Born in New York and raised in India, Rom has made this country his home. He always felt Indian. When he went to the U.S. briefly in the 1960s for an aborted college education, he had a hard time adjusting to life as a “white American”.
After his return to India, he became hung up on the Andaman Islands, Indian territory then closed to foreigners. Using this opportunity to set ‘right’ his nationality, Rom traded in his American citizenship for the privilege of visiting the islands. Since then, he has had to constantly explain what a white man like him is doing with an Indian passport.
He is routinely interrogated by Immigration officials of every country we visit — where was he born, who are his parents, why does he hold an Indian passport. When so many Indians wave American, British and passports of other nationalities, why is it so abnormal for an American to hold an Indian passport? Nevertheless, this anomaly has made some sticky situations more difficult.
One night, many years ago, Rom and I were cruising for snakes along the U.S.-Mexican border. Snakes come onto roads at night to absorb warmth, and driving slowly is an easy way of hunting them. It was a deserted road and we were focussed on finding snakes, when a siren went off behind us suddenly. It was the Border Patrol.
The officer was Hispanic, and he started rapping away in Spanish to me. I had to cut him short with “No habla español.” He wanted to see proof of identity. “India,” he drawled thoughtfully. And Rom? “Also Indian.” The agent had never heard anything so weird in his life. A white Indian? His eyes darted from Rom’s face to the passport and back. More questions followed. Finally, he had no choice but to be satisfied with Rom’s Indian nationality. Then he asked where we were headed and why were we driving so slowly. Rom replied: “We are looking for snakes.” He might as well have said: “I am a Martian.” When I realised the officer was going to lose it, I nervously jabbered about the rattlers we had seen that evening such as mojaves, western diamondbacks and black-tails. Eventually, he let us off. A couple of hours later, as we headed back slowly, a patrol car parked along a dark alley flashed its lights in greeting.
On another occasion, we were hunting sidewinder rattlers in California. About 20 miles west of Yuma, near the junction of California, Arizona and the Mexican state of Baja California, are the rolling Algodones Dunes. At mid-morning, just when we called it quits for the day, a couple of choppers showed up and buzzed low, raising a sand storm. We struggled to keep our eyes and mouth clear of grit. The choppers moved away only after two ground patrol vehicles arrived. By this time, we were sand-blasted, bedraggled, and a film of sand coated us head to toe. Annoyed at being harassed, I replied to their questions in sullen monosyllables. The poor officers thought they had busted an attempt at human trafficking. They looked at us like we were circus freaks and that restored my good humour.
Contrary to Rom’s experiences, I have been unquestioningly adopted by diverse nationalities from Ethiopia to Indonesia. It all changed when I chopped off my shoulder-length hair. Everybody disowned me. Indians thought I was Malaysian, Malaysians probably thought I was from Timbuktu. Even people in my old neighbourhood in Chennai began speaking to me in English. On the positive side, what I lost in hair length, I made up in the language department. Although I’ve only been speaking Tamil since I could talk, I’m now complimented on how well I speak the language for a “foreigner”. I now realise why Rom gets annoyed when he is treated as an outsider in his own land.
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