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Saturday, August 02, 2008

India 1: Getting to India

Part of the pleasures of a Drik Partnership are the meetings held twice a year in a South Asian country where everyone gathers to discuss the plans and the future of this interesting concept. The meetings, themselves, take up the days, but the evenings are what provide an opportunity to mingle, make friends, take in the social life, and relax - away from one's work at home. The meeting that Sabeen and I attended last week was in Calcutta (now Kolkata), about which Ghalib eulogized and from where my mother and I had begun our long journey to Pakistan in 1947 - a tale that will also feature, for other reasons, in this series.

I have visited India (read Delhi) several times in the past few years as a member of SAF and SAHR, as well as under the b.i.t.s. banner  in the role of New Media consultants to Tehelka, whose courageous exposé of the Gujarat massacres has been a landmark in journalism. (I have even been to India for medical treatment - a trip full of anxiety and worse, as you can read in my Archives.)

Each trip, India has been a breath of fresh air (however hackneyed and clichéd that sounds). This time, though, I noticed a few differences from the past trip, but more about them later.

Since the first question I get asked most often by my friends in Pakistan is "How easy or difficult is it to get a Visa?" ... I thought I'd start this multi-part series by a post on travel to India and what precedes it.

I shall leave aside the Diplomatic & Government visas, with which none of us are really concerned - since our only link to those is what we pay for some rectoid to take a free, meaningless drinking and shopping trip at our expense. Business visas, with proper invitations from those you are going to meet, as well as Conference visas (for most legit conferences) are not a problem. Courier them your visa application and in a week or two you should be ready to go. Even genuine multiple entry visa requests are entertained without a hassle as are Medical Treatment related ones. I say all this from personal experience. But YMMV.

I am told that visas for visiting blood-relations are not difficult to obtain, especially if the request involves a death, near-death, or marriage --- and reasonable documentary evidence supports it. From talking to an Immigration Official (who was over the moon at the fact that he and I shared a birthplace, Aligarh) I learnt that this category is a dwindling phenomenon as the partition generation on both sides dies out.

The really sad/bad part is that Tourist Visas are O-U-T ... so we cannot really experience India's vastness and variety to which some of us have deep links and others are constantly lured by Bollywood's on-location shoots. There are numerous promises of liberalizing these arrangements between the two countries. In fact, I have been waiting, ever since I became a Senior Citizen, to be able to arrive and get a landing permit at an Indian airport, as promised. 

Speaking of airports, let me be clear about one thing, though: Unless things really change radically, it cannot be just any Indian airport! The visa application form states that the only points of entry permitted are Delhi and Mumbai. The chatty Immigration Official also informed informed me that Bangalore had now been added and would be reflected in the new forms "as soon as we finish the old stock. But we still have lots of them left, I think. Heehee".
Detour: Reminded me of my visit to Pakistan's Embassy in the UAE, when a cousin of the Late and Unlamented General Zia was the Ambassador. It was way after we'd "recognized" Bangladesh and, yet, there - glaring at visitors from behind the Ambassador's desk - was a map of 'East Pakistan' on the wall. The Ambassador's assistant told me that they were waiting for the arrival, "any day", of a "replacement frame with coloured pictures" ('coloured' highlighted by a toothy beaming smile), leaving me looking as dumb as my Islamic Republic's Ambassador who arrived, just slightly tipsy, to start his workday. But I digress.
With our meeting - this one was being held in Kolkata (the city that was home to Mother Teresa) - scheduled to begin on a Friday, it meant: (A) We had to travel via Mumbai or Delhi; (B) We had to travel on a Monday, since the only other flight out of Karachi was on a Saturday (not an option, unless we missed the important opening day). Considering that Drik was unlikely to be able to support our 4-day sabbatical by landing earlier at Kolkata and pay for 2 hotel rooms, this meant a lay-over at one of the two cities. Choosing Dilli was easy: Friends! Family! Familiarity!

I do not know about the arrangements at the two other airports (or, for that matter, in Pakistan with regard to Indians landing here - since we compete heavily in the idiocy department), but if you are traveling to Dilli for the first time, when you hit the Immigration Hall, do not head for any of the counters in a rush to get out soon! Take a look towards a line that's forming on the extreme left side (comprising mainly of those who've been stung before). There's no sign that tells you what it is, so ask the guy ahead. This is where you pick up an additional form that you are to fill in triplicate before you present yourself before a not-so-foreign-looking official behind the desk. The first time I encountered this, a few years ago, they'd run out of 'carbon paper' (anyone remember those things?) so I had to fill 3 different copies, while I wondered why I was going through this older-than-analogue routine in a country well-known for its IT prowess. That aside, it still stumps me as to why they do not hand these forms out, along with the landing card, on the flight itself. (Two trips ago I did make the mistake of suggesting this at the desk and was met by this Socratic response: And what we should do on this desk after?)

Note: "Assistance" in filling the forms is now available. Just a Tip ;-)

OK ... that hurdle crossed, you are now at The Immigration Desk. Breathe a sigh of relief. Like most immigration officials - barring a few nasties at some Western airports, particularly post-9/11 - you are generally met politely. And, if your accent reasonably matches that of the person behind the desk - or if, perchance, you are someone returning to visit your ancestral home (or the official happened to have migrated from Pakistan) - you could be there for minutes on end exchanging niceties and memories of where each of you lived before partition while the people in the line behind you cursed 1947 under their breaths.

One final word of information: I am sure this holds good for both sides of the border (I request any Indians who have travelled to Pakistan and - are reading this - to write in the Comments box and confirm or deny this for the benefit of readers): You can only exit from the point of entry (a law that may make sense in some acts but not necessarily in one relating to travel). This meant, in my particular case, that having arrived by way of Dilli, I could not leave India from Kolkata - a really annoying matter, because on my way back home I would have loved to have flown out via nearby Dhaka and met my daughter there. In fact, had Kolkata been a 'point of entry' option, the Karachi-Dhaka-Kolkata return journey would have saved almost 1/3rd of the airfare and four days!

Try as I might, I see no method in this madness. Will it ever end? Who knows? Hopes rise and fall each day.

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6 Comments:

OpenID Vic said...

@rant - sorry, Zakintosh:

I am sure this holds good for both sides of the border (I request any Indians who have travelled to Pakistan and - are reading this - to write in the Comments box and confirm or deny this for the benefit of readers): You can only exit from the point of entry (a law that may make sense in some acts but not necessarily in one relating to travel)

Sorry, I couldn't resist quoting the whole line, having read Mr Coren's delightful rant in your preceding post. Don't you think (suggest I lightly, and with trepidation, lest some of the bile you have been spilling inadvertently, courtesy the kebabs, now overflow on me) that the hyphen is rather more misplaced than your ire?

Anyway, to get to the point. Yes, it is truly heartwarming, and an exercise in ingenuity, to wade through the difficulties created by the lot that Lawrence Durrell referred to so lightheartedly as 'dips'. One of these is indeed the peculiar insistence on departing the way one arrived (with no particular reference to 'dust' or 'ashes').

On my most recent trip, as you have so kindly left the door open to me to relate, I was delighted (well, perhaps not in every respect) to find myself in a situation that some might consider piquant, but struck me as slightly more spicy.

I arrived by bus* via Lahore, but, having specifically asked for special dispensation to depart via Karachi, got permission to leave via Karachi for Mumbai - you guessed it! - by bus!

My visa actually had the 'By Air' option crossed out, doubtless to preclude the possibility that any helpful airline (read: PIA) make money on the ticket.

When I suggested mildly (in Delhi) that this might be a bit difficult, as neither bus route nor, indeed, road exists, to undertake such an ethereal journey, I was heartily assured that the powers that be in Karachi would fall over themselves to help me leave. Yeah, right.

* The bus journey between Delhi and Lahore, by the way, is quite delightful, and although it does naturally take longer than flying, is much more restful, all things considered.

05 August, 2008 17:38

 
Blogger Zakintosh said...

@Vic: Trust you to not permit me the luxury of even one typo ... Traitor!

:D

I guess people who live by the hyphen die by the hyphen!

05 August, 2008 18:13

 
Blogger Quizman said...

"[.]and was met by this Socratic response: [.]"

Ah, the unfathomable Indian bureaucratic mind. You may want to read this delightful post.

06 August, 2008 05:46

 
Blogger Zakintosh said...

Thanks, Quizman, for pointing me - via that link - to a delightful blog.

06 August, 2008 17:05

 
OpenID Vic said...

@Zakintosh: Well, dash it... better a fine line than a pecuniary dot, what?

06 August, 2008 17:08

 
Blogger Sidhusaaheb said...

Wishful thinking as it may be, I do hope to see a day when Indians and Pakistanis will be able to visit each other with no other document than a photo-identification in their pockets, with, obviously, no requirement for a visa.

BTW, I do not write quite as well as you do, but an account of my visit to Paksitan can be accessed at:

http://sidhusaaheb.blogspot.com/2006/07/pakistan-visit-part-8.html

and the seven blog-posts that precede it.

:)

09 August, 2008 00:21

 

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