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American overtures

“Please state the purpose of your visit,” the officer at the immigration desk in the Boston airport said. “I’ve come here to give a medical licensure examination,” I replied. “Well, if you’re here to give an exam, you need to have a different category of visa. But if you’ve come to take an exam, you are good,” the officer in a dark blue uniform informed me. I was in no mood to be educated soon after a transcontinental flight and humbly stared into the counter camera as it clicked my picture. It's interesting how verbs convey different actions across continents.

It was the Fall of 2011. The licensure exam was to pursue fellowships in neurosurgery in the U.S. After the test, I had planned to visit a few medical centres to which I had applied for fellowships. It involved taking short flights to university towns such as Syracuse in upstate New York. My resources were limited. Online searches from Bengaluru for accommodation provided various affordable options to stay overnight prior to the interview. One such motel was situated close to the airport in Syracuse. The bookings were done from home and they provided transport from and to the airport.

The person who picked me up from the airport was Mr. Mehta, a first-generation immigrant to the U.S. He was in his late 50s and drove us to the motel in his car without uttering a word. The car evidently needed a thorough cleaning. The cigarette smell from the upholstery was overpowering and the inside was suffocating. We reached the motel past 10 p.m.

Soon smoke of various kinds filled the lobby, and by the time I had checked in, I was feeling dizzy. The motel occupants were individuals or families who were travelling on a budget across the state or were renting a room on a discounted monthly rate. I told Mr. Mehta, the motel owner, that I needed a cab to take me to the university hospital early in the morning for an interview. He replied that it could be arranged.

I made my way to the reception after breakfast the next morning. I was greeted by Mrs. Mehta, who said that my transport would arrive in 10 minutes. It was nearing 7-30 a.m. and I was restless. I was to be in hospital by 8 a.m. Just then Mr. Mehta came in with his smoke-filled Honda and offered to drop me at the hospital. He couldn’t get a cab to come over to the motel at that time for a one-way drop out of town. He said he would drop me at the hospital, about 20 miles away. I didn’t really notice the smoke overhang on the 15-minute journey. He refused any payment for the trip.

The town of Flint was about $150 from Detroit. I was to take an interview for a fellowship programme in Detroit; however, since the programme director was called to perform an emergency surgery at Flint, about 80 miles from Detroit, I was asked to come over as soon as I had landed in Detroit. The fare ticked off a few sightseeing and shopping plans I had planned. After the interview, the doctor profusely apologised for the inconvenience and advised me to search the Internet for deals on cab rides. Ride-sharing was non-existent then; a Google search showed a cab agency charging $80 to Detroit.

I called the listed number and the driver arrived promptly. I asked to confirm if the deal was as listed. Mr. Singh was surprised the rate was still advertised on the Net. He told me he had cancelled the advertisement a week ago. He said he would honour the deal, promptly called the local Google sales representative and gave him an earful.

During our hour-long trip, I picked up a conversation with Mr. Singh. He took time to respond to my queries, kept a watchful eye on the road, swearing at speeding drivers on the freeway, freshly cleared of the early snow. He had migrated to the United States through Canada in the early 1980s. He was from Punjab and had then secured asylum as a political refugee. He had since married and gained American citizenship. He said he hasn’t been to India since reaching the Americas. He had tried on a number of occasions to get a visa to visit his home in Kapurthala. The last occasion was for his niece’s wedding. However, his applications have been rejected serially at the Indian Consulate in Chicago. “The Indian government is not happy with the way I left India and will not allow me back again,” he said. He was in his early 60s and wondered if he would ever see his relatives back home.

We soon reached the airport, in time to catch my flight to Chicago and then to India. We wished each other luck in our endeavours. When I paid him the fare he asked me if I needed a blank signed hand receipt to claim travel expenses. “Many Indians ask me for it, so I keep a receipt book with me,” he said.

I did not make it to any of the institutes I visited while I was in the United States. For the fellowship programme I secured, the interview was conducted over Skype on a patchy broadband connection in Whitefield, Bengaluru. It was beyond midnight, in the summer of 2012, and I interviewed from the living room with a makeshift screen behind me. My wife and child were asleep in the adjacent room. The Internet connection could not support both voice and video. So the programme director from a university in the Bay Area called me on my cellphone and we muted the voice on Skype to service the video. After a 20-minute interview over Skype video and cellphone audio he offered me the fellowship.

The best opportunities sometimes arrive through completely unplanned routes. The most elaborate contemporary shortcut to an upgrade, over time and age, may seem an ill-chosen route.

What about Mr. Mehta? Well, you can take a man out of India but not India out of a man.

The author is a senior consultant neurosurgeon in a major medical college hospital in Bengaluru. sunilvf@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 5:56:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/american-overtures/article26686695.ece

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