I was finally able to submit my India visa application today. I unsuccessfully applied for the visa in 2014. Part of the experience is fully described here: Visas, zombies and Pakistanis trying to visit India.
Visas aggravate my sense of identity and pride and, started to get under my skin when I experienced the outsourcing of the visa application process with the UK Embassy in the mid 2000s.
Before the visa process was outsourced, I had flown to Accra a day before, applied for the visa in the morning, went for a sight seeing tour and, if I remember correctly, received my visa the same day and could take a flight out to the UK the same evening. This was at the British High Commission itself.
When they outsourced the visas to a private company, I started to feel the burn. In 2008, I went back to the UK for higher studies and, was hassled between the Freetown High Commission and Accra Visa Centre office. I had called the Visa Centre in advance, explaining to them that I was a resident in Liberia and needed to apply for a UK Student visa. The person assured me I could apply for a student visa in Accra. I flew to Accra with all my necessary documents and, only after arriving at the Centre was told I needed to go to Freetown to apply for student visa.
In 2011, I applied for a UK visa in Accra and that experience really frustrated me. I blogged about it then, aptly titled: Visa Rage.
UK visas are not cheap either.
Because there aren't any fully-fledged diplomatic missions in Monrovia, one has to travel to a third country to apply for a visa. The experience to applying for a visa in a visa centre is already such a humiliating process. Having to take a flight to experience that pleasure is a deterrent and, therefore, I have completely lost interesting in traveling to Europe. I'd rather go spend my hard-earned bucks in a neighbouring country in Africa on holiday or go back home to Pakistan.
Getting back to the India visa, I was finally able to submit my visa application today and, it's a real sense of excitement and accomplishment.
Since 2014, I had felt rather dejected by our 'hamsaya mulk's' unfair rejection of my visa application. I had the perfect credentials: well traveled, well educated, impressive professional career, lived in West Africa, and, my father was an ex-Ambassador. I was also a little irritated with my father for not using his connections for a sifarish for me.
Well anyway, I had digitised some family albums while I was in Pakistan in 2014 and, while I was showing Haresh my family photographs, he was impressed to see that Julio Ribeiro was in a group photo of Ambassadors in Bucharest. He explained that Mr. Ribeiro was a very famous person in India and, that if I wrote to him, he would help me out. So, he somehow tracked his e-mail address and, I wrote to him. And, guess what? He remembered me, many things about our family and even my sister's birthday as she and him shared the same date. He said he would help me. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and his generosity.
He asked me to share the details of my application and, he traced it and, asked me to re-apply when I was next in Islamabad. So, this time around, Haresh was in India over the Christmas break and specially got a new notarised sponsorship certificate in Mumbai. He handed it to me when we met in Dubai for New Year's.
I should have applied for the visa much earlier but only got my act together towards my departure. I am after all the queen of procrastination.
I finally ventured to Gerry's in G-9 on the morning of the 20th. My printer had run out of ink so I arrived quite early to print out the application and all supporting documents. I also had to have my ID card translated into English, a very curious requirement for the India visa: as if Urdu is neither spoken or written in India and, as if the card cannot be translated.
It was a cold morning and, I had all my printing done by a very efficient office where visa applications for the various countries handled by Gerry's are filled out for applicants. They also had photocopying and passport photo services. The best part was how swiftly they printed out my documents and photocopied everything I needed.
Above is a photograph of the office.
I confidently went into Gerry's to apply for the visa only to be told that the sponsorship certificate's format was too old. I was extremely frustrated and dismayed to say the least. The lady who receives the applications was nice enough to take me to her manager who in turn took me to another manager. I explained my situation but was told that they could only receive the application if the Indian High Commission instructed them to receive it.
So, anyway, I went home dejected and, very tired. I wrote to Uncle Ribeiro and the desk officer from the Ministry of Interior who he had put me in touch with. I didn't hear back until a few days later when stunningly, I was asked to go back. In fact, the Manager of Gerry's was also copied. This was only 2 days before my flight back to Liberia.
So, I trudged back with my application to Gerry's. The same lady on the 4th floor kindly received me and, as she started checking my application, she told me the 'Booklet Number' I had entered was incorrect. She said, I would need to re-do my application. She led me to a computer on another floor and, I re-typed my application online. I printed out 2 copies and, went back to her. She looked through my documents again and, then told me that the polio certificate I had 2 years old. I just lost my cool a little bit and, told her 'Well, you can do as you please. If you don't want to accept this format, then go ahead.' She telephoned her manager who told her to go ahead and accept my application.
Well, I was done in a few minutes and, explained to the lady that I wasn't really angry with her but at the dehumanising, frustrating and humiliating process. She was quite understanding and, indulged my feelings. The most ironic thing is that she probably has not visited any of the countries she processes the visas for. She explained how tedious of a job it was: receiving scores and scores of applications, checking them, receiving the fees, coordinating with the rest of the departments, and then scanning all the applications individually. It seemed like an exhausting, repetitive routine: a human factory checking and scanning applications of humans trying to legally cross invisible borders.
While I was there, I noticed so many other applications in line: families with little babies, single men who were most probably labourers in the Gulf States, wives trying to visit their husbands or vice versa, and so on. So many had come from quite far to go through this tiring, taxing and dehumanising process.
At the end of it, I felt like I had been through an Airport: trolley, baggage, show your passport/ticket at the gate, machine scanners, customs, shrink wrap bags, check-in, weigh bags, boarding pass, immigration, boarding gate, walking, bus, jet bridge, exhaustion from carrying hand bags, display boarding pass, climb up stairs into plane, find seat and, then collapse. I felt like I had passed an exam. I felt like I had just finished a doctor's appointment.
When I looked at the other applications, imagining their stories and struggles, I thought about the absurdity of what we humans were doing. Here we were in the offices of a company that handled visa applications of countries who protected their so-called borders by so many barriers. These borders do not even exist but are concepts. These borders are enforced by law, economies, politics, trade and wars.
Leaving these thoughts aside, I am glad I was able to submit my visa application and, despite the huge distances we have created amongst us, I am grateful to an Uncle in Mumbai for remembering me and, helping me out. May everyone have a benefactor like that who can help you realise that we still have friends and loved ones sarhad ke paar.