Last week I read an article; An old man, somebody’s grandfather was roughed up by the Alabama Police. Roughed up so bad that he is paralysed and in the hospital. The worst part is that he is from a small village in Gujarat, does not speak English and probably had no idea what was happening. As the story goes, the old man was taking a walk outside his son’s house in Alabama and a neighbour called the cops alerting them that there was a strange man around who’s behaviour was suspicious. I don’t think the neighbour was at fault, the man was new to the neighbourhood and was probably walking slowly, taking in a whole new world. All lanes are not like Wisteria Lane where a desperate housewife will come greet you with a basket of goodies, and then fall in love with you and maybe marry you once, if not twice. The cops however reacted with violence and now the man who came to take care of his young grandchild needs care around the clock.
There is all the required hue and cry around the racial violence and police brutality. But it makes me wonder, wonder why we Indians bring our old and befuddled parents out of their comfort zones to foreign lands. Leave them confused and unprepared, and now hurt beyond repair.
My mother and I were talking about it this morning, and she said he probably took a walk and peered at every house, at the cars driving in and out of the garages as it was new to him. His innocent curiosity however sparked alarm bells, as it is foreign behaviour in a foreign land, a land where people tend to get scared easily. Alabama is a state where you are allowed to shoot trespassers, so why would his son not sensitize him to the neighbourhood, to a different culture where boundaries are different? Imagine what would have happened if the old man had pinched the cheek of a neighbourhood kid or tried to pick up an infant ?? I am in no way justifying the police brutality, but I do think Indians abroad could be a little more sensitive to their visiting parents.
My father’s friend once jokingly remarked that he spent 6 months of the year in a very costly prison. He spends 6 months of the year in the bay area taking care of his infant to toddler grand children. His daughter and son in law use that opportunity to be able to work and socialize as much as possible. The parents however are stuck at home in the suburbs, without the freedom of walking out alone, without access to public transport, being completely dependent on the daughter and son in law to take them anywhere and everywhere.
Last July my parents and I decided to visit my thambi on a lark, being last minute we were forced to travel by Air India. We spent 14 hours cramped in a plane from Delhi to NYC. Suffering poor in-flight entertainment, dirty toilets and rude incompetent staff. I wrote several complaints, but offcourse I didn’t even receive a courtesy reply. Lesson learnt, never ever ever ever fly Air India again. Anyways I diagress…
After being cramped in a plane, like sardines in a can, we tumbled out into a bright morning at JFK, it was 7 am ! A bedraggled confused lot. Unlike other airlines, 99% of the passengers in this flight comprised of Indians, of which a large percentage were old parents visiting their children. For many it was obviously their first time to the United States, and were clearly confused. We were herded into queues for immigration. The herders were mostly Indian or of latin descent, and they did not smile. The barked orders and manned the queues, with stern faces and straight backs. They would decide which of the 30 counters you would go to, and send you there with a cold unfriendly stare. 7 am in the morning was apparently also the time when the immigration officers changed shifts. So we shuffled along in queues and abruptly the kiosk in front would close, and the immigration officer would get up stretch and walk away. The herders would then divide that queue amongst others adding to the general sense of bewilderment. Why would there be shift change when a large air bus landed, would the authorities not coordinate the timing?
The great hall was filled with a strange silence, there was a perceptible change in the air, a strange fear crept over everyone. Something was wrong, we didn’t belong here, we were not welcome here.
I am not the kind of person who believes in The Secret, or the universe loving you or sending you things, but I could sense hostility and fear in the air. It was strange. There were probably 10 queues, and from each you could sense a tense anticipation. As we moved forward inch by inch, I noticed how each immigration officer treated the old people. There was a lot of mockery, yelling, downright rudeness and even namecalling.
One old man, probably in his early 70s was lost and looked like he was in shock. He didn’t speak a word of English you see. To top it all, he was wearing a dhoti and I think he was just trying to take in the massiveness of JFK. It was finally his turn, but the immigration officer refused to see him as he did not speak English, and he was thrown from counter to counter as no one wanted to interview him. After the 7th dismissal, he gave up, he stood there, alone in the middle, shivering slightly, staring blankly at the bald heavy set Puerto Rican who asked him to move. He did not understand. As a bystander, I had an overwhelming urge to protect him. But before I could intervene, an Indian herder asked him which language he spoke, he stared at her blankly. My heart sank a bit, I was worried that they would send him right back to India. But luckily, the woman resorted to a simpler form of communication, Hindi ? Tamil ? Telugu? She asked loudly and clearly. His face broke out to gap toothed smile at the mention of Telegu. Telugu he exclaimed in relief and repeated it successively so there could be no doubt as to which language he spoke. She gave everyone a dirty look, linked her arm with his and said “ come with me sir, I will find you a translator” and walked away dragging him with her. Phew !!
But I was so angry at his daughter or son who had asked him to come, leaving the life he knew, leaving the comfort of his home and his town, without preparing him. I have a cousin who flies down to India to escort his parents everytime they visit Australia. One does not have to be that devoted, but wouldn’t you prepare your father, send a letter with him, or in the very least use the amazing Indian network and find the neighbour’s third cousin’s husbands brother who was travelling in the same flight to accompany him ???
My parents and I were nearing the counters, I could hear the conversations now and they were not pleasant. The officers were picking on the passengers, and giving them a hard time. Ever so often they sent someone, generally a old parent shuffling into a room on the side, to await a fate unknown. My mother and I exchanged nervous glances but my dad had bemused smile on his face. His breath was laced with whiskey. It was dinner time in the plane, and he had to get through the ordeal so I don’t blame him. I can’t stomach alcohol in high altitudes, otherwise I would have been standing next to him and giggling at the absurdities and my mother would have been the nervous one. I hissed at him to get his act together and hoped for the best. Oh. Oh.
In the adjoining queue a well dressed couple stood in line for their turn, they were just behind the yellow line, waiting for the herders to direct them to the appointed kiosk. They were both short, showed signs of affluence. Affluence which was a result of a lot of hard work. They did not have the entitlement of the wealthy, but knew that every penny they had scrimped and saved had finally payed off, their offspring was in the land of dreams and they were going to visit him /her. They had arrived. The man knew a little English and had the air of being a bossy know it all. The woman looked like someone who had been bossed around her whole life, but had a kind and gentle face. She was looking around the large hall, and stepped over the yellow line by mistake. The bossy man gasped with fear and yanked her back so hard that she screamed and fell, tumbling backwards. Judging by the man’s reaction, one would think she was stepping over the line to fall into the fire of Mordor. Everyone turned and stared, with bated breath at the couple and then at the herders. Palpable fear. The herders looked at them with a mild curiosity, which fizzled instantaneously as they understood what had happened. Disinterested they turned away to continue chatting with each other. There was a audible sigh of relief.
It was finally their turn, the man proudly led his wife to the kiosk and managed to convey all the required details to the officer. He had a proud smile on his face. He had practiced all his lines well. The officer however was not impressed. She asked him to put his left hand on the biometric machine, and he put his right hand by mistake. “ Are you an imbecile, not capable of distinguishing your left from your right ? “she snapped. He didn’t understand, he was flustered, but he understood that she was being unnecessarily rude. He put the correct hand on the machine, and then affirmed every step with a loud Ok?; he would proceed to the next step only after the officer reluctantly nodded. He held his wife’s hands and took her through the procedure and they passed onto baggage claim. Phew !!
The next lady was obviously a grandma, spoke English and was a seasoned traveller. She passed through with ease, but was called back to assist another lady who spoke only Hindi. The other lady was getting harassed by the officer, who refused to believe that she had come to assist her pregnant daughter. Her fear made her talk louder and louder and I was afraid she was going to cry. The first lady tried to smooth things out by explaining things in English, but the officer was in a vindictive mood. “ How can you not know English ?” she growled. The first lady translated this in Hindi. The second lady’s fear turned to indignant anger, and she began to yell in Hindi, “I was married at 15 ! I had to cook and clean for a joint family, and have children, where did I have the time to study ? “ By now, the herders surrounded the kiosk and the lady was led away to the closed room. I don’t know if she entered the US, and got to be there for the birth of her grandchild or was sent back in the next flight.
My parents and I were hoping we would not have to talk to the vicious lady, and to our luck we were sent to a bald man with a earring. Maybe it was because we were dressed in western clothes, maybe it was because we could speak English, but he was very pleasant to us. He began joking with my father saying he had made a big mistake bringing me on a vacation, because I looked like a shopper. We first stared at him dumbfounded, he was actually being civil and nice. I recovered and replied that we were going to Yellowstone and series of national parks so there would be no opportunity to shop. “ I am sure you will find a way he said with a conspiratorial wink as he stamped our passports. We walked to baggage claim in a daze, no one else in the queue had had it that easy.
This trip, I had decided to travel light, and had only my backpack. Yes ! Everything I required for the one month long trip was on my back . My parents hovered around the luggage carousel and I noticed the bossy man standing a little away with a trolley full of suitcases. Packed to the brim with goodies no doubt for his son/daughter. I could imagine the lady packing pickles and condiments carefully, and sealing it, making it leakproof, buying their offspring’s’ favourite sweets and snacks and debating how much to take as the date for their trip drew closer.
There was a cleaning guy originally from the Indian subcontinent , cleaning between the aisles. He roughly asked the man to move. Taken aback at the rude tone, the man fumbled and said “one minute, my wife has gone to the bathroom, I will move as soon as she gets back”. The cleaning man decided to take offense, and called this man a pig and moved away muttering under his breath. I was appalled. How could someone speak like this, why was no one doing anything about it. The short man was clearly offended, but could not do anything about it but be brusque to his wife who looked rather puzzled as she had missed the first interaction. They trundled towards the exit and I did not see them after that.
What makes the immigration officers behave this rudely. What makes us as a race, accept this rudeness? Does it boil down to our awe of white skin, to our conditioning of deep down believing that they are superior ? Back home it is no better, very often shopkeepers and waiters will ignore you and bend over backwards to serve a foreigner. Their reflective white skin overshadowing you and all your kin.
I guess in a way, within India we are no better, picking whom you would rent your house to, laying conditions about what they should eat/cook in your house, using separate dishes for the maids. The list is endless.
If I am home in the weekends, I generally make a cup tea for Vijaya (the lady who cleans my house), and indulge in a cup myself. Initially she would take the tea and squat on the floor besides the dining table and regale me with gossip from the building. It has taken me the better part of two years, coaxing and cajoling her before she finally succumbed and now sits on the table, albeit awkwardly with with me.
I have often wondered why the jews stood obediently in line as they were called forward one by one and shot, why didn’t they revolt ?
In a convoluted sense, now I understand why.