“Sir. There is a problem with your visa and you must vacate the hotel immediately.”
We’d already taken a shower, unpacked our clothes for the wedding reception and were trying to relax and watch some mindless TV. I tried to reason with him. “I thought the situation was clear. I have the required papers showing my visa extension is under consideration and I went and got papers for my fiancée. Our stay was approved.”
The attendant was unmoved. “I’m sorry, sir. You must vacate immediately.”
I resisted the urge to slam the door in his face or shout obscenities, despite my overflowing exasperation. It wouldn’t do any good to get angry. After nearly a full day of running around Thiruvananthapuram trying simply to get a room for the night, it was finally time to give up. Bureaucracy had beaten us.
It all seemed so simple. Get on a bus in Varkala, ride for an hour to Thiruvananthapuram, meet with my girlfriend after she finishes work and check into a hotel. From there we could relax for a few hours before going to her colleague’s wedding reception in the evening, come back to the room and crash out, then go shopping at Big Bazaar and take in a movie the next day. That was what I was looking forward to most, some Western-style comforts after so many months without.
So where did we go wrong? To answer that, we have to jump back to when our visas expired. No, no, it’s not the David Headley-esque scenario you’re envisioning (though he has a part to play in all this). Being employment visas, we could apply for extension while continuing to live and work in India, so that’s exactly what we did. Then we waited.
For six months. (And counting).
We’d been told many times that piles of paperwork dwarf even the most important members of the Indian governmental system, and that anything you require to be ‘processed’ equally requires unending patience. There was no need to kick up any fuss because thousands of other people must have been in exactly the same boat, and anyway, I had a stamp from the Foreign Residential Office (FRO) in Thiruvananthapuram saying that my application was under consideration and I should be entitled to live my life as usual here.
However, new anti-terror legislation in the wake of the Headley story dictates that hotels must procure watertight documentation from every foreign national that wishes to stay with them, and forward it to the local police station within the hour. In the North, where blind eyes and baksheesh abound, we might have been okay. Here in Kerala, the letter of the law stood strong, and the fact was that my girlfriend hadn’t yet received her updated certificate of registration with that all-important stamp on the back. That meant that I was fine and could go and put my feet up immediately, but she would be stuck on the pavement.
Though it was a stiflingly hot day, and the A/C was terribly inviting, that arrangement wasn’t going to work. I called up the FRO and ascertained that I could get a slip of paper from the officer there that would open all doors for her, and that I simply had to travel across town to come and pick it up. That seems far too easy, I thought. But with the hotel staff kind enough to let my exhausted lady into a deluxe room, I set out with high hopes.
Surprisingly, it was just as easy as it sounded over the phone. I spent ten minutes in the office and got exactly what I needed from a smiling, helpful officer. (I think that may have had something to do with the Che Guevara t-shirt I was wearing, which is like gold in this Communist state – thanks Ma!) Upon returning to the hotel the reception staff seemed genuinely relieved for us and let me go straight up to the room with beaming smiles.
We’d won! We’d beaten the system! It had taken half the day, but our wedding reception and shopping expedition were within our grasp. Finally, we could relax… until that knock at the door came, and the attendant’s serious face swung into view. Apparently our documents only allowed us to stay within our registered district – which is Thiruvananthapuram Rural, not Thiruvananthapuram City. Why is such a nonsensical policy in place? And why was I safe just hours before, but not now? All my questions were met with the same words. Problem. Visa. Vacate. Immediately. Sigh.
“Forget it,” my girlfriend said. “Let’s just go.” The one positive of the whole thing was that we had wasted enough of the day to be able to go straight to the reception, so we dragged our feet there and did our best to wish the happy couple well. An overpriced autorickshaw to the train station completed the saga and we were on our way home, the palm trees and backwaters of Thiruvananthapuram Rural dimly welcoming us back.
The most bothersome aspect of the whole episode was that at every step of the way, everyone was just following rules and guidelines like gospel. My girlfriend commented that it was a triumph of orders and rulebooks over intuition and common sense. At any point they could have asked for character references – of which we have hundreds – or simply sat and talked with us for a while, but neither of those are options in the eyes of the law. I understand why it exists, and I understand people’s fear of going against or circumventing it, but with every new bill of so-called ‘anti-terror’ legislation that is passed, we lose a little more of our freedom, and of what makes us human.