Obstacle to Departure: The Visa Nightmare
When I was a final year undergraduate student at IIT-Kharagpur in 1966, I applied to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana for a fellowship to pursue a PhD program in metallurgical engineering -- and was pleased to receive an offer of a “teaching assistantship”. I would receive $220 per month, and tuition fees and other mandatory charges would be waived by the university. I was expected to register at the university around September 1 for the Fall Semester. For a variety of reasons I could not get to Purdue by September 1. Fortunately the university had agreed to extend the offer to the Winter Semester, beginning in late January, 1967.
In early November I applied for an Indian passport through a travel agent in India (because they knew how to “expedite” the process) and got it fairly quickly. Then came the step of getting an American visa, which in time proved to be a real nightmare for me.
In those days, getting an American visa was a protracted and rigorous process. First, the student had to secure a formal document from the university where he was headed that detailed the planned degree program, expected duration, financial support level promised, etc. He had to submit that document with the visa application that asked lots of questions, some of which were downright silly. Had I committed any crime for which I had not been prosecuted? Was I ever a member of the Communist Party? Was I ever a Party sympathizer?, etc. After a thorough review of the application, the Consulate General’s office in Calcutta (about 300 miles away from Puri, my hometown) set a date and time for a formal interview. If the student “passed” the interview, he had to take a multistep medical examination from one of a dozen or so physicians officially approved by the American Consulate. Once the medical report was found to be satisfactory, the Consulate issued the visa.
I began the visa process just before Christmas of 1966. Things went smoothly enough for me, and I went through the interview step without any problems. The Consulate office then handed me a paper that listed the names of the officially approved physicians in Calcutta. I was an infrequent visitor to this big city and had a very limited knowledge of its geography. So I picked a physician whose office was on a street that I knew and went to see him. I don’t remember his name anymore, so I will call him Dr. Bose.
Dr. Bose examined me, made some gratuitous comments like I was too thin for my own good, and told me that I had to go to an “approved” radiologist for a chest X-ray and then return to him with the X-ray plate and the radiologist’s report in a sealed envelope. Dr. Bose was a dour man with a chip on his shoulder and took obvious pleasure in lecturing his patients. He directed me to the nearest approved radiologist, and I went to see him.
Unlike Dr. Bose’s office where I saw only one or two patients in the waiting room, the radiologist’s office was full to the brim. There were at least fifteen people in the room, and there was a steady flow of patients coming in and going out. I was impressed; this was clearly a very successful doctor, I told myself.
After a long wait, my name was called, and I went into the X-ray chamber. An assistant, not the doctor, took my X-ray, and told me to come back next day for the plate and the report. I did as I was told, and took the sealed document back to Dr. Bose. That’s when my nightmare began.
Dr. Bose read the report, took off his glasses, and asked me in a very serious voice, “How was your TB cured?” TB, I knew, was the deadly disease tuberculosis that was not uncommon in India those days. But the disease had many unmistakable symptoms, and I never had any symptoms of TB that I knew about. And the doctor was telling me that not only did I have TB at some point but that it had been cured!
I told the doctor that I never had TB and had never been treated for it. A long discussion followed. Dr. Bose did not believe me and told me that he could not issue a “satisfactory” medical report. He further said that even if he issued a satisfactory report and I managed to get by the Consulate through sheer luck, I would be sent back home from New York airport when the immigration officer looked at the X-ray plate himself.
I was devastated. I had resigned from a job, had secured a loan from my state government to pay for the airfare, had gotten suits made in Calcutta, bought winter coats, hats and gloves and paid a deposit for my plane tickets. I must have been close to tears when Dr. Bose very grudgingly told me that there was one way I could prevail but that would take at least a month. I had to get a bacteriological culture done of my spit to prove that I was totally free of the disease but the culture would take a month. There was no shortcut whatsoever.
I agreed to give a sample, hoping fervently that Purdue would grant me a month’s delay. I left the doctor’s office, a thoroughly defeated and dejected young man, alone in the huge city of Kolkata, not knowing what to do or whom to go to for advice. I barely made it to nearest post office and sent a telegram to Purdue.
During my infrequent trips to Calcutta, I used to stay at one of my maternal uncle’s home in the neighboring city of Howrah. I used to take buses to go from Howrah to Calcutta where all the big offices were. The famous Howrah Bridge connected the two cities. After I left Dr. Bose’s office, I wandered aimlessly for hours, and at one point, found myself standing on the bridge, looking down at the muddy waters of the river and thinking the worst thought. By then, I was not only depressed but also seriously worried about my health: maybe I did have TB and was never diagnosed? May be the disease would return some day?
I don’t remember how and when I reached my uncle’s home in Howrah. When the family members asked how my day with the doctors had gone, I could not bring myself to tell the horrible truth. I told them that it had been OK.
I tossed and turned the whole night, praying for a quick and positive reply from Purdue, granting me a time extension. The next day the telegram came from Purdue University. It said, in no uncertain terms, that the winter semester would start on January 24, and if I did not arrive by that date, I should stay in India until the next academic year. I must have looked ashen at that point because one of my maternal uncles obviously figured out that there was something wrong with me and decided to do some digging.
I now need to explain the cast of characters in my uncle’s home. It was a fairly large property, and two families shared it. The head of one family was my mother’s younger brother, and the head of the other family was my mother’s brother-in-law (younger sister’s husband). Following the customs of India, I was a guest of the first family (that of my mama), not of the second (that of my mesho). But there was a constant floater in the household. He was an older brother of my mother, and we called him Mejo-mama. He was a very interesting person. He did not have much education, had no regular job as far as I could see, and told tall stories quite regularly. He dressed and lived fairly simply, smoked cigarettes like a chimney, and spent time with his friends at home or at a nearby tea stall. He was friendly to me and made me feel very comfortable, unlike the other elders in that household who were nice but somewhat distant.
Over a period of about an hour, Mejo-mama dragged the whole story out of me. At the end, I cried helplessly, and he patted my back and said, “Don’t worry. You don’t have TB. I have seen TB patients, and you are not one and you were never one. We will take care of this mess tomorrow. Believe me”.
That night I slept very little. I didn’t believe Mejo-mama could do anything to help me, so I tried to think of options and alternatives all night long. Next morning, after a couple of cups of tea and a few cigarettes, Mejo-mama said, “Let’s go see your radiologist”. I was petrified. I didn’t know what he had in mind, and I was afraid he was going to somehow make a bad situation worse. But he was an elder, and I could not say no.
The radiologist's office was bustling with people as before but somehow Mejo-mama managed to charm his way to the radiologist’s chamber and spoke with the doctor himself. I was then given another X-ray, asked to wait for an hour or so, and given the X-ray plate and the report, in a sealed envelope! At that point, Mejo-mama relaxed, lit a cigarette and told me to go back to Dr. Bose. Then he hurried along, as if he had to douse some fire somewhere right away.
My meeting with Dr. Bose was a truly memorable one. After I explained to him that my uncle had taken me back to the radiologist for a new X-ray and presented him with the new sealed envelope, he opened it, read the report, examined the plate, and said with a smirk on his face, “How much did you pay?” He didn’t wait for the answer; instead he prepared his own report, and sealed everything in another envelope and asked me to take it to the Consulate and get my visa. As a parting shot, he said to me, “Son, truth will come out someday; you will not be able to bribe your way out of it”.
I lowered my head in shame and left the doctor’s office. What had Mejo-mama done? This was terrible! Bribing a doctor to get a fake, “clean” X-ray! Should I go back and confront Mejo-mama right away? After some more aimless wandering, I found myself at the American Consulate building. About an hour later, I left the building, with my student visa affixed to my passport.
In the evening when Mejo-Mama returned home, I was waiting to confront him. But his demeanor suggested that he was proud of what he had done for me that day, so I decided to go at it gently. Good that I did so because I soon learned what had transpired in the radiologist’s chamber. Mejo-mama had explained to the doctor that I was not a TB patient and never had been, and had gently persuaded him to consider the possibility that there had been an unfortunate mix-up with X-ray plates. “May be the plate of an ex-TB patient who had come for a follow up had been mislabeled as my nephew’s”, he had suggested with a lot of fake humility. After some initial resistance, the doctor had decided to take a fresh X-ray and read the plate immediately afterwards. Of course he found that my X-ray was totally clean, so he wrote a new report for Dr. Bose (but never said a word of apology to me or to Mejo-mama).
An overwhelming sense of relief swept through me when I understood what had happened. I was grateful beyond words to my Mejo-mama, the black sheep of my uncle family. I was also grateful to all my gods for saving me from my terrible thoughts on the Howrah bridge.
As the evening wore off, I wondered out loud if we needed to pay a visit to Dr. Bose and “straighten him out”. My magnanimous Mejo-mama was a wise and mellow individual. “Forget him. Forget that he almost ruined your life. Think about your coming trip. Get ready for that”, he advised.
I followed his advice and completed my ticketing, shopping, and packing. And I bid farewell to my father and a number of relatives at the Calcutta Airport on the night of January 20 (actually in the wee hours of January 21) and boarded an Air India Boeing 707 jet, bound for New York. On my way to the departure gate, I exchanged 60 Indian rupees for 8 very precious American dollars, the only amount I was allowed to have, under then prevailing Govt. of India foreign exchange regulations.
I had successfully dodged a dangerous torpedo, thanks to the thoughtful, affectionate and timely support from a most unlikely source – and I was on my way to America.
There is a postscript to the Dr. Bose episode, however. After I had been in the US for a couple of months, I received a letter from my father, telling me that Dr. Bose had written to apologize. Apparently the spit culture had been negative, and Dr. Bose had realized that I had told him the truth. To his credit, he had decided to send the bacteriological culture report and a short note of apology to my home address in Puri because that is the only address he had on file for me. I would never know if Dr. Bose ever figured out what had happened at the radiologist’s office.
(Posted on February 20, 2013)
Note: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org