By Ramjaane Apr. 26, 2018
At every immigration counter in India, you encounter a Grumpus Maximus – an officer who simply refuses to smile and works at a pace that could put even the world’s most frustrating bank teller to shame.
Everyone loves travelling for the pleasure of getting away from it all, only to come back home to your commode. #TravelLife seductively beckons with its Insta-worthy moments that promise you will find the meaning of life only once you take flight. But all search for escape, meaning, or bliss comes to a grinding halt at the serpentine queues of the Indian immigration counter.
The wildly cheerful men and women manning Indian immigration at any international terminal have one thing in common – they can ineffably break the spirit of any man, woman, or child by simply refusing to smile and working at a pace that could put even the world’s most frustrating bank teller to shame. At Departures, there may be enthusiastic people dying to leave, and at Arrivals, tired people dying to get back, but at the end of both queues there will be a counter manned by Grumpus Maximus, who is trained in the art of disgruntlement and delay, and will make both goals seem impossible to achieve.
The first thing you notice about immigration, is that it has the potential to solve the unemployment problem. Out of the 50 or so desks that stretch out in either direction, only 12 to 15 are occupied. Nobody knows why. No explanations are offered. Who are these missing employees, and what mission are they possibly on that would whisk them away from their desks the minute a couple of 747s full of sleep-deprived passengers descend?
The few who manage to be spared from this critical mission, whatever it is, deign to sit at desks to welcome us back into our country. Except, it is anything except welcoming. Immigration officers in India look like they’ve been waking up on the wrong side of the bed, and the wrong side of life in general for over two decades. They seem to have taken a strict oath: “Na Hasunga, Na Hasne Doonga.” The oath is hardened every time a smiling tourist approaches them with hope. Their smile is met with a deadpan glare that says, “Wipe that stupid smile off your face.”
At the end, nobody knows how the same papers that took you into the cabin, suddenly add up and are deemed valid to be stamped.
The nervous travellers at Departures look like customers from Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” episode – mere mortals before masters. The immigration officers sit on a slightly high stool from where they look down at you. They don’t call out to you, just a shift of the retina in your direction is enough. You are supposed to be alert and on your toes. As you shuffle up to their desk and meekly submit your passport, you do so reverentially, knowing the trip can go south even before it starts. The window to push the passport through is small and you invariably drop something, bringing out a resigned sigh from the almighty officer. Poker-faced, they scan pages and computer screens with the grimmest, tightest expressions known to mankind.
As you anxiously stand there, waiting to hear the loud thud of the stamp that says you are free to go, they toy with you in your heightened state by asking you pointed questions. “Where to?” “How long?” And the most perplexing of them all, “Why?” They may appear easy but have the potential to leave you stumped in the heat of the moment.
You mumble your answers, offering weak replies and silently questioning your own motivations to travel. I was once asked this famous “Why?” when I was going to Australia. My response that I wanted to see the beaches was met with a derogatory, “Kyun, idhar samundar nahi hai kya?” I took back my stamped passport, thinking about the 50K I spent on my ticket, and how Odisha might have sufficed.
Even after enduring this gruelling Q&A, you don’t get to hear that reassuring THUD of the stamp on your passport every time. Sometimes, after 40 gruelling minutes of standing in the queue and four nervous ones spent at the counter, the immigration officer asks you step into a cabin. It is the single most terrifying request a human being can make in an airport scenario. At this time, you are not only questioning your trip, you are questioning your existence because nobody – including the people who have taken you to the cabin – know why this has happened. Once you’re inside, the plot thickens. If you’re found without any suspicious baggage or discrepancies you are released. You step out of the cabin with a solemn oath to never speak of what happened inside. At the end, nobody knows how the same papers that took you into the cabin, suddenly add up and are deemed valid to be stamped.
I’ve often wondered what has made immigration officers so grumpy? Maybe they’re tired of the empty counters and the colleagues who constantly bunk work. Maybe working zombie hours has taken its toll. Maybe it’s because it’s human nature to feel jealous while stamping 300 New Zealand visas in a day, knowing that you will never ever get there yourself. Maybe they don’t want to go on vacation at all, knowing full well that if they take a leave, they’ll have to stand in the same queue, this time at the wrong end.
I often wonder whether there is a way to lift their mood. Should I make small talk with them, ask them about the weather? Empathise and ask them when they had their last cup of tea? Turn the tables and ask them about their vacation? Joke and maybe break into a song? Maybe the simplest way is to give them a coordinated standing ovation. Easy to pull off, considering one half of that is already accomplished by the nervous queues of people facing them.