The writer learnt early that travelling with an Indian passport was dicing with danger
I’ve got terrible travel blues right now. Not the result of thwarted wanderlust as you might think, it’s the bureaucratic snarls I have to deal with to set foot anywhere that frustrate me. Along with the ignominy of having to jump through hoops like a circus animal. That’s what consumed this week; expensive, frenetic trips to London to convince the French authorities that no harm will come to Mickey and Gang if they let me into Disneyland Paris with my children. And all because my passport is the wrong colour (arguably, so am I, but that’s another story).
Despite 14 years as a British resident, with an English husband and children, I have hung on to my Indian passport, my Little Blue Book of Horrors. Affectionately named thus, for being the repository for my worst photographs, as well as having, indirectly or otherwise, put me through a hundred harrowing experiences. Why I’ve kept it mystifies many. Even me, sometimes. I tell people I would fail Norman Tebbit’s cricket test if I replaced it with its posh, burgundy, British counterpart, and I don’t like failing. The truth is I have a complicated love-hate relationship with my passport. I find it hard to let go because this is the identity I came into the world with. It’s the invisible umbilical cord that links me to my birth country. But it is also a chain that holds me suffocatingly in place, yanking me back every time I entertain ideas (clearly above my station) of travelling the world.
I learnt early that travelling with an Indian passport was dicing with danger. We lived in sunny, shiny South East Asia in the Eighties. We loved it but missed desi food. So after each visit home, we’d cart back a lorry-load of Bong delicacies. Not unexpectedly, we ran into trouble at South East Asian airports where Indians were regarded with visceral suspicion. One year, we were transporting the hugest, hardest slab of sludge-brown palm sugar when we were stopped at Bangkok Airport. What’s this, they asked, fixing us with chilling glares. “Jaggery,” we said. “Gargari?” they gurgled in alarm, pulling on latex gloves and poking it vigorously. When nothing happened, they edged closer to detect coughs, rattles or ticking. Unconvinced by its listlessness, they decided to split it open. But jaggery, as any Indian worth his sugar knows, is one tough cookie. When their attempts at penknife-dissection failed, out came curmudgeonly cleavers, with which they hacked it into a gargantuan, gooey mess. Still nothing. As they cast around for their next move, my howling baby sister took matters into her own hands, or mouth in this case; throwing up explosively over the cane-sugar carnage, and — to our barely concealed delight — the officials. They couldn’t get rid of us quick enough after that.
Years later, on touching down in gorgeous, sun-drenched Corfu, I found that not much had changed for the itinerant Indian. The adolescent behind the only counter in their pleasantly makeshift airport took one look at my passport and nearly fainted. Holding it gingerly as if it might be an incendiary, he consulted his colleagues. Everything stood still while they scrutinised my passport. I could hear cicadas singing in the sun beyond the airport’s thin walls and longed to be out there. When even the collective drew a blank, I panicked. Fortunately, my companion did not. Explaining that his dusky friend was not, as they suspected, from Hades, but a large, rather well-known Asian nation, he argued that they would find me perfectly harmless once loose in their tavernas and olive groves. Corfiots are chancers and I was basking in their sunshine soon after.
But the first and biggest hurdle for the Indian with itchy feet is the visa. Unlike many other nationalities, we need those just to budge from our backyard. I applied for an American visa right after 9/11, only realising how rash that was when it was too late. They bombarded me with a bewildering array of forms, each demanding to know if I were a terrorist, had been one as a child or intended to become one. “Do you own a Kalashnikov?” they barked, “Where is your beard?” they persisted. “No”, I answered to all of the above, and apologised for my inability to grow one. Unimpressed, they asked for a letter from my British husband. Someone with better grammar than my ex-husband, a little brown person (we won’t name names) wrote that letter, but his unimpeachable Anglo-Saxon signature on it meant I was finally allowed entry. Not, however, before I was stopped and systematically searched at every security check, while he was shooed in.
Was it worth the hassle? To those with a yen for the exotic, it always is. And so I continue to put myself through it. Yet this week’s misadventures have made me wonder whether it’s time to unhook myself from my Little Blue Book of Horrors and run free with the rest of my family.
What do you think?