usually one needs an appointment to get enter the visa area, but luckily or otherwise, the big one in Delhi is in a common shared area with a Delhi Metro Station so one can sit and grab a coffee or something while just observing and figuring out the flows. Like watching the tides, this has predictable movements, and no force on earth can stem it.
Humans have always been a migrant species. None of us can even start to think about when the caravan of our forefathers or ancestors or parents landed up along which shores, rivers or sea, lately add airports. Social status or caste or background has always been an accident of sperm racing ahead and meeting an egg waiting to be fertilised. Decisions on future birth oriented social positions basis penetration. Same process, different rivers and shores and airports. Endless cycle of humans clutching papers and with a focused look jumping from signboard to signboard whilst also looking at the arrows painted on the floor.
But at visa centres, a new race appears to have emerged from the flames and dusts of eternal migrations – the air-conditioned gypsies. This is probably very true globally, but in the heat and dust of Delhi outside, the air-conditioned gypsies at visa centres (also often seen at airports, resorts, package tours, weddings and similar events) stand out as a class apart.
These air-conditioned gypsies at the visa centres, probably about 99% of the visitors, have one simple aim – they want to go to the phoren. As they move around, sit down, stand up, wave papers, get security checked again and again, show identity, produce papers – a constant attempt to reduce the rush collides with the urgent need to go to phoren. Preferably white phoren. They can not really be blamed – we still use, even for proudly depicting our forthcoming new airports, bus terminals and railway station, digital stock white people architectural 3D assets.
Intermodal locations in India, the aspirational, except in a few specific cases – is white Euro stock. Thus, the air-conditioned Gypsy of Indian origin (not to be confused with the 4WD), comes ready with her or his tube of facial bleach, but then fails to realise that do what they want, the knees below those ill-fitting uncomfortable shorts and skirts will always be brown.
A visa application centre in India is probably the ultimate expression by a race of air-conditioned gypsies to try and escape the heat and dust so that they can soon aspire to be white. Or maybe they just want to exit the heat and dust in exchange for a question mark?
(Veeresh Malik was a seafarer. And a lot more besides. A decade in facial biometrics, which took him into the world of finance, gaming, preventive defence and money laundering before the subliminal mind management technology blew his brains out. His romance with the media endures since 1994, duly responded by Outlook, among others.)