“Spent all day getting your ducks in a row, Dad?” Raghavan’s son Hari teased when he called from Seattle, knowing his father would be checking and rechecking the paperwork for the next day’s appointment—the long-awaited immigration visa interview at the U.S. Consulate in Bombay.
Raghavan had indeed been busy at the dining table—papers spread out exactly as Hari visualized, the fan turned off, even the balcony shutters closed, so no errant breeze would scatter the documents. He had moved to the armchair to answer the phone. But Hari’s remark so ruffled Raghavan’s feathers that he stood, pushed up his spectacles, rubbed the scant hairs at the back of his bald head, glared at the photograph of Hari, his daughter-in-law, and two grandsons, propped beside the phone, and snapped, “All day only? We’ve laid our entire lives bare for your American immigration officers. So much running around.”
“That’s Indian bureaucracy for you,” his son commiserated.
Riled, Raghavan said, “Blaming India? Your U.S. immigration isn’t bureaucratic? Your application for us to come as dependent parents was mailed—when? 1987?—from Seattle to the INS Service Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, right? There, the papers rested without a quack for how long, hain? Then they waddled to the transitional office in Virginia. Now, slowly-slowly, they’ve come to roost at the Lincoln House, the so-called name for the Bombay Consulate office. I’ll have you remember your American ducks took over four years to migrate from Lincoln to Lincoln.”
“Good shot, Dad,” laughed Hari. “I asked because I remembered how we worked on my college applications all those years back.”
“That was my first mistake. Maybe I should have listened to your mother and kept you in India,” said his father, yanking threads loose from the frayed armchair.
“Come on, Dad. You can’t mean that. Just relax.”
“Relax? Because of your procrastination, your affidavit of support was one of the last—what do you call it—ducks to fall into a row. Why?”
Racked just then by a spasm of coughing, Raghavan gave the phone to his wife, Seetha, whose anxiety about the tension between father and son had dragged her from the kitchen. “Why upset your father by delaying papers and not declaring your full salary, Hari?” Seetha listened and said, “We’re ill with the ’flu we caught from your visa-pisa medical exam. Went to the consulate-approved hospital, paid an America-size bill, got our health clearance. Fell ill afterwards—he cannot shake this cough.”
Then, she complained, “I wish we’d kept you near us. Even before you went to America, I asked your father, ‘Why spend all that money for Cathedral’s School when he could go tuition-free to my school? Why send him to Princeton for college, when he’s got IIT admission and can study in Bombay?’ But no, father and son, so in love with the West, we got infected with the America bug. Yes, yes, my stuck-record story. I’ll call after the interview.” She hung up the phone and escaped to the kitchen.
Raghavan brooded over his wife’s words. They’d fought about Hari’s education so often it had affected their marriage. True, Hari could have attended Sion School, where she taught, and gone to IIT, but what future would he have had? India in the 1960s had not held out much promise for ambitious youngsters. Chief chemist for Glaxo, India, at that time, Raghavan felt he’d gauged the business climate accurately: foreign collaborators leaving; the Indo-China-Pakistan conflicts; food shortages, you name it. He had decided to send his son abroad, and Hari’s brilliant school performance had turned the dream into reality.
British universities offered no financial aid, so Hari had applied to American Ivy League schools. Raghavan’s native caution had kicked in before they had mailed off the applications. He had opened the sealed teacher recommendation letters for Dartmouth, deciding Hari need not go there, but he wanted to know what the teachers had written. Just as he had feared, there was a joker in the pack: a teacher who had damned Hari with faint praise: Hari was brilliant, but a loner, not a team player. There had ensued a mad scramble to get recommendation letters from another teacher. A wise precaution. Universities clamored to get Hari, offering him scholarships that covered his tuition. Princeton offered an additional sum towards his housing, which made the decision simpler. Even so, Seetha and he had dipped into their savings for the rest of the funds for Hari’s living expenses. They had sat with the boy at this very table working out the finances, their lifetime savings an open book, because they had wanted to emphasize that their sacrifices came with the caveat that he not slack off in America. Raghavan had accompanied his son to the visa interview, basking in pride when the consul officer, impressed with Hari’s excellent English, had wondered if he had visited America before, expressed stupefaction that Hari had been admitted into so many Ivy League schools, and sanctioned the visa.
How simple getting that visa had been compared to this present ordeal. Why did the United States INS need such full disclosure? Seetha and he had filled out reams of papers answering questions about the minutiae of their lives: dates of previous visits to the United States (only when he’d tabulated these visits had he realized how often he and his wife had traveled, hassle-free, with easily obtained tourist visas), marks of identification (both had old scars, he on his forehead, she on her arm), occupation, nicknames, languages they could speak, all the places they had lived in for longer than six months since age sixteen (who remembers?), and so on, ad infinitum.
This thorough recording of their existence had exhausted Raghavan more than life itself. Long retired, Raghavan no longer had contacts and in India one needed influence to complete even the smallest job expeditiously. They had been bounced around from office to office and had spent a small fortune trying to authenticate their lives through one government for the benefit of another. They already had a birth certificate for their son since it had been required years before when he had become an immigrant, and later, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Seetha’s case, too, had been relatively easy. Her older sisters had testified that they could remember her date of birth and had witnessed her marriage. To get these notarized affidavits, Seetha and Raghavan had greased the palms of attorneys and clerks. They obtained notarization of Seetha’s birth and a “Certificate of Marriage Celebrated in Other Forms (see Section 16).” Though he had no clue what other form of marriage he had celebrated almost fifty years back or where to find Section 16, Raghavan now had proof of his nuptials, but he did not have a birth certificate.
Seventy-year-old Raghavan had no living relatives older than he. So he’d used his ingenuity. The family priest and astrologer, by God’s grace still alive at ninety, testified that Raghavan’s parents had consulted him about Raghavan’s horoscope, which recorded Raghavan’s birth at 7:51 a.m., June 30, 1921. The priest also affirmed that he had officiated at Raghavan’s parents’ funerals where Raghavan had performed the rituals of a son. To immigrate to the United States, Raghavan had established his birth by proving he had lit his parents’ pyres. Yet wasn’t he immigrating to ensure that Hari would perform these last rites for him? Farsighted about his son’s future, he hadn’t thought about his last days. He didn’t want to die in a foreign land, but neither did he want Seetha to cope alone. So they had gathered together all the papers to prove they were alive, had wed, had reproduced, and could rest in peace, after tomorrow’s interview.
Raghavan’s gnarled, age-splotched hands arranged, in two separate piles, their photographs, notarized documents, ‘Citizens of Good Standing’ police certification, health certificates, bank drafts for application and issuance fees, their son’s affidavit of support, and their passports. He used large paperclips, and placed both bundles in his briefcase. Just before he closed the briefcase, he took out a tiny, velvet drawstring bag and peeked in. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper, was what remained of the caul that had covered his son’s head at birth, which he had saved, heeding the advice of his parents who said it would bring good fortune to the father. He carefully placed the bag back into the zippered section of the briefcase.
The ducks were in the bag, but the ducklings were Seetha’s responsibility. Seetha’s brother was giving them a ride and needed to pick them up very early in the morning, as they had to report at the consulate by 8:30 a.m. He called out to Seetha, “Have you reminded Subbu to come?”
“How many times will you check?” Seetha snapped, coming from the kitchen to glare. Once a buxom, dusky beauty, age had whittled her down to a stick; her words cracked like a whip. “Yes, but I’ll give him a wake-up call tomorrow. I’ve reminded the servant to come tomorrow evening instead of morning; I’ve told the neighbor to buy our milk; after we eat, I’ll put the kachada out for garbage pick-up tomorrow. Anything else? Are you done checking the forms again and again?”
Raghavan placed his briefcase and spectacles on the armchair. “Did your son explain why he delayed mailing his affidavit of support and why he didn’t declare his full salary?” he asked as Seetha set stainless-steel plates and tumblers of water on the table in preparation for dinner.
She brought the rice, vegetables, ghee, and buttermilk to the table. Then she set down the pungent mollughu rasam that she had made especially to relieve Raghavan’s chest cold. “Arey, haven’t we received the affidavit now? Unnecessarily worried. Kastathai vallai ki vangarail, purchasing trouble because you don’t have enough of your own.”
“But what price do I have to pay to find out your son’s salary? Why this secrecy? When he sponsored us for visitors’ visas he sent a sworn affidavit of support stating, ‘I derive an annual income of more than $20,000.’ This affidavit says, ‘More than $40,000.’ His notarized bank balance says ‘More than $20,000.’ How much more? Why can’t he just say what he’s earning, how much he’s saved?”
“He says the Boeing Human Resources Department has a policy against full disclosure of income. The company has followed standard operating procedures.”
Raghavan snorted, “Boeing’s more bureaucratic than India? In the land of individual rights, he can’t say, ‘I want my parents to know’? His bank also has this policy?”
“Maybe he’s become an American; thinks it’s private information.”
“Private?” Raghavan’s large eyes bulged like a bullfrog’s. “Did you tell your son he knew every detail about our savings at age sixteen?”
“Why is he suddenly my son only? Maybe he’s afraid, if he tells you, you’ll be critical and ask why he’s not making as much as his younger cousins who’ve gone into computers or finance, instead of engineering.”
“Critical? Okay, even if I’m critical, a middle-aged man cannot take criticism from his old, old father? Such excuses. Scratch a son and the mother bleeds.”
They stopped talking to each other, slurped their food, and swallowed their many medicines.
As Seetha cleared the table, Raghavan went to his bedroom, changed into pajamas and set the alarm clock for the next day. Seetha finished her work, wearily sank down on the bed, set her tiny travel alarm clock, in case her husband’s did not work, glanced at the photo of her son in school uniform, and turned off the light.
Both slept fitfully, waking before either alarm rang. They completed their morning ablutions; Seetha called her brother. Raghavan changed into a pair of Haggar slacks and white Arrow shirt, the clothes baggy around his shrunk frame. Seetha chose a blue Kanjeevaram sari with a red border. She put her hair up in a bun, softening the severe effect with a string of fragrant jasmine flowers. They breakfasted on oats, swallowed medicines, drank frothy tumblers of hot coffee. Then Raghavan opened his briefcase.
“Stop checking. Everything is there,” Seetha said.
He checked anyway, went to the balcony, bolted the shutters and padlocked the door between the balcony and living-cum-dining room. Seetha bolted the bathroom and bedroom windows, double-checked the garbage pail. Just then Subbu walked up the stairs.
“Athimber more than ready?” Subbu asked, poking gentle fun at his brother-in-law, even as he sympathized with his sister.
“He was just about to remind me to call you again,” Seetha relaxed.
After Seetha and Raghavan went to the puja nook in the kitchen and prostrated in prayer, they exited the flat, Raghavan hugging his briefcase like a baby. Seetha padlocked the wooden front door, pulled the iron grill door shut and locked it with another brass Godrej lock.
“The flat has more locks than rooms,” Raghavan said, a habitual observation. “What’s there to steal?”
“Just yesterday, I put a new bulb to light the stairs for you—already stolen,” Seetha retorted.
Subbu helped Raghavan negotiate the stairs. Outside, they walked under scaffolds built to help workers shore up the building’s decaying walls. Subbu opened the front door of his Ambassador car for Raghavan. Seetha sat at the back.
“Last time we’ll be inconveniencing you, Subbu,” Raghavan said, looking affectionately at his portly brother-in-law.
“What inconvenience?” Subbu said, as he started to drive. “As long as you are here, I’m here to help.”
“Did you light a fire under my son to sponsor us so we won’t be here much longer?”
“What is this, Athimber; don’t you want to go?”
“You dodged the question,” Raghavan sighed, looking at the road ahead. On the footpaths, huddled dwellers, looking like dark dung heaps, stirred to another day. Decrepit buildings, silhouetted in the dim November dawn, seemed to have absorbed the dark night into their spongy walls. “So much traffic nowadays, even this early in the morning,” he said, as Subbu expertly wove in and out. As they reached the southern part of the city, the morning grew brighter, the roads broader, the buildings cleaner, even the air cooler, as if in acknowledgement of the affluence of the residents.
Inside the consulate, they joined other visa applicants in line, showed officials their passports, deposited the drafts made out to American Consulate General, Bombay, collected tokens and receipts and sat down, glad they had come early so they could snag the few chairs in the room. People huddled by tables, filling out forms; others pooled around counters for students, visitors, business, and immigration visas. The Americans behind the windows controlling who got visas and who did not reminded Raghavan of his train travels, how those with seats tried to keep out others who tried to come into their compartments, forgetting their own struggles to get onto the train.
Raghavan, seized with a bout of coughing, took a throat lozenge. He barely finished sucking it before he and Seetha were called to the counter. A muscular American took their documents. He scarcely glanced at the documents Raghavan had so painstakingly prepared, homing in on Hari’s affidavit of support and bank statement. “What’s this? This won’t do at all, even for one of you,” he told them.
Raghavan grew still. He’d purchased trouble after all.
Seetha said, “We went to America two years back on a support affidavit for just $20,000, sir; now it is double …”
The consul officer interrupted her. “You went as visitors. Now you want to go as immigrants. Your son must prove that he can support two seniors. This is a whole new ball game.”
Raghavan slumped, thinking team player, ducks and drakes, a bloody sitting duck.
Seetha stammered, “Our son is fully qualified to support us.”
“Where’s the evidence that you won’t become public charges?”
Public charges? The outrage he felt at this shocked Raghavan into speech. His voice, deceptively soft, he asked the consul officer, “Paitharaiya da?” Are you ranting, rascal?
“Pardon me?” the officer said. Sifting through the documents again, he asked Seetha, “Does he speak English? Does he understand what I said?”
Seetha grew mute.
Once, in this very building, Raghavan had put their entire life savings on the line—full disclosure—to send his son to the United States. He thought he had raised a pukka sahib, to whom he could say, ‘This is not cricket,’ but … who played cricket in America? It was a whole different ball game there. Who had helped a loner join a different team? Once a consul officer had complimented his son on his English. Who had taught Hari that English?
Raghavan said, “I fully understand what you said, sir. I’m not sure my wife does.” He turned to Seetha and said, “He’s afraid we may end up beggars on welfare if we go to America. He’s saying Hari dropped the ball.”
“That he definitely did,” said the officer. He pulled out two forms and filled them out. “Ask him to send you his US 1040 and his original W-2 form to establish to this consulate’s satisfaction that you won’t become public charges.”
He handed the forms to Raghavan, and said, “Come back with these documents,” then added, not unkindly, “Today’s decision is not final.”
Raghavan adjusted his spectacles to read on consular letterhead: “Visa Refusal Sheet OF-194. This office regrets to inform you that you are ineligible to receive a visa …” and so on down to the signature.
After all that work, for the first time in his life—found ineligible.
But did he want to be found eligible because Uncle Sam had forced his son to divulge his salary or found ineligible again because a bureaucrat deemed even that insufficient? Raghavan said, “I’m too old to play this game, but my wife might come back for another innings.” Raghavan gathered up his life papers and put them in his briefcase. He turned to his wife. The tenuous scaffold of indignation that he had built around his crumbling heart shook when he saw his wife weeping. His voice, porous with pain, he said, “Come, Seetha.” They left, holding onto each other for support.
Radhika Kumar ia a freelance writer and editor in Federal Way, Wash.