Friday, April 17, 2009

On crossing borders, corruption, and wonder

Image of a loud speaker attached to an auto-rickshaw in India for the National Elections, 2009.Dear Gentle Reader,

I ended "On heat, puja, and India" with the line "and thus ended the first night in India" which was correct, but not totally correct.

While midnight had come and gone, I had left you, Gentle Reader, at the airport in Mumbai. 

It was still very early in the morning and I was not yet legally in India.

There was immigration...


The last time I lived in Asia I used to have prodigal problems at immigration counters.

I traveled frequently, for business, so I always used business visas; this was like putting a sticker on my forehead for corrupt officials which read "Demand money here".

Your humble scribe is not a fan of corruption.

Corruption, to me, is a private tax that hurts the state, corrodes the social contract, and does nothing positive for the general public.

Giving in and paying might speed your personal transaction to completion, and might increase your personal transaction's chance of success, but bribery gums up the works for everyone and leads to long-term problems.

So, I resist paying; I always have. 

This meant that I spent a lot of time queuing at immigration, being told that there was a problem with my visa, facing down a knowing look and an offer of assistance, and going through the rigmarole, again. And again. 

But, generally, I would not pay.

I would go back, re-fill in my entry card, and line up again. 

In a test of obstinacy and obdurateness I usually won.

One time I lost, though, was trying to get into Vietnam in the mid 1990s. 

On that trip immigration officers kept pointing at the screen, which was too dark for me to read (they must have had one of those privacy screens, drat--it's easier to negotiate when you know what the other side thinks is relevant) and the officers were telling me that I had big problems from my last visit. And, they hinted that they could fix the problem. For a fee.

Big surprise. 

I argued. 

To no effect. 

The computer doesn't lie, they told me. 

I would have problems on every visit if I didn't fix this.

On that trip, I had tight time constraints. I caved.

Eventually, I gained entry. 

As I walked out I noticed the cord to the computer.

It was unplugged.

Image of a plug and a wall socket.


I also recall my first visit to India, with warnings of the prevalence of Indian corruption, called baksheesh, ringing in my ears.

I arrived by plane in Madras, the state capital of Tamil Nadu.

Well, actually it was Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu.

It used to be Madras, the capital of Madras State, but in 1968 the Indian government changed the name from Madras State to Tamil Nadu for nationalistic reasons.

Then, in 1996, they changed the name of Madras (city) to Chennai. I visited very shortly thereafter.

You ought to know Madras as it had been an important city for a very long time. 

Madras was named after the village of Madraspatnam which had been bought by factors of the British East India Company in 1639. The Company had set up the Agency Fort of St. George nearby for trade, but they needed a larger base. So they bought the nearest village. (Why not?)

Madras had been the Madras Presidency of the Madras Province (most of Southern India) and had been tremendously important as a major trading site for the British East India Company.

Elihu Yale, who had been born in Boston but moved with his family to England when he was four years old (apparently he enjoyed the good life too much to strike out on his own quite yet) was a famous resident of old Madras.

Yale was employed by the British East India Company, as a young man, and became the President of the Madras Presidency, where he amassed a personal fortune simultaneous with helping his employer amass its own fortune.

And, yes, Elihu Yale is the one who gave the equivalent of a container of goods to a small college in New Haven, Connecticut. That small college sold the goods, kept the funds, used the proceeds, and named itself, ultimately, after its first great benefactor. If the wealth from one small transaction set up Yale... well, you can imagine what the wealth of repeated transactions could do...

So, back to your humble scribe's first entry to India.

Your humble scribe enters the Madras immigration hall, at stage left, with thoughts of Yale's interesting dealings, and the past wealth of Madras, ringing in his ears and in his imagination. 

Your humble scribe then proceeds to the immigration counter and podium at centre stage.

(Director's notes. The action commences at about 2:00 am, the long, dark tea-time of the soul. Shadows hang long in the corners of the hall, and bags under the eyes hang longer.)

"Hello Sir", says the immigration official, with his head bobbling sideways like it is about to fall off. 

"Welcome to India, sir, may I see your passport, sir, and where are you intending to be going to on this visit to our good country, sir?" all said as the officer's head continues to wobble and bobble sideways.

In India, nodding the head vertically means no. 

Waggling the head horizontally, in an alternating, sideways arc, with one ear approaching the nearest shoulder and then the other ear approaching its nearest shoulder, in rapid alternation, is the physical cue for yes. What makes this motion most interesting to watch, however, is that as the head waggles rapidly in one direction, the neck woggles in the opposite direction to create a truly sinuous waggle-woggle motion.

And, just as in the West people nod their hod to elicit a response from someone ("yes? yes? uh huh, uh huh, go on, go on..."), so this officer was waggling his head at me, in a bid to have me respond, so that I could be processed and he could move onto the next person.

And, cynically, from my past experience, I was awaiting the omnipresent problem with my visa; that thinly veiled attempt to part me from my money.

But, the head waggling is so very disorienting, when you first arrive in India, even when you know it is coming, that you don't think clearly. Or, I don't.

Especially at 2:00 am.

I goggle, unwisely, at the immigration officer's head and neck.

Like a bird transfixed by a snake I become absorbed in the immigration officer's head and neck movements.

"Sir? Hello Sir?"


"Sir? Your passport sir? Please, sir?"

"Oh right. Sorry. Here it is."

"Thank you, sir. And what are your good intentions for this visit, sir?" he asks, flipping through pages, waggling his head, looking for the visa.

"Business. I am here for business." I say, still caught up in the officer's sinuous neck movements. 

I start practising the waggle. Then the woggle.

"Oh, sir, I am greatly sorry, sir, but, good sir, there seems to be an irregularity with your good visa, sir."

Right. Crap. He must have caught me staring or teaching myself to waggle-woggle. Now I have really set myself up to be asked for money.

Like this doesn't happen to me three times a week, every week. 

I can hear the rest of the conversation in my mind and wonder how long it will take me to get to my hotel. 

I am so tired.

"Where did you say that you are going, sir? What are your intentions for this trip, good sir, and where does your good self intend to stay tonight, sir?" 

All three questions are run together as if his English teacher had taught him that the speed of speaking was the measure of fluency, and all three questions are accompanied by helpful, rapid, head and neck waggle-woggles.

"Madras." I say flatly, somewhat exasperated and tired and cranky and trying not to show it, as I will surely pay for it. "Business." I continue, "And I'll be staying at..." 

I hit a blank. It is past 2 am by the clock on the wall, but, it is much later for me, by time zone analysis.

I fumble for the reservation card. 


I remeber that I have packed my reservation card in the front pocket of my checked in luggage.

And, I will get to my checked-in luggage only after I get through immigration.

"Umm. I am not sure. I forget where I am staying. I have my reservation in my bag..." knowing that I have just supplied a perfect opening for a problem to be found and a fee justified for rectifying that problem...

"Sir, I am afraid that there is a problem with your entry form, sir."

Big surprise.

"If you would be so pleased as to fill a new card in, sir, correctly, sir, and come back, sir,..."


I cut the gentleman off, a bit curtly, before he can offer to help, and stalk off to the side to refill my card.

I double check then triple check my last card.

It looks 100% correct, to me.

Then I fill out a new card.

I get back into line. 

And the whole conversation is repeated again.

And again.

And again.

On my fifth card, I am the last person waiting to enter India.

I am becoming worried about the status of my unclaimed luggage on the other side of the wall, in the arrivals hall. 

I am considering breaking down and breaking my own rules regarding red envelopes (hong bao in Chinese), baksheesh in India and the Middle East--gifts of funds to ease passages.

I just want out of limbo.

I want into a bed. 

I have an important meeting in 3 hours. Two hours by now?

"Hello, sir." with his head bobbling like it is about to fall off...

I have the same officer, again. 

"Welcome to India, sir, may I see your passport, sir, and where are you intending to be going to on this visit to our good country, sir?"

It's groundhog day. 


"What will it take for me to get into India?" I ask, as politely as I can with a fatigue-induced snarl wanting to erupt... I leave the pregnant question floating in the air.

The officers eyes twinkle. I swear this is true. 

He has me and he knows it.

"Where is your good sir wanting to be going right now?"

He wants to play cat and mouse with me. 


This is my freaking night.


"I am so sorry, sir, I cannot let you into Madras." 

And those eyes are still twinkling.

"Right, so what will it take to let me into Madras then..." I say as I reach for my wallet. 

I have finally changed the script. 

I need to get into the country. 

I need my bag for my meeting.

And, I really need to sleep.

"I am so sorry, sir, I cannot let you into Madras. That is not possible, sir, but sir..." and he points to a sign on the far wall.

I sigh and follow his finger with my eyes.

I can barely see the sign without my glasses, which I always take off at Immigration, because my passport ID photo shows me without glasses.

But, this sign is just big enough to make out. It reads, through my exhausted squint, "WEL-COME TO CHENNAI".


I reel in disbelief.

And try again, grasping at the lifeline...

"Umm, my good self is hoping to be entering into Chennai this good evening or morning, rather, if that would be acceptable to your good fine self..." I struggle to say this, as rapidly as possible, with my breath half held, half released, in disbelief, and with my newly-learned, best waggle-woggle...

"Oh sir, I am so happy for you. Enjoy your stay in Chennai, sir. I am sure you will find it most pleasant and becoming, sir..."

And, wonder of wonders, he stamps my passport! 

"Here is your good passport, sir. Goodnight, sir. Enjoy your visit to Chennai, sir." 

And with that his head waggle-woggles more than should be humanly possible, one last time, as those eyes twinkle and then the immigration officer steps away from his podium, and away, via stage right, into the shadows.

I remain standing, transfixed by surprise and wonder, my head waggle-woggling too as my eyes dart from my passport stamp to the the sign on far wall, to the officer's podium, and back to my passport.

Who knew?

And that wel-come? It is still used today...

Image of a 'Wel-come' sign in India.


It is circumstances like these, and some remarkable experiences at the Canadian/USA border, that always induce some trepidation when I approach immigration.

So, as usual, I was prepared for the worst when I entered Mumbai International Airport in a haze of exhaustion lightened by puja up the nose.

On entering the corridor to the arrival hall, the worst arrived.

The puja scent was jolted, suddenly, and ripped through and out of me by the biting, harsh stink of urine. 

A sewage line had burst somewhere; the pungent, raw stench ripped and sawed through my nose and the back of my throat, keeping me awake in a far less dreamy state.

But, immigration was a breeze, for once. Especially with the large fans, pushing the bad air away from everyone in the queue. Heck, it was almost pleasant. 

Though I was sure to state that I was visiting Mumbai, and not Bombay, and Pune, not Poona, and Nagpur, which hasn't had its name changed. Yet. 

And I noted, with alacrity, that I was coming for a wedding, though I doubt that that was necessary. 

My officer was a model of probity and professionalism.

And all went relatively well, although my driver stopped the car in the middle of a pitch black slum, on the way to town, and asked for more money. 

Bad idea on his part.

And I arrived, ultimately, at my hotel. With my luggage, and the hotel reservation that I had found in the front pocket, as I had hoped.

Where I checked in and fell fast asleep until the morning. 

And thus ended, technically, the first morning in India.



Anonymous said...

I spent 4 hours in Bombay, as it was called in 1969, on a stop-over on my way to London. All 4 hours in the airport, drinking Fanta. That was enough for me.

murat11 said...

Lovely story of redemption, a very nice afternoon's walkabout / promenade. You've quite the gift for stacking, then unpacking the Jenga blocks, midst grand thickets of (not quite) digressions. What was right with Kipling (what Borges could "see") wanders through in your tellings. Obrigado...

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Gigihawaii,

I am guessing that you didn't make it into the military mess then... which I bluffed my way into. I'll tell you all about it when I return from a brief absence.

You have noted before, Gigihawaii, that you are fickle. I hope to see you again.

Dear Murat11,

I am speechless. Thank you.

I might, though, need more of the art of editing, no?

I hope to see you in three weeks time. I will certainly be commenting more upon my return.


murat11 said...

Yo, SC: Editing is for editors; you'se a writ-ah.

We'll see you upon your return. Don't let the blog bugs bite...

Teresa said...

Great post, Chris. Glad to hear that corruption is decreasing in India (as long as you know the newest place names). My favorite corruption story of Asia is when the nice man in the Taipei tax office forced me to cheat on my income tax, just because I wrote it in laboriously printed Chinese characters. The problem was he kept ripping up my form every time he felt I had reported too much income, and I had to laboriously write all those characters again!!

vinesh said...

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