Monday, August 08, 2005

Consulate Experience

Visiting the US consulate in Chennai is an experience that most of us don’t forget in lifetime. The experiences aren’t often pleasant like the waits outside the consulate on a humid day in April or a grilling from a consulate official. I had gone through them. But there was one that is slightly different where I was a neutral observer to events.

I entered the waiting hall for Consular Services in the US Consulate, Chennai at about 3 PM. I wasn't there for getting a US visa this time. I had just settled in Chennai after five years in the US. To close my bank account in the US, I had to get a notary seal from the consulate office at Chennai. So, there I was, waiting in a sleepy afternoon.

The waiting hall was rectangular with the entrance on a broader side and a counter opposite to it. There were chairs on the perimeter. The entrance was not in the middle of the room, so there were fewer seats to the left than to the right.

Two guys were sitting on the far side of the room. They were in some deep discussion and hardly noticed me entering the room. I went to the counter and waited for a few minutes before a lady came to the counter. I told her the purpose of my visit and gave the papers and my passport. She took them and asked me to wait.

I took the seat to the left of the entrance, next to a big brass statue of Ganesha. I liked to have one like that in my new home; but my living room is not big enough to accommodate such a big statue and our guests. People gift Ganesha pictures and small statues when they visit you to your new home in this part of the world. I had anyway planned to buy an apartment and invite my folks for the house warming function. So, I decided to settle for a large number of gifts of small Ganesha statues instead of one big statue.

After a few minutes, a couple came in. They were in their early twenties. They went to the counter, met with the lady and went back and sat on the right side of the entrance. Then a middle aged man and a young lady came in. The man looked like he has been in the US for a few years. He was tall, looked smart in Dockers trousers and polo T-shirt. He was wearing a thin rim or a rimless glass and had a receding hairline. There was nothing special about the girl except that she must be in her early twenties and seemed to be relieved on completing her education. She was wearing a normal looking Indian dress. They both appeared to belong to upper middle class in their respective societies. They went to the counter. The consulate lady had gone in and so they waited there.

The Dockers man began to talk to the girl. I thought his voice was too loud for his otherwise refined looks. He probably wasn't aware that his voice breached the wall of privacy and everyone in the room was audience to his conversation with the girl. I could make out the following in the mostly monologue. The girl is engaged to someone closely related to the Dockers man and she has a got admission in some US university. It seemed like the Dockers man has considerable influence on the guy engaged to this girl. He talked about the traffic in the place where she's going to and when the girl can start driving on a freeway.

Then an old couple came in. They looked tired and seem to be Punjabis settled in the US. The man was in slightly old and discolored half-sleeve shirt and pant. The old lady was in a sari. The lady sat next to the sitting couple. The old man went to the counter oblivious to the presence of two others there. He peeked inside the office and was too close to the Dockers man.

The man in the Dockers didn't like it. He was probably used to the system of “Only one person beyond the line” as in the Immigration area in US airports.

He said, "Can you please move from here?” The old man looked hurt. He belligerently said, "Why?” He didn’t question the sole rights of the Dockers man, but definitely meant it. The Dockers man replied, "I need my privacy". "Ah! A fresh green card speaking", I thought. Everyone sitting the room exchanged a smile at the mention of the word privacy. The old man said "No, I won't", without giving a chance for the other person to continue the argument. Dockers man was really upset and didn't continue. The old man stood near the counter for a few more minutes; the consulate lady was still busy inside the office. The old man was getting tired. He went and sat near his wife.

The Consulate lady showed up at the counter; the old man jumped and approached the counter. He said something to her and she asked him to wait. The old man returned to his seat. The Dockers man began his loud conversation with the consulate lady. He wanted some information on visa for the girl that I didn't care to remember. I thought the lady had no chance of knowing answers to his questions; instead he should have approached a H1B guy or an immigration lawyer in the US. The Consulate lady politely said, she can't answer the question. Dockers man wanted to talk to her boss. She refused. He let out his last weapon - that he is a green card holder and implied that he is not a lowly temporary visa seeker. He wanted to be treated like a … green card holder. She didn't yield. Dockers man was upset that he couldn't get something done in front of this girl. The girl didn't seem to mind not getting the information. It must have been a bad day for the man, meeting two that would hurt his ego in a span of ten minutes. The Dockers man left the hall huffing and puffing with the girl.

It was the turn of the old man and his wife. They had lost their passports and visas. The man took out old faded copies of the passports from a bag. The lady at the counter accepted them; gave him some paper. The couple returned to their seats and began writing down.

I was called next and got my work done with an irritated looking consulate official. Six years earlier I had got my first H1B stamped after a few days of wait at the gate. When I came out of the consulate, I felt a sense of achievement. This time too, I was so relieved. May be this is not about US or visa; but more like getting some work done with a government, any government. Think of the Dockers man who couldn’t get the sense of achievement even with his green card.

I will watch out for the same feeling after I get my ration card from TUCS.

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