Guest Post by Fawzia Naqvi
Sachin Pilot was in my dreams last night, with all due apologies to his wife, because I swear, I am not secretly fantasizing at all about India’s youngest cabinet minister. He just showed up. I think it was in Srinagar, though I’ve never been there, I swear. And why Srinagar? Well that’s another matter, requiring numerous sessions of therapy. But the good Minister made a cameo appearance and told me quite categorically that I had already been granted three visas to India and should expect no more. Don’t get me wrong. I like Minister Pilot. I admired the way he handled corporate America when he visited New York to deal with all the whining and complaining about Indian reforms and that pesky CSR Bill. But why is he in my dreams? An Indian friend tells me it’s because I’m constantly nervous about going to India. And herein lies the truth. I observe, analyze, obsess about, pontificate upon, call, email and travel to India more than most Pakistanis, without actually being a spy. Yes. Really. And I resent how easy the spooks have it. I’m guessing they aren’t dreaming about a finger wagging minister, ok Sachin Pilot, telling them they can’t get a visa! But such are the incessant covert and overt anxieties of Pakistanis like me who have careers involving India. And if Sachin Pilot, he of the new generation of Indian leaders is also telling me (in my dreams of course) that I can’t get a visa, then surely the news for Indo-Pak and hence my career, is not good. The twain of course is twinned.
And these days while most other investors are stampeding for the exits, I am rushing to get in, literally. Well luckily for me, that’s my job. But there are sentries standing in my way holding up huge signs saying “HALT.” And it is because of these sentries that I am told “It is your place of birth only madam.” I’ve been told this for seven years by a kindly visa officer at the Indian Consulate in New York. He and I are growing old together like an unhappy grumpy married couple. He’s tired of seeing my application show up every six months demanding a multi-year multi-entry visa, my right or so I presume as an American citizen. And I am tired of being able to complete his sentence, “it is your place of birth only madam”. I laugh or perhaps I snort reminding him that the place of birth of my parents is India! He, however, remains unmoved and bored with this detail, helpfully pointing out it is I who is applying for the visa and my place of birth is Pakistan. Meanwhile my boss keeps popping around for the 20th time, helpfully mind you, inquiring if I’ve got that visa.
Well there is nothing for it then the in-laws are brought in to mediate. Some man or woman of consequence in Delhi who will make that visa magically appear on my passport. “US-PAK” the visa will scream, our very own scarlet letters which make immigration officers in swanky Indian airports scratch their heads and helpfully declare, “But you are American citizen madam, born only in Pakistan. Why this is there?” Good question bhai sahib I say to the man who sits between me and India, me and my luggage, me and that comfortable bed at the ITC Gardenia in Bangalore. “They do this to make sure you are warned that a Pakistani is entering India.” He giggles nervously and says, “No no Madam you are American. We do not let Pakistanis visit.” Do I really want to argue on behalf of my brethren as this man is handing me back my passport and grinning at me so sweetly? Stamp, stamp, stamp, that sound I love the most upon arriving at Indian immigration.
Arrivals: In Hyderabad a stamp without so much as a glance in my direction, its 4am. In Delhi, glance, frown, jiggle a bit in the seat and stamp. Mumbai, well, it’s a conversation even on the outbound, and Bangalore, guess they are still scratching their heads. Stamp, stamp, stamp.
Hello India! For the third time in 6 months. My visa is only valid for six months. And my jet-lagged brain is already calculating whether I can squeeze in the fourth trip before the expiry in two weeks. I snatch my bag off the carousel and scurry for the exit. In case they change their mind about letting me in. The first thing I do when I’m in the car is ping my colleague. “Here,” I write. He’s holding his breath until that moment. And I know he has secretly researched the next flight back to Dubai, you know in case he needs to put me on it right away. “I was nervous,” he says, “Welcome to India. See they let you in.” It’s become a ritual now; we make my arrival seem the greatest achievement. Like children cramming yet another piece of toffee in to their mouths while parents aren’t looking.
Ah! It’s good to be Queen Bee, unless of course you are a Pakistani trying to do your job in India. All meetings are scheduled or cancelled depending on how good the chances are of my getting a visa or its looming expiry. And I am always advised to get out of Dodge at least a week before the expiry, just in case. In case of what exactly? Who knows? Fear drives me to the airport always with a week to spare and a tear in my eye as I wave Delhi; it’s usually Delhi a wistful goodbye. Return not guaranteed Madam. ‘
In many ways just the act of arriving, the stamp, stamp, stamp, the relief of crossing immigration, the slowing down of the heartbeat, is indeed the biggest achievement for a Pakistani or a Pakistani-American on a business trip to India. Followed of course by successfully dodging any hint of Arnab Goswami on my TV screen yelling and barking that India wants to know! Wants to know what? Well, usually why Pakistanis are such horrid, untrustworthy deviant demons forever threatening India’s security? C’est Moi? And thus those who care about me remind me to never switch on the idiot box while resident in their homeland.
Short of Armageddon, all the kerfuffle that could have happened between the two countries has happened these last seven years, usually just ahead of or during my visits. Which lately means all the time, you know in case we begin liking each other, which on rare occasions we tend to do. In such testy times, the attentive waiters at the Sheraton Saket in Delhi helpfully offer me yet another cup of filter coffee made just so, hoping to distract me from the screaming headlines in the morning papers. They eye me sympathetically as I eyeball “Pak Exposed! Another Pakistani terrorist found!” Printed helpfully in red in every newspaper, just in case you missed it the first time. Madam, how are you this morning?
One of my favorite entrepreneurs in Delhi, whose mother was born in Lahore, says to me over a Sri Lankan buffet lunch, “So let me get this straight. You had to go and live in America to be allowed to come to India to work on our economic development?” Yup, that just about sums it up. Mind, we are in spitting distance of Pakistan, as the crow flies. Provided the poor crow isn’t hunted and shot down by the Indian BSF or the Pak Fauj for infiltrating the border.
The handsomest Indian man on earth “tsk tsk tsks” in sympathy hearing about my visa travails. He has suggested we dine somewhere on Lexington Avenue. None of these Frenchie fares for us desi types. I am for some reason incredibly hungry. “You must never now date an Indian man. Way too much drama!” He concludes, helpfully, of course. I am visibly deflating and losing my appetite, I could swear my feet are suddenly dangling off the seat and a bib has appeared around my neck. “Ok.” I manage to squeak out relinquishing the fork and the food. “Awesome!” He pronounces. “Now eat your veggies.” Hello Delhi? I’ve (helpfully) shrunk the Pakistani.
And my colleagues and cohorts in India no longer greet me with a simple “hello,” its, “You got the visa!” You see only some lunatic organization or an eternally optimistic one would make a Pakistani woman in charge of its India investment portfolio.
But there you have it Fawzia Naqvi Pakistani arriving in Bangalore shortly on Emirates, but, “halt right there!” Freeze frame. First the visa and here we must hand it over to Mr. Kafka by way of Messers, Chidambaram and Shinde who in turn have presided over the black hole called the Home Ministry. For the love of Bulleh Shah, Dear Prime Minister, I beseech you sir, give your Mandarins something better to do! They are at best wrecking my career and at worst traumatizing me. And what to say about my love life? And the visa thing? Well it has unhelpfully gotten much worse.
I am now advised Rule number 16 or is it 13 of the visa application states in the finest of prints that Americans of Pakistani origin, parentage or grand parentage or grand grand grand parentage must either produce a valid Pakistani passport or provide a renunciation certificate proving that we have renounced our Pakistani nationality. Now Pakistani Americans before you claim special love know this, the Mandarins in Delhi demand the same of Indian Americans who may for some odd ball reason require an Indian visa on a US passport. There is no quid pro quo by the Pakistanis. Because duh! Everyone knows they are idiots.
Because for us there is no requirement for police reporting, Indians fear that if they start treating us like any other U.S citizen, then too many of us will be free to scurry around India too often, repeatedly, unchecked, un-fingerprinted, and unbeknownst to “them.” The horror of it is too much to bear and then India will want to know and all that. I’ve even repeatedly and a bit desperately requested an Indian equivalent of George Clooney to trail me throughout my travels. But I am finally and courteously informed by return mail that such an equivalent is currently not available, however, they do look forward to receiving my renunciation certificate. David Headly you see was most unhelpful.
And now it turns out due to the enormous volume of requests for visas; I will no longer be able to speak to the kind visa officer. Our relationship it seems is finally over. Nor can I, it turns out even submit an application unless it includes the renunciation certificate or a Pakistani passport. But because I have now had a total meltdown and resorted to crying I am connected to a new, and mind you, helpful female sing song voice. I imagine she is petite and pretty and will be nice to me. “So let me get this straight, I say to Ms. Petite-Pretty at the Indian Consulate. Five visas later you want me to now produce a passport I no longer carry and renounce a nationality I no longer am? “That is correct,” she sings. “It is your place of birth only Madam.”
Sigh! All I can now do is dream about Sachin Pilot, and yet again stubbornly apply for a multi-year, multi-entry business visa while praying for a different outcome. Definition of madness for sure. But what I won’t do is contribute to the mutual hate, nor head for the exits at the first sign of trouble nor turn my back on the wonderful Indian entrepreneurs I have had the privilege to work with. “You got the visa!” is what I hope to hear from them again soon. Why? Because, it is indeed, my place of birth only.
Fawzia Naqvi is a resident of New York City which she hopes will secede from the Union kind of soon. She is currently working on never again dreaming about Sachin Pilot and (helpfully) dedicates this song to her beloved Indian co-conspirators for peace.