Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Letter from... a visa application centre

Indians and visas. There isn't a nationality that shares a relationship with visas and passport in quite the ways that Indians do

I’m not sure if Non-Resident Dads in the gulf still do this. I suppose not, what with Google Drive and Dropbox and cloud storage and what not. But back in the day, my father was a meticulous manager of passports, visas, work permits and all other documentation. Not only did he set up elaborate spreadsheets with columns titled Date Of Issue, Date Of Expiry, Number, Date To Apply For Renewal, etc. on his work computer, but he also taped up printouts of these sheets on surfaces all over our flat. One morning I would open my wardrobe to change into my school uniform and suddenly there would be little square of paper on the inside of the door panel. A list of all our passport and visa details, with the next document to expire in bright red font.

Thanks to a combination of the Indian embassy’s outstanding customer service and the UAE government’s enthusiastic support of migrant rights and comforts, we were always brought up with a tremendous sense of documentary self-preservation. (Is that a thing? It should be.)

Which means that we were drilled to automatically flee with passports and visas at the merest hint of an emergency. Once, perhaps in my last year of residence in Abu Dhabi as a school boy, smoke started billowing from a building across the road. I called up dad to inform him of this exciting development.

GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT, my dad started screaming on the phone, THE FIRE CAN SPREAD. Calm down, I told dad, the fire has to cross a four-lane highway, across an entire parking lot, over a little playground, and then through my dad’s insane, seven-layer, lungi-design curtains before getting anywhere close to our document files.

Minutes later, I was standing outside my building clutching a plastic bag full of passports and other vital documents. All kinds of paper were inside the bag. School progress reports, certificates, rental contract, hospital health records. My dad was, I believe it is called, a worrier.

These things rub off on kids. Parents spend their entire lives trying to impart to children their love of hygiene, daily shaves, ironed clothes, vegetarian meals. And, instead, kids pick up the stuff parents never think about: accents, music, gait, hairstyle, a passion for puns and wordplay, Mohanlal, and a capacity to worry about passports and visas.

Earlier today, the co-editor of your favourite Sunday digital magazine suddenly realized there was a peculiar problem with his UK residency visa. I will not go into details here. They are far too detailed and confusing to be interesting. But suffice to say that if I don’t file some paperwork, I may be in the peculiar situation of having to apply for a new two-year visa in order to bridge a gap of 18 days before I can apply for another type of visa. Failing which I would be residing illegally in the UK for two weeks. (SO EXCITING! No.)

Anyway, as you can imagine, I lost my mind for the duration of an afternoon. Frantic phone calls later, I drew up a letter to the authorities. I write this weekend’s Letter from... from the comforts of a cafe a short walk from the post office.

Ah, yes. Indians and visas. I don’t think there is a nationality anywhere else in the known universe that shares a relationship with visas and passports in quite the ways that Indians do. We are both simultaneously petrified and ecstatic about the idea of visas and passports.

Partly this is because we are screwed at both ends: home and away. Until very recently, obtaining a passport itself was a herculean task of resolve, patience, and expense. I had a friend who once applied for a passport in Trichy. Obtained one after jumping through hoops backwards wearing a blindfold. Found they had spelt his name wrong. He sent it back. And then got a new one with the correct spelling but wrong gender. He now just lives as a woman because that is so much easier.

I kid.

But at least the Regional Passport Office is a known evil. Getting done over by your own compatriots is an acceptable agony.

But applying for a visa? Shudder.

First of all, let us be frank: “Indian" is not one of those nationalities that are welcomed with open arms all over the world. Richer countries treat us with the exact same contempt we treat poorer countries. Unfortunately, there are many more of the former than the latter. So we end up trooping up and down embassies and visa application centres lugging behind us bucketloads of paper accounting for every detail of our temporal lives.

Who amongst us has forgotten their first visa to a European country when they were given an eight-day visa for a seven-day trip? The embassy graciously having given us an extra day for contingencies. Which is nothing to scoff at. Many years ago, well after I was no longer an NRI but just the son of one, I visited Abu Dhabi to spend a summer vacation from college with family. On my way back to India, my flight was delayed by a few hours. Instead of checking-in my bags and filing through passport control, I decided to sit in a cafe and watch a football match. A couple of hours later, I dropped my bags and queued up in front of the sceptical passport control chap. Within moments, I had been ushered into a room to meet a man in uniform. Turns out, that in the time I spent watching football the clock had ticked past midnight, and I had officially overstayed my visa for a day. Thankfully, an overstaying Malayali is by no means a rare occurrence in the UAE. I handed over the Dhs 100 note my dad had given me for travel emergencies (duty-free books, beer) to pay a fine. I was given a stern talking to. And then sent on my way.

But I crib too much. As my father likes to say, things have improved muchly these days. Once upon a time, he likes saying, Indians went to a country first and figured out visas many years later. Today, you see Indians everywhere—from California to Canberra.

But for those readers still intimidated by the prospect of applying for visas, let me give you some tips from my many years of sweating in front of cubicles.

1. Never, never, ever think that you can get by with too little paperwork. Never, ever think that excessive paperwork of type B will make up for your lack of paperwork for type A. That never works. Don’t try it.

2.Yes, you need photocopies of that.

3. No, that passport size photo won’t work. Looks dodgy.

4. Appear enthusiastic about where you are going. Try to make conversation with the person in the cubicle. That sometimes helps. But not too enthusiastic. Know that Bern is the capital of Switzerland. Don’t tell them that the Friedrich Durrenmatt is your favourite Swiss crime novelist. Unless he actually is. Which is cool. He is good. Basically, be normal.

5. Don’t do that thing with the Schengen where you apply to one country but then never visit there. They will find out. They will remember. They will reject next time.

6. This is my top tip: If you can, apply at the embassy. Here in the UK, most of the Schengen nation embassies don’t like to say that you can actually apply directly to them. But often you can. And often they are kinder, faster and more considerate than the guys at the Private Visa Processing Conglomerate of Mordor. I once had to go to Italy at short notice. I ran to the embassy where a kind old lady said, “You come tomorrow, my son. I will give you visa." If there was no glass in between, she would have kissed me and fed me something greasy. The Italians truly are the desis of Europe.

7. Bonus tip: Always keep your eyes open for all the many visa-free arrangements that Indian citizens enjoy all over the world. Many countries let you in if you have a valid Schengen or US visa in your passport. Others like Ecuador let you in as long as you are Indian! Hurrah.

Yes, all this paperwork can be a pain in the neck. But the world is great fun. Go see it. Just make sure you keep your passport and visa somewhere safe. In case there is a fire or something. Just do it and don’t argue with me.