Guarding the borders

I stood in utter exasperation at the transit immigration counter. Not definitely from the days when armour clad, sword brandishing giants secured the borders, but here was a grim looking aurat looking me down through her eye glasses, through the bullet proof windows. The lady had still not finished deciding whether my passport was genuine and if I was a terrorist or not. This was the immigration counter at the Stockholm departure terminal. She turned the well worn blue passport with visas from so many countries in it, back and forth, she consulted her companion manning the next window, she looked at me, she looked at the computer terminal, she showed the passport under her UV lamp, she tapped more keys and she looked at me again for the 5th time. Then she said lamely ’you know, the computers are so slow’…I am sure she entered my name into some terrorist database and was waiting to see if bells rang & red lights came on! Why? Because I was brown and had black hair and a moustache??? Anyway after a few minutes during which I stood and cursed mankind, she waved me on..

Why me? What is wrong with my passport? Yes, I admit that the quality of the Indian passport at that time was probably a bit lower compared to the ones issued by others, with the picture pasted, the details handwritten and then the whole page laminated. After some years, one end starts to peel off or an air bubble is seen in the lamination. What happens is that this triggers alarms in the minds of such immigration clerks who have been entrusted with the responsibility of determining the bonafide and strategic plans of the unfortunate passenger standing in front of the cubicle. In my case this really happened. One of my earlier booklets (as it is called) was getting pretty old and I was at Kimpo airport Seoul. The girl looked at me, back to the passport, back to me, and then decided that she did not like me. She put her long and manicured fingernail under the corner that had the photograph and lifted it. I was shocked to silence, but the dictum is, when in doubt, never question of argue with immigration staff. What did she do that for? Was it to see if it comes off, or to see if the photo was switched? Well, in this case, it did peel a little above her nails. She finally decided that I was harmless; the passport was OK and stamped the entry visa. But since that trip and till I changed my ‘booklet’ I was harassed by so many immigration staff due to that slightly peeled off corner.

The other day my friend was travelling via Frankfurt to UK. The airlines seized his passport and kept it under safe custody with the pilot till the plane reached Heathrow. Now what did he do wrong? Nothing whatsoever, his ticket was OK with a return fare, his visa was OK, he had money to support his business trip…but then the airline confiscated his passport (they felt his face looked fishy!!) so that he would not destroy it enroute and land in UK as a ‘no nationality’ asylum seeker.

If only we had the high quality or biometric passports, if only we had a better international standing, if only all immigration staff were better trained, be it in India or elsewhere… If only there were no visas, and travel was borderless ……If only there was no racial profiling…but I hate passports, visas and all of that. Just because I am born in one country, another determines if I am eligible to pass by their land, what is right in this?

No wonder I spend time studying and thinking about the time when people risked life and limb to see and grovel (like the Vasco de Gama who tried to bribe the Calicut Zamorin with petty gifts and got told off) at the ‘Proud and rich land of the Ophir’ - a time when the balance of trade with India became very unfavourable to Rome since large amounts of gold and silver were shipped to the East to pay for the costly imported commodities. This is confirmed by the elder Pliny, who complained that there was "no year in which India did not drain the Roman Empire of a hundred million sesterces (1,000,000 pounds) dearly do we pay for our luxury and our women."

Oh! Come on now; stop thinking like John Lennon did, when he wrote & sang ‘Imagine…’

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Utopia does not exist…Border security does…. Walls & fences do… Bureaucracy does…

And so, now you know why I enjoyed the Movie 'Terminal' starring Tom Hanks.

P.S. – Actually this was written some years ago, with a plan to refine it and submit it for publication, but was never done. I dredged it out from an old 32MB (ha! They existed those days and were state of the art hot stuff) flash drive that I was going to discard and touched it up a bit.
Seoul Incheon airport pic - Unlawyer's photoblog


harimohan said…
true maddy
they may justify scrutiny by security in these bad times but race and prejudice for skin color influencing theses descisions is a sad reality ,if something like this happens to a white skin in say a country like india he would demand an apology and get it or he may even sue us in the international court of justice or his country's media would create an issue over it
and even with all this the terrorists still have the last laugh
Anonymous said…
Hello Mr. Maddy,

What a coincidence. I was thinking on the same lines today :-) I was thinking about borderless travel, and lo, you have written about the same thing. I can't imagine the feeling of being confined to one place, and the whole idea of having to take permission to go elsewhere doesn't sound too encouraging!!!

nicely written!!!
narendra shenoy said…
What really rankles is the sanctimonious attitude of countries like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who marched into these lands, wiped out as many of the indigenous people as they could, practiced as much racial bigotry as they could before the slightly human amongst them could take no more and now pontificate on the suitability of prospective immigrants.

India is very lucky to get away with just impoverishment and ethical bankruptcy after 200 years of British rule. I use the phrase "ethical bankruptcy" advisedly because even the general public has lost its ability to feel outraged at gross injustice. We still have a fair bit of our culture left intact and a small but hardy nucleus of meritocrats which has been the unheralded reviver of a moribund socialist economy. I remember the time, about 17 years ago when the government had to hock its gold to raise foreign exchange. It looked all so hopeless then. Luckily, our huge, starving and docile population suddenly served as cheap labor and undiscerning customer to the first world, now desperate for both, and things seem to be going well for now.

Now is that a rant or what!
Guru said…
No use in rants like winning the Perth Test match, thousands working in software code sweat shops and a billion homosapiens etc.. Problem lies in India's standing, its leaders (why can't India have a better President like Amr Sen, instead of electing a Sonia's follower) and above all the quality of the passport and the physical quality of the currency -the bills and coins, and of course the skin colour. When the Soviet Union held the whole of Eastern Europe on a puppet string, an Indian was welcome in Hungary and East Germany. I twice went through Checkpoint Charlie, first in 1981 with an Indian passport and next in 1987 with a Western passport. In the first instance I was asked by the stern person in the uniform how was Prime Minister Nehru, to which I politely replied that he was well but in heaven, and the second time I was asked how many D Marks I had, I gave him a few and he stamped my passport with a grin!!
indianadoc said…
Very true Maddy...You just echoed many of our concerns...Many a times I have wished that our travels were borderless, with no visas and passports to restrict us...Many Indians here in UK opt for the UK citizenship only to get that 'redpassport'...the universal licence to set foot in most parts of the world!It is ridiculous to believe that being UK citizen/American citizen/EU Citizen made you less dangerous a person whereas an Asian Passport always meant grave warning signals to the world security...A couple of months ago,on my way back to UK from Dubai,a fellow passenger, who unfortunately had the beard and a characteristic muslim turban,was made to stand separate and was grilled by the immigration officers for long hours!...of late,UK immigration has become really nasty with most ridiculous questions being asked to most Asian travellers...UK seems to be in a catch 22 situation now, with most Asian immigrants...Neither can they accept them nor can they do without them!
Vidhya said…
Hi Maddy.. nicely written! The blue passport and brown skin is always subject to closer scrutiny. I have always had different experiences (sweet and sour ) at the immigration counter, on my trips to the US, the saving grace comes to me in the form of my Company visiting card!! A flash of the same seems to push the frown away and bring the smile, even on the most hardened immigration official's face.
Nanditha Prabhu said…
such experiences are not unusual for us with blue passports and brown countenance...i think most of us hope for that borderless travels ... and how much ever we try racial differences are rooted in the human psyche...nowadays even kids come to realize this fact! the other day my son asked me what was his color? i never expected such talk from a five year olds was cautious to give a specific answer ..and he came up with the color peach !
This post reminded me of the time I flew into Mumbai airport with an old Indian passport that was literally coming off the binding, and the trouble I had to go through. :-)
Maddy said…
All said and done, what is very important is for countries who preach 'no racial discrimination' to practice it...

Thank you for dropping by.. yes,manmade borders...and we spend lifetimes, renaming and moving those create new ones

You do make sense...I for one look forward to see the emergence of a new Indian Soul..not necessarily domineering, but proud & not anymore the meek & timid sort.

Right you are. Now we have a good collection of greenbacks. Let us see what our leaders do with it. Hopefully they will use it wisely to improve the infrastructure and social fabric of the country..much like what Dr Sen preaches.

Long time no see, great to hear from you. I thought UK stood a head talle rin this sort of thing. Until 2006 they were pretty nice at the airports..So it is changing for the worse eh??

Wow - that must have been some business card or title to bring a smile to the dour immigration officer's faces. What's the secret??

I know, I am still arguing with my 2nd son that his eye color is black and not brown..

To be fair the passport quality has improved a lot. It is thinner, so the prospect of the binding coming off is less.
Happy Kitten said…
That was a good read... I am yet to face these troubles and maybe never.

It is time Indians stood tall & proud and realized they deserve to be called the best. We have learned a lot except to select good leaders to lead us. This makes me wonder if we should do away with democracy and search for those Kings and Queens we banished!
ritu.. said…
hi ,i read your blog accidentally, well written and up to the point.I am sure going to read a it all. good work..cheers ritu