Those who know me or follow me on Twitter have heard all about my bizarre and extended difficulty at leaving India. For those who don’t, or who want to get ‘reacquainted with the facts’ as Gandhiji would say, here’s a quick summary (feel free to skim over, this isn’t the important bit):
1) I was asked to leave India because my salary is too low. The Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in Thiruvananthapuram told me that I had to get out before July 5, which was when my final visa extension would expire.
2) However, in two and a half years here I’ve never received an actual physical stamp of extension from Delhi, so Immigration rejected me at Mumbai airport and scolded me for not having an exit permit. (The FRRO had told me that I didn’t need anything to leave.)
3) I returned to Kerala to get the exit permit, which I was assured would be ready by Friday 8th July (yesterday); it wasn’t, of course. This meant rebooking my flight a second time. The FRRO insists to me the exit permit will be ready on Monday 11th; I’ll take a train to Mumbai on Tuesday 12th and fly on Wednesday 13th, hopefully to be in NZ Thursday 14th.
4) [I’ll leave this space blank for whatever goes wrong in the coming days. There will surely be something.]
(I acknowledge that it is ultimately my fault that I’m in this mess, because if I’d done more research back at step (1) I’d have known of the need for an exit permit. I’ve lost upwards of Rs 30,000 as a result, which was all the money I’d saved for my intended one-month holiday in New Zealand (most of which would go towards a tour of the country to visit family), so when I get back to NZ it will be for an indefinite period of time and I will be looking for work straight away.)
Okay. Those are the facts. What I want to talk about now are the implications I derive from this saga about where I am or am not welcome.
In India, a key philosophy is that ‘the guest is God’ – or, in other words, a visitor is a blessing and should be treated as such. Whenever I visit somebody’s home, all the family members present will be called to come and welcome me. I’ll be seated in the most comfortable chair in the living room and someone will bring tea and a selection of snacks (or, if it’s around lunch or dinner, a small meal). The TV will be switched on so that I have something to watch, if I so wish, and to make me feel at home (I don’t own a TV but okay, the gesture is sweet). Until the time I leave, the house’s entire focus will be on me. If a child sleeping in another room wakes up and starts crying, someone will quickly go and return with them, missing only a few seconds of doting on me, the guest.
This literal sequence of events has happened many times over during my three years in India. Apart from that, I am very fortunate in that I know many wonderful people in India (again, both in person and on Twitter) who have made me feel extremely welcome here. I’ve even felt at times like I belong – which is ideally how it should be. We’re all human, after all.
The past month or so, however, has been a constant struggle against a system which simply does not care, and certainly makes no effort to make me feel welcome. I’m by no means saying that I deserve special treatment – and my experience is not even close to the worst it can get for a foreigner, let alone a poor farmer in Bihar – but between traditional Indian hospitality, which I so keenly feel among regular people, and the impenetrable bureaucracy of the government and its processes, there’s an enormous disconnect.
When one government worker rebukes me loudly and openly for following the instructions of another government worker – which is what happened at the airport – I certainly don’t feel welcome, even as I was being told I couldn’t leave. When one government worker rebukes me for following his own instructions – which is what happened the moment I got back to the Trivandrum FRRO – I feel absolutely insane, like an insignificant insect who keeps knocking on the door of the system, thinking ‘this time they’ll listen’. The FRRO then went on to lie to me about what he would do to help me, just to get me out of his office; once my planned exit permit fell through yesterday, he finally adopted a remorseful and guilty tone, though of course he didn’t apologise.
I still take responsibility for not getting things done the right way at the start, but all this just made me think that there’s only one place where I am truly welcome, and that’s New Zealand. Why? Because I hold a New Zealand passport. Most of my family is there, and they do accept and support me wonderfully, but the passport is the key here. After all, there are kind and genuine people everywhere, and thus potential for feeling a sense of belonging wherever you go, but the only order of law that will serve my interests is that of New Zealand.
Naturally, every single one of my calls to the New Zealand Consulate in Mumbai was answered respectfully and with great care, including several times by the Consul General himself. Concurrently, I spent three days calling the Trivandrum FRRO while I was in Mumbai but he rejected the call or let it ring every single time; I had to travel 2000 kilometres over land just to speak with him. This now does not surprise me. He is part of a system which is neither set up to look after nor care for me, let alone make me feel welcome.
So, back to New Zealand I go, unsure of my next move. I had intended to come back to India at the end of July – I even booked a return ticket – but that is now impossible for a number of reasons both financial and temporal. New Zealand is my legal home and I can live there largely free of the hassles of bureaucracy, so it makes sense to be there while I get back on my feet.
The most distressing implication, for me, is that in today’s world one simply cannot expect to feel automatically welcome with one’s fellow men and women around the world. In fact, the opposite is true. In India, since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the David Headley scandal, the majority of people – especially government officers – are extremely suspicious of foreigners. By the sounds of things, it’s the same everywhere. Foreigners have plenty of trouble trying to enter or remain in the United States, in Europe, and in New Zealand. The fallacy that outsiders pose the greatest threat to a nation’s security has become rule of law.
I’ve made a number of deep and strong human connections in India, connections that I hope will last for a very long time, and I have in many ways felt at home here. Those connections, those people, are a home of sorts. (I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘home’ is lately, especially since I was asked to leave India; am working on a long-form post about it.)
Those connections will have to wait, though, or at least remain strong across continents until I’m in a position to wade through the bureaucracy once again. I can’t help feeling that there must be some way that we could all move freely, as if each of us were a citizen of the world rather than a particular nation. But it would require everyone to behave with the collective good, the best interests of our species, at heart. That is hugely idealistic and unrealistic to begin with; now that the system is set up to engender suspicion of foreigners and promote the idea of ‘us versus them’, such a genuine global community is unforeseeable.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially when I know that in a place like in India, the prevailing traditional ideology was to be welcoming. I suppose I’m lucky that I’ve been able to experience its influence with so many great people. More than anything, those people and experiences drive me to overcome the system, to jump through its hoops and fight it if necessary, just so I can spend an extra minute in their company.