‘I wasn’t just any other foreigner in India. I was the foreigner’

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By Saim SaeedSaim Saeed

Illustrations: Samia Singh

HE’S NOT in today. Come back tomorrow.” Ordinarily, my demeanour would not have permitted it, but circumstance drove me to prod further. “I can’t come back tomorrow. My flight is tomorrow,” I said through gritted teeth.

“You see, it’s a public holiday. We have the day off.”

“I understand that,” more than I could have explained to him. The public holiday was Eid, and was the sole reason for my departure, “but these are your laws. I couldn’t have come a day earlier, nor a day later.”

At this moment, his pudgy, mustachioed face looked up towards me with the expression you see on people’s faces when you wake them up prematurely. And with a sigh, he asked me to wait. Now for a little more context. The paan-stained walls, typewriters, assortment of stamps, and the yellowing stacks of folders and papers tied with coarse string that were strewn all over the office belonged to the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in rural Maharashtra. (I should add that I was 16 then.)

I wasn’t just any other foreigner. I was the foreigner. You see, I’m from Pakistan. And as part of my conditions for living legally in India, I was to register at a designated FRRO within 24 hours of my arrival and departure. Hence the urgency. One that prompted me to ask the by-now-slightly-annoyed police officer to call the guy who would be stamping my papers. But I incurred another one of those automated replies, “Phone’s not working.”

“So I just wait?”

I interpreted the grunt as an affirmative.

And so I waited. I sat on the steps leading to the side door of the police station for a couple of hours, waiting for a (presumably white) car to come in, but none did. And then I heard a shout and looked around, but couldn’t see anybody. The shout grew louder and I stood up, only to realise that it was the officer still sunk in his chair. He called me in and said, “He’ll see you now.”

I was led up the stairs, through a corridor until I arrived at a big door. Inside, there was a big bookshelf, but, unsurprisingly, the man behind the desk was paying more attention to the massive television that was hanging on the wall next to the shelf.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I have to get a departure stamp.”

“Where are you from?”

“Pakistan…”

He sneered and gestured towards the television — now announcing that 54 people have died at the hands of a suicide bomber during Eid prayers — and said, “Your country’s f****d.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why are you going back?”

“Holidays, sir.”

“Holidays? There?”

“Yes, sir.”

He studied my face intensely, I could tell despite staring at the marble floor the entire time. Even as he reached for my papers and stamped them, he continued to look at m

“Go,” he said abruptly, “Go back and save your Pakistan. Looks like they need you right now.”

With impeccable sycophancy, I thanked him for the papers and shuffled out of the office, confused whether to feel sad at how I was treated, or happy that I got the stamp. The incident came and went away, but that confusion has stuck. Being escorted to the basement of virtually every airport I’ve been through, I constantly wonder whether the relief of getting out is more potent than the fear of going in.

Saim Saeed is 21. He is studying politics and philosophy at Bard College, New York

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