Close Encounters of the Third-World Kind

Fayes T Kantawala had an Indian neighbour at the Spanish embassy in New York

Close Encounters of the Third-World Kind
Last time I told you I was about to appear before a tribunal to request the dreaded Schengen visa. Well, it came to pass. I woke up in the morning of the appointment feeling like one does on the day of an exam. Not just any exam, but one that’s dipped in the perfume of impending doom. (Maths, Physics, take my soul!)

I arrived for my appointment too early, and was told to wait in a room with about two dozen other people, all of them clutching copies of their passports with the same measure of trepidation. There were some Americans there applying for student visas but it was mainly a pan-asian/non-white sort of party. I took a seat furthest away from the three screaming children in the north west corner, which proved to be a mistake. This is where Rohit was sitting.

Rohit was a small and balding man, probably in his late forties or early fifties, and he was all up in my business the very second I sat down. What’s my name? Where do I live? Where am I from? Where am I going? What do I do? Where have I gone before? Why did I choose this embassy? What’s my immigration status? How long have I been here? How many times have I applied? How much do I earn? How much do I spend?

It got real old real fast. Much to my dismay, Rohit was as forthcoming as he was inquisitive, so I very quickly knew that he worked at a bank in Manhattan, was trying to go to a meeting in Europe, was originally from outside Delhi but lived here on a Green Card and now wanted you, me and everybody else in the world to know that applying for a tourist visa is beneath him. The only reason I don’t believe him on this count is because he kept trying to compare notes with me, as if it were a zero-sum game and the consulate was planning on throwing our documents into an arena and would see which one walked out alive with a visa, gladiator-style.

Dealing with a difficult person in a waiting line - a true test of patience

“Oh,” he said at one point during his interrogation. He was eyeing the papers on my lap.

“What?” I asked.


“Come on, Rohit. What?”

“You decided to go for black and white copies.”


“Well,” he shrugged, “Mine are colour. I think that’s more authentic for the application.”

I haven’t wanted to strangle someone that much in about 12 years. I mean, we have all met people like Rohit, who play imaginary games of constant comparisons with you in their heads. These people are exhausting. I know that he was probably just a nervous person trying to connect with a fellow desi in an unfamiliar environment, and I did (honestly) try to be as accommodating as possible. That was until he said, in a manner that was both offhand and calculating, that he doesn’t see why he, an Indian with a valid Green Card, should be made to apply for any visa. “I mean,” he continued, “one can understand why Pakistanis need a visa because, well, you know the situation and everything but why punish Indians?”

Oh no Rohit, I thought, you did not just go there. Luckily for him (and me) that was the precise moment my appointment number was called. I stood up with what I imagined was sweeping disdain and walked over to the window. I proceeded to have a rather nice interview with a young woman called Maria who smiled and made small talk about museums as she checked my paperwork. I laughed at her jokes, throwing my head back with relish and abandon, knowing that Rohit’s beady little eyes were trained directly on me at Window number 2. The fake laughing, I knew even then, was a petty thing to do to him but he deserved it after all; and Maria certainly seemed pleased that her jokes were golden hits. The end result was that I am hopeful I may have passed the interview. Despite our brief encounter, I hope that Rohit got his visa too. It must be really difficult to go through life when you are that irritating.

While we are on the subject, the consulate was a wonderful place to be because it felt like being in a glass box in the sky. The space was cleverly designed; open planned and had wraparound views of skyscrapers and the Hudson river beyond. I don’t know how many of you have been to the Pakistani consulates abroad, but rest assured they don’t feel like glass boxes.

The one in NY is a beautiful Brownstone just off Central Park and is a living testament to how you can import an air of inefficiency as easily as you can cheese. It’s jarring to go into this Age-of-Innocence type of house and be faced with the exact same blue tubelights they use in government buildings back home. Even the floors have the same kind of chip, and it occurred to me that someone probably spent a good deal of time trying to accurately recreate the look, feel and smell of a government office in Saddar.

Rohit and I did share an elevator down, where I tried to be passive-aggressive and silent but he didn’t get the hint.

“So where are you off to now?” he asked as the door to the lobby opened.

“To eat some BEEF, Rohit. To eat the BIGGEST, SLAB, of BEEF I can FIND.”