Getting to the India-Pakistan border was not the problem, crossing it was. After taking a taxi from Amritsar to the border crossing, I walked to where the Indian border guards were checking passports. There were quite a few people waiting to cross, even some Europeans. When it was finally my turn, the guard looked at my passport, checked the various pages and smiled: “Italiano?” I nodded and gave him my best Italian smile. “I’m sorry sir,” he said as he returned my passport to me. “You need an exit visa.”
I didn’t get upset, but I was incredibly surprised. An exit visa? That meant that once you were in India they wouldn’t let you out unless you had permission to leave. It was insane. But it was India and its bureaucracy and there was nothing the guard could do about it. “You will have to go back to New Delhi, sir, and get an exit visa.” There was no way I was going to go back to New Delhi. I asked him if there was an administrative center somewhere nearby. He said that about 10 kilometers away there was a town where an empowered administrator was located. I got the name of the town and, with my green rucksack in tow, I took a taxi to that little town and to the administration building.
The town was rather insignificant, and the administration building was small, unpainted and occupied by a man who sat behind a large empty desk in a room only lit by the maximum of daylight which could get through windows encrusted with years of dust and dirt. Nobody had cleaned anything on or in this building for a long long time. But the man sitting behind the desk was smiling and seemed happy to see me. I sat down and told him of my predicament. He said that unfortunately he could not help me because unless he had a directive from New Delhi, he couldn’t issue an exit visa. So, unfortunately (still smiling and leaning his head slightly to the side) I would have to go back to New Delhi.
“If you get approval from New Delhi, however, you can issue an exit visa?”
“Why yes of course sir,” he said, his polite smile not fading in the least.
“OK,” I said, “then call Mr. Singh, the Foreign Minister, he is a good friend of my mother, Mrs. Milena Antonelli, from the Italian Embassy. Tell Mr. Singh that Mrs. Antonelli’s son is requesting authorization for an exit visa.”
His smile didn’t go away, but somehow it lost its shine. He also didn’t seem able to find his voice.
“Please,” I continued, “call him right away because it is getting late and I want to cross over the border today before they close it for the night.” I gave him my #1 smile as encouragement.
He cleared his throat and slowly got up. He had managed to find a little more of the shine in his smile before he turned away to go into the back room to make the phone call, since there was no phone on his desk in the front room. He almost forgot to take my passport with him, but I pushed it toward him across the table and he came back and reached for it and said: “I am going to make the phone call now.”
While he was gone I had time to look around the bare room. No file cabinets, no other tables, a light bulb under a shade in the center of the ceiling, but it was off. The corners of the room were really dark, but my eyes had gotten used to the darkness and I could see the dust which lay across the floor and the window sills like fine grey powder. When my eyes wandered back to the desk, I noticed something that hadn’t really penetrated my consciousness while I was busy talking to the man. On the right side of the desk there were tiny little balls of what looked like the smallest raisins in the world. Then I started to feel slightly nauseous. Those weren’t raisins, nor were they mouse droppings. They were rolled up buggers, snot, which he had either flung or dropped on the right side of his desk. More than half of them were already gathering dust, so they had been there for quite a while. I instinctively pushed my chair back a few inches from the desk.
The man returned with a large friendly smile pasted across his face. He had been gone for about ten minutes, and he looked satisfied. Courteously, he returned my passport to me and said: “Your exit visa has been approved.” He paused for a moment and then added: “That will be 40 Rupees.” His courteous smile remained in place. The visa was there on the page in English and Hindi, the stamp was official, the signature was fresh. I smiled back and handed him the 40 Rupees, shook his hand (despite my misgivings about which hand he used for his snot) and found another taxi to take me back to the border.
Sitting in the back seat of the taxi for the 10 kilometer ride back to the border gave me time to assess what had just happened. There was no way in the world that the administrator from a little town near the border would risk making a call to a Foreign Minister. First of all, he would never get through all the secretaries that formed a ring of bureaucratic protection around the exalted man, and secondly, he would never risk his job by identifying himself as the one who refused to give an exit visa to the son of a friend of the minister. So, he sat in the back of the building for what seemed to him the appropriate time for a phone call to get through to the minister and for a brief conversation to have taken place, and in the meantime he put the visa in my passport, stamped it and put his signature on it. For his trouble and just to make it all look official, he took 40 Rupees and was glad that I hadn’t asked for an official receipt.
Both of us had emerged with no loss of face and with some reward. Bad karma had been avoided and maybe even some good karma had been earned.
The guard at the border was not the same one I had seen before, so there was no smile of recognition, but there was a courtesy smile and a “I hope you enjoyed your sojourn in India and that you will one day return!”
“Yes,” I replied. “Yes and yes!” Then I stepped across the line and walked the short distance to the Pakistani checkpoint.
©2015 Danny Antonelli
NEXT: The road to Kabul
What follows is the poem Camilo Quadros, from my book Conversations with my dog