Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Outside the Pak embassy

Six in the morning when we stepped out of the house - me and aunt - to stand outside the Pakistani embassy. Aunt needed a visa.

But already, it might be too late.
Some have arrived at 5 am, and some have spent the whole night outside. We are almost the last to join the queue. The visa counters don't open until 8.30 am, though. I make my ritual trips to the tea-stall, while my aunt plonks down on the pavement with the rest of the women.

Now, I see that the subcontinent will not be denied its colourful character in any area - not in posh areas like Chanakyapuri, not near embassies, nowhere.

We - resigned-looking Indians and Pakistanis, a few Afghans, and some bewildered firangs - are already forming that little slice of a cliche called 'India'.

Men sitting on their haunches, a little apart from the women (though newly-weds will sit close, sometimes feeding eath other little morsels of coconut). Women suckling babies in full public view, and later, unpacking food baskets. Peddlers carrying tea, fresh-fruit, coconut, chana jor garam, sweets... painted tin trunks, cloth bundles, henna-dyed hair, dry chapatti-with-mango-pickle, families stretched out on bedsheets, with picnic-baskets... silver anklets, dyed beards, burqas, turbans, kohl... and of course, separate queues for men and women.

All kinds of visa-seekers here. A new bride, with the henna fresh on her feet. A middle-aged sardarni with a harelip. An old, old crone, who can hardly stand upright, conversing with my knees. An old man in a wheelchair. One wearing a sweater (in Delhi, in May... Incredible India, it is!)

I suddenly become very aware of the fact that I am the only woman here, wearing jeans and a short top. The rest are either in Burqas, or at least full-sleeved salwar-kameezes.
I think, "I should've known; this is the Pakistani embassy. I wish I hadn't. Now everyone will stare."

To make matter worse, these are fitted jeans, torn at the thigh, pockets ripped off the butt...
for a moment, I am seized by a familiar wave of rebellious anger. "Let them stare! It will do these dakhiyanoosi lechers some good."

Immediately afterwards, I am ashamed; nobody is staring at me. Not one man.
They all sit quietly, staring at the ground, or buying sweets for their kids, or talking to the next man in the queue. They couldn't care less about me and my jeans.

Across the road is the Australian Embassy. There are big notices out on the pavement - "Do not sit here". But the whole pavement is dotted with Indians who have asked someone else to keep their place for them, and are taking a picnic-break under the trees.

They are shooed away by a guard (and he is good-looking, I note; probably has a lot of mixed blood in him - some Palestinian, perhaps, and some European mixed with Indian... the things you notice, when you forget to bring a book!) but the crowds collect again.
Again, he shooes them away, and again, they return. Three times, this happens. Finally, the guard disappears. The crowds stay.

Somebody tells us that senior citizens will have a different counter; somebody else calls out, "Arre, buddi-buddiyon! doosri line banaa leejo!" (Hey, all you old women, move into another line)

I watch, fascinated, as some middle-aged women, obediently move apart, having decided that they are 'old women', while other crones - bent and toothless - struggle with the decision. Many don't know how old they are, exactly.

By 8 am, the sun is high and a couple of little arguments have broken out as somebody tries to jump the queue. It all ends peacefully, with the women sighing and saying, "We all suffer... God sees to all."

By 9am, my head is starting to spin, a knot of pain forming in my heels.

I begin picking out the accents, trying to place them. The woman to my left is Gujarati. The one to my right is Delhiite - very definitely urban, strong Punjabi influence. The other two in burqas, near my aunt, are from UP (Gorakhpur?) and Bihar respectively. Further off, I hear an Allahabadi tone... the accent drips with paan and surreptitiously smoked beedis.

One woman is wearing the traditional Sindhi dress - frock-like kurta and loose, flapping trouser-pajamas. It is beautifully embroidered. Three Bohri women. Someone wears a dupatta with Fulkaari work on it - it's just coming back into fashion, but this is the real thing, probably made by hand. And it probably came with the woman's dowry, twenty-five years ago.

The men's clothes intrigue me too. One man is wearing an Aligarh-style sherwani (In Delhi, in May?!) . A bunch of them are definitely Afghani - shaven heads, pointy ears, mid-length beards, carefully combed... definitely Afghani. A couple of Khomeini-style caps. A few sardarjis.

And that one is definitely a tribesman from Pakistan - Baluchistani? - with that short Pathan suit and hand-woven headcloth. He reminds me of the Giant in Jack-and-the-beanstalk, with a reddish beard, and unruly hair. I am siezed by a childish desire to pull his hair. But he isn't smiling, and looks strong enough to break me in half, without having to try.

With the heat, differences melt.

All of us cover our heads and murmur about how awful to have only two officials sitting there, only between 8.30 and 11.30 am
("Why can't they hire a few more people to deal with the flood of visa applications?"
"Because they don't want to give so many visas, silly!"
"Then why don't they say so?"
"It must be like this in the Indian embassy in Pakistan, isn't it?"
"God watches over us. We all suffer.")

All the women abandon small, irritable children to their own devices - spanking and soothing, by turns. All the children want ice-creams. All of us want to sit down.

I've been in the sun nearly five hours; it is getting harder by the minute. And all of it seems so stupid to me. I begin to fret, "They know people will be standing out in the sun for ages. Why can't they make some provision? What sort of system is this? Who makes these systems? Why can't we have an open border? When will we have the visa-on-arrival system?"

And, as I always do when I'm frustrated and tired, I begin to wonder what the system would've been like if it was created by women.

What sort of world would it be, if run by women? What sort of governments? What foreign policies? What kind of visa process? What institutions? What shape of buildings? What weapons? What wars would we fight? How? What would God be like, then? And what would be the meaning of duty and sisterhood and motherhood and marriage?

But it is too hot to think about the answers.
It is too hot to think.

I am about to sit, when an Indian guard (or is it a cop?), in khaki, comes up to us - a long tilak on his forehead, wielding a lathi. He asks everyone to stand up.

The men do so. The women stay put.

The Gorakhpuri has a sharp tongue. "And why should we get up?"

Tilak-in-khaki threatens her with the stick. "You aren't allowed to sit here. Get up."

Gorakhpuri wouldn't get up. "What's it to you?"

Tilak-in-Khaki looks helpless. "It's the rule. You have to be in a queue."

Bihari pipes up, "We are in queue. Our places are being kept for us."

She is joined by Gujarati and a couple of Burqas. All very pointedly, firmly, sit down.

The guard turns to those of us who are still standing. We all nod: Yes, we're keeping their places for them.

Tilak-in-Khaki is angry but doesn't know what to do. So he leaves, beckonging to two women-in-khaki. The women-in-khaki float about but do not disturb anyone. One woman-in-khaki floats across the street, and leans on the wire-fence outside the Australian embassy. She begins flirting with the good-looking guard...

I want to sit down, but I notice that two old women have crept close, sitting there because my shadow protects them from the sun. I do not sit down after all...
and though it is too hot to think, perhaps, I am beginning to see some of the answers.

6 comments:

Anurag said...

You paint a very beautiful picture of India - colourful and vibrant in a different way. I once went to Garhwal with a group, and we had a Britisher join us on the trip. We all met at ISBT. It was October, warm and lazy, and there was so much happening all around. Some of my friends were really perturbed by the histle bustle and they asked Andy what he thought of the place, almost apologetic for making him go through all that. He replied, almost mesmerized, "It's so vibrant!!!"

I agree. India has so much to it. No two people are same, no two places either.

Opinionated said...

You're AWESOME Kid!!! Awesome! You write Brilliantly!!!

MadHat said...

Wow!
You really know how to tell a story!
great stuff...
Apurva

reNUka said...

++One wearing a sweater (in Delhi, in May... Incredible India, it is!)++

++They are shooed away by a guard (and he is good-looking, I note; probably has a lot of mixed blood in him - some Palestinian, perhaps, and some European mixed with Indian... the things you notice, when you forget to bring a book!)++

++The men's clothes intrigue me too. One man is wearing an Aligarh-style sherwani (In Delhi, in May?!)++

++I am siezed by a childish desire to pull his hair. But he isn't smiling, and looks strong enough to break me in half, without having to try.++

Lovely humour amidst the innumerous details - great!!!

++And, as I always do when I'm frustrated and tired, I begin to wonder what the system would've been like if it was created by women.++
:-)

++I do not sit down after all...

and though it is too hot to think, perhaps, I am beginning to see some of the answers.++
a very profound ending to the narration!! nice read - thanks!

Opinionated said...

Allahabadi accent... dripping with paan!!! This is the imagery that wins awards I guess!!!

annie said...

thank u, thank u, blush, blush

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