It was more than thirty years ago that I was accepted for graduate studies with full scholarship at a university in the United States. At that time, Iwas of course all excited, but my parents had doubts as to whether I would ever return to India. I had to work hard on convincing them that my prospects would be much better if I studied in the United States. Eventually, they would let me apply for my passport.
Once I had submitted the application for my passport, a police inquiry had to take place. But I was then completing my undergraduate education at a college campus far away from Kolkata. A police officer from the Ballygunge police station eventually visited my parent’s house in South Kolkata to complete the inquiry. The first question he asked my mother was, “Where is your son?”
“He is attending college away from Kolkata.”
“Then why did he put his residence address in Kolkata in the passport application form?”
“Well he was born here and stayed here to go to high school,” said my mother.
“But he did not live here for the last five years. Now we have to send his file back to his college town for a proper police inquiry,” was the police officer’s stern reply.
“There will be immense delay to complete the whole process,” reminded the police office to my mother.
When my father returned home from office, my mother told him nervously about the incident. My father went to the police station the next day to talk to the particular police officer. The officer was very adamant, and he insisted that the police inquiry process had to be completed in the college town. He calmly told my father, “I cannot do anything special for your son’s passport application. Of course, if you have contacts in the passport office, you can go and talk there.”
My father was very worried, because he knew the crucial step after getting the passport for me would be to apply for the student visa to come to study in the States. So he came back home and told my mother, “What can we do now?” My mother told him to contact immediately Kamal uncle, my father’s close friend, who was an official at a high position in the Passport office.
Later that week, my father went to Kamal uncle’s office, who then contacted the particular police officer. In a week’s time, the message my father got back from his friend was that only if he would take care of the police officer monetarily, then my inquiry file would not be moved to the college town. So, my father had to pay a price, in order for the police inquiry to be completed by the police officer in Ballygunge police station. That was the first time in my life I had found out how an Indian civil servant could abuse his power.
There is a saying in Bengali that ‘Dhenki Swarge giye-o dhaan vangey,’ which can be translated liberally as ‘Things remain the same no matter where you are.’ An incident took place after many years of my stay in the US which reminded me of this age-old adage.
About five years ago, my in-law’s house in Kolkata was put on the market for sale. When a tentative agreement was reached with a prospective buyer, we received some legal documents from Kolkata, which had to be attested by an Indian consular official in New York. To complete this process, I reached New York on a cold Friday morning, while it was still dark, and waited eagerly outside the consulate building.
The crisp morning air was nippy. The darkness of the night was fading away with the slight hint of the morning light. As I looked up in between the tall buildings on both sides of the road, I could see meager hints of sun’s rays through the grey rain clouds. Then I remembered that the weather forecast for that day had called for the possibility of rain showers.
The door to the waiting hall in the basement of the Indian consulate building opened promptly at 9 AM. I deposited my papers, passport and paid the fee for the attestation service. I was told to return at 4 PM to pick up my attested paperwork and passport.
I had the whole day to myself to while away in New York. I didn’t have any particular place to go. Therefore, I hopped into a local library to spend a few hours quietly.
By afternoon that day, it started to rain -- slowly at first, and then turning into a constant drizzle. I had to leave the library late in the afternoon to arrive at the consular building. With incessant rain coming down from the grey sky, the city looked gloomy. The only brightness was created by the glare of the headlights of the cars reflected from the rain sleek roads.
I did not have an umbrella, so I tried to protect myself from the rain with my hooded parka. When I reached the building, I found that some people had already gathered in front of the building. I could see a line of open umbrellas protecting those people from the incessant rain.
Eventually, an official emerged from the main door of the building. He said, “Those who have come to get their visas or new passports will have the first priority. Those who have submitted fees for other services will have to wait behind those applicants.”
I tried to protest and said, “I have been waiting in the queue for quite some time. Now, you want me to go to the back of the queue? That’s not fair!” The consulate officer looked angrily at me and shouted, “If you do not want to follow the rules, you will never get your paperwork back!”
I felt dejected. I could not believe that I had to go and wait far behind everybody. In utter disbelief of how the events transpired that day, as I moved back to the end of the queue, I told another person waiting in front of me, “There is always a bloody problem in this place!”
I never thought that the consular officer would pay any attention to what I said. But to my surprise, this irate man shouted back to me, “So you are cursing the Consulate office? I will see what I can do!” He was all excited.
I told him, “I did not mean anything so serious!” But who would listen to me? The agitated man started to yell, “Have you forgotten your heritage, because you live in this country?” I never thought the man would become so upset with my silly utterance. I spoke those words without thinking carefully in my mind. Nobody waiting there even said a single word in my defense to protest against the consular official.
“I had used the word bloody to show my intense displeasure at the turn of events here today.” I thought. “Did I sense a tinge of jealousy or acrimony in the other man’s voice? Or, was the man just trying to exercise the power of his position as a civil servant, like it used to happen when I was a kid back in India?” I experienced a host of emotions in my mind at that time that I could not explain well.
I waited outside of the building in the rain and pondered what to do in a dejected mood. It was almost 6 PM in the evening. The attendant in front of the Indian consulate was getting ready to close the main entrance door to the building. I asked the attendant, “My paper work and passport were not returned to me!” He said, “I will find out what’s going on.” Soon the consular officer with whom I had an argument came out and said, “We will not return your paperwork!”
I was very much surprised and said, “But I need my passport back!” He pretended not to hear me. Another person also did not receive his paperwork and was waiting outside. He told me, “If you are a US citizen, why do you not call the cops? You can complain to them that this consulate office is not returning your US passport.” I did take him up on that advice and immediately called the city police. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly a cop arrived at the Indian consulate.
The cop entered the building with me. He asked me, “Sir, what’s the matter?”
“A consular official is not returning my US passport, which I had deposited to the consulate office this morning.”
“But why is that, sir? Did you do anything wrong?”
“Well, I was angry with him, because after waiting for some time at the front of the consulate office to collect my passport and paperwork, he had asked me to go and wait behind everybody. So I had callously said that there was always a bloody problem in this place.”
The cop said, “That’s not a big deal. I will see what I can do.”
As soon as the consular officer saw the cop entering the building, he had asked his assistant to return my US passport to me. Before the cop could say anything to him, he said, “Sir, we have returned his passport right now.”
The cop told me, “Okay, then there is no problem! I will leave.”
After the cop left the building, this consular officer had a completely different expression on his face. His pleasantries vanished; he turned around to me and uttered rudely, “You may go now. We will not give you back the attested paperwork.”
“Only if you give your passport to us now, then we will return your paperwork!” he said.
I pondered over what could be going on in this person’s mind. In the worst case, he would possibly neither return my passport nor my attested paperwork. In my mind I said to myself, “To heck with the attested paperwork, but I am not going to part with my passport.” So, I told the consulate officer clearly, “I am not going to hand over my passport to you!”
The man was of course still agitated, and angrily announced, “You can leave the building now!” To make sure that I would leave the building, he asked the attendant at the main door to show me out.
Then I thought to myself, “Just because I have stayed away from my motherland for so long, I may have forgotten how a civil servant in India normally expresses his power.” Then I remembered the New York cop, who was so pleasant and professional in his interaction with me that day. What a stark difference in the working attitudes of the two! It seemed to me that things had remained the same in India as before - it was a rude awakening for me at that point!
I have been hearing lately about ‘India Rising’, and how things are changing rapidly in my motherland. But, alas, my experience reminded me of yet another adage ‘Sei tradition somane cholechhe’, loosely translated as: ‘The age-old tradition has remained strong and will continue to do so.’
(Posted April 1, 2016)
Readers interested in commenting on this article should send their remarks to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Comments received from Bijay B. on April 2, 2016:
"If you use such words by accident like, "There is a bloody problem in this place", in Kolkata today at the post office, bank or Reserve Bank or in any service area, you will be gheraoed immediately, insulted and many more things can happen. If you are found out to be an American the result may be severe. People in Calcutta still live on "your name my name Vietname" principle.
People are very angry, and the reason may be 34 years of leftist rule and 5 years of TMC rule."
Comments received from Ashis P. on April 4, 2016:
"Abuse of power is very common in every Indian Government Office staffed by uneducated unqualified Indian staff.
I suggest that Mr. Nandy with a fictitious name should publish a story in New York Times exposing the behavior and attitude of these Indian Consulate officials who should be fired and disbarred from entering in the USA. The same article should also be published in Indian newspapers letting people know how their uneducated Indian staff with their rude behavior are ruining India's reputation abroad. An investigative report by some NY newspapers will do some good too."
Comments received from Jayashree C. on April 5, 2016:
"I read this article with interest. It brings out the attitude of the civil servant and the sheer frustration of the writer very clearly. What a shame that a person of Indian origin had to call in a NY policeman to help him at the Indian Consulate. I wonder what happened in the end - did the writer get his papers/form back? How did he solve that problem?"
Comments received from Alok C. on April 2, 2016:
"I read the article with interest . Did the author get the paperwork back? Was he able to sell the property without the paperwork ? Recently I had to get the attestation for family property that my brother had to sell.
I always keep low profile when I visit Indian Consulate. Many of them are jealous of us immigrants. Also the colonial practice still lingers. This article should go viral. A copy should be sent to the Ambassador."
Comments received from Pabitra S. on April 4, 2016:
"The article describes one of the the reasons I am scared to go to India.
I myself have lived a charmed life, and this kind of harassment has not happened to me. I remember the Indian Consulate in NYC: there was a prominent sign in that building, "Do not spit. Do not smoke". I went there many times. Last year, my daughter went to the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, on my behalf, to get some papers notarized. There was no problem whatsoever. The staff members were nice to her. Also, when I lived in North Carolina, I used to send my US passport by mail to the Indian Consulate to get tourist visa. No problems encountered.
Instead we faced harassment by the US Immigration/Naturalization people! This happened before Bill Clinton came to power. The immigration services were notoriously abusive then. We lived in Connecticut. and went to Hartford for Susan's Green Card or citizenship. We were there bright and early. The woman in the front desk told us to put our papers in the tray in front of her. Then other people started coming in, including immigration lawyers with 10-20 applications in hand, and they piled them on top of Susan's papers. After an hour or two, the woman at the front desk began calling people's names, starting with application on the top of the pile, i.e. in the reverse chronological order. She was just too lazy to flip the pile over. When I sheepishly reminded her that we were there first and our papers were at the bottom, she said that if I argued with her, she would make me come back another day. So I swallowed the insult and waited out."
A Disillusioned Visitor