|Pearson International Airport
Credit: Kaberi Chatterjee
I thought of writing these down last night. The words were dancing before my eyes up and down, and I shut my eyes tight to sleep. I turned over on my stomach and clutched onto the pillow for support. No, I’m not sitting up, getting off the bed and turning my computer on to write them down, at 3 am in the morning! I had a decent morning hour to wake up. I couldn’t afford to spend the whole night writing and expect the world to understand in the morning that I was raped with words last night. Oh! Why do I get these brainwaves just before sleeping? Why is the night so short? Why does the world wake up in the morning?
What were crawling inside my brain were not just words and letters. They were serious issues I wanted to talk about. To let my readers know the real story. I kept silent for long enough. So much that I was beginning to believe that the truth never existed. I was slipping into a state of denial. I had to re-visit my past. A familiar flame crawled up my neck. A sense of déjà vu. Yet, I had to face it.
There were too many questions I was facing of late. I am exasperated. Noooo… I haven’t developed a Canadian accent. Noooo… I don’t eat just hamburgers and bacon, just because I’ve changed my country of residence. And yes, my teenage son CAN speak his mother tongue.
These and many, much more I was planning to write about yesterday night, err… early morning… errr… dawn? Is 3 am ‘dawn’? What do you call that hour? (Mood: Perplexed)
I am an immigrant. In this immigrant-friendly country called Canada, I am from India. I am a Bengali. From a city I am soooo proud to belong, Kolkata, and I firmly believe “what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow and the world thinks day-after-tomorrow”.
Let’s forget what I am today. Let’s forget I am an author, writer, that I own a publishing house, that I have my interviews published in various news portals, maybe you even know my name. Let’s forget all that.
The year was 1998, when I saw a small black-and-white ad in a newspaper. It was an ad by Canadian High Commission inviting new immigrants.
I wrote a hand-written letter to them. Earnestly asking how may I apply. We never had Internet those days and, moreover, I didn’t have a computer. Owning a computer was a luxury. And we were middle-class people.
But I had a dream. A dream for my two-year-old child. I didn’t have money to apply. I didn’t even know where I could get any money. I wasn’t even working. But I dared to write that letter to the High Commission.
The Canadian High Commission did not throw my hand-written letter into their bin. They send me a fat package containing the application forms and the guidelines to apply.
That set the ball rolling.
However, I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a passport. I didn’t even have a ration card to apply for a passport. I didn’t exist!
I needed a reference. In India, ONLY references worked. Luckily I had my birth certificate to prove that I existed. I impressed a local Counselor to write a reference letter for me to obtain a ration card for me and my son. I smiled a lot at him.
So I applied for a ration card. Then for a passport, for me and my son. That roughly took eight months, taking the country’s red tapism into consideration…. So much that I had forgotten I applied for a ration card when it arrived.
Ok. I need to mention something here that would get you guys exasperated. It’s like a Bollywood film, where you get so exasperated that the hero and the heroine are crossing paths several times, but not uniting. For me, my hero was Canada and I was the heroine. (LOLS)
This would also reveal the existing administration system that ran India at that age. Today things are better. Today you don’t need your legs to apply, you just need your fingers… err, just the right forefinger would do.
But for me, I had to use my legs. And wear out several shoes in the process.
Ok, getting to the point. On the day I went to apply for passport, I stayed overnight at my parent’s place. This was the winter of 1998. Then, early morning at 6 am, leaving my toddler son with my parents, I took a bus to the passport office when the sky was just beginning to fade into daylight. I checked and re-checked all the documents that I needed to apply for the passports.
The passport office would open at 10 am. Though I reached there at 7.30 am, trying to be early, I found myself standing at the end of a long queue of over a hundred people that never moved for three hours. At the end of the three hours, the line started waddling and I realized we were moving.
I reached the counter at noon and smiled when I handed my application. The ‘friendly’ man at the counter looked at all my documents and handed them back to me. “Your son needs to put his thumb impression here,” he pointed an empty space. “You missed it. NEXT…”
I don’t know how I am writing this, because even talking about the exasperation I felt at that time, gives me the creeps. My fist tightens. I don’t remember his face, so even if you now make it legal, I cannot punch him. But I can punch all those men sitting behind such counters one day. If you ask me, can I do it now? I’d say… NOOOOOO!
Ok. Calm… calm down. I have started to talk about it, I might as well finish and not keep the readers on a tenterhook.
Infuriated. Maddened. Frustrated. Annoyed. What else? I found 23 synonyms to exasperated. But ok. All of it.
I called my dad. Well, don’t expect a cell phone, for we never knew of its existence back then. I went downstairs, went into a phone booth across the street, and called my dad. Luckily, God spared me the horror of learning that he had already left for work. He hadn’t! So I just asked him to pack my son in whatever way he was and bring him over to the passport office. My dear dignitary two-and-a-half-year-old needs to SIGN!!!!
My dad reached there in a cab past 1 pm. My all-important toddler put his thumb impression on the paper and after I started the process all over at end of the queue, I reached the counter and deposited my form at 3 pm, this time without another hindrance.
Emerging from the battlefront, my toddler savior and I started to walk down the street towards the bus stop, when he looked up at me and asked, “Mom, aren’t we going to Canada?” He thought we were taking the flight there and then. I laughed and held his hand tight.
That day I promised to myself. Come hail, hell, or high waters, I am getting my son and myself OUT of that system.
I landed at Toronto Pearson International Airport exactly 11 years later.
Chapter 2: In the Cradles of Corruption
After six months of waiting, my passports arrived. But that was after I had approached the local police station, ran from pillar-to-post in the police headquarters asking for my file, barely slipped bribing officers, when my innocent face appealed to someone, I guess, and an officer came to my residence for police verification. He “umm…”ed and “humm…”ed quite a few times. I offered him tea and sweets. But didn’t understand he wanted the paper stuff. (Notes! Bribe! The end of all administration, legal, political, social, ethical system in India!)
I smiled a lot and didn’t know how to ask him to take a bribe. I’d never given anyone a bribe. “Sir, would you like a bribe?”… Oopps… Okay. “Sir, please accept this envelop for some sweets for your family.”… That was a rather accepted phrase in India and he couldn’t put me behind bars for giving that. As I thought and posted a smile on my stiffening face, he stood up to leave. THINK! Think girl! How much cash do you have at home?
Some 30 rupees, perhaps. 30 rupees bribe? Gosh! He’ll throw your papers in the gutter and put you in jail! Can I offer him a check? No no. This is illegal. You can’t bribe a cop with a check! As I thought and thought he said goodbye and left.
My sister, also my neighbor, screamed at me. “You should have let me know! I could have come with some money!”
Nevertheless, the passports arrived by courier two weeks from then. It was the beginning of my fight against the corruption. And I never gave another bribe for the next 10 years till I flew out of my motherland.
Now for the application. I needed Rs 30,000. That was a lot of money for me, particularly since I wasn’t working. This time, my husband lent a hand and took a loan from a bank.
I filled up the application forms. Ran for months from pillar-to-post to get my mark sheets, my certificates from college, which were, for some reason, never mailed to us. Then I decided to personally visit the High Commission in New Delhi and deposit my application forms.
I left for Delhi on July 2000.
A friend of mine in Delhi was kind enough to give me a car with a chauffeur to travel to the High Commission office. I reached the office and stood at the end of a short line. The line moved fast and I reached the counter in half-an-hour. I deposited the immigration application forms.
“Ma’m your forms have expired. You need to download new forms from the computer. These are old forms and cannot be accepted,” the girl at the counter told me brashly and handed me back the forms.
I spun around and held myself steady. Then walked towards my friend’s car in a stupor. That was the only time I felt I would give up. Slip. Fall. I was at the end of my tether. I felt was not destined for this.