The U.S. is equally sensitive to the nostalgia of such parents who have spent the best part of their lives in the country of their origin—the universal home sweet home, wherever that is. All that the country expects, therefore, is that you stay in the U.S. for six months in a 365-day time frame, and feel free to live in the country of your choice for the same length of time. The best of both worlds, yours for the taking.
However, the uphill task for sexagenarians or septuagenarians in compiling the requisite documents to establish their credentials can sometimes hold you back, if our own experience is anything to go by.
In the days of yore, many births went unregistered in India. Of the few that were recorded, many did not actually bear names. Naming was reserved for the nama karanam ceremony. In our familial tradition, the sequence of names includes the name of the village, the father, one of the grandparents, and then only the child’s name. A foolproof method to stay tuned to one’s roots!
Once a birth is registered, no one bothers to add the baptized name, let alone collect the certificate for posterity. Word of mouth, not proof, rules the roost thereafter.
Now, nearly 70 years later, I visit the office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Palghat, now Palakkad, to verify if my birth has been registered and, if so, to get a certificate.
“Did you say birth?” the clerk is shocked.
For a nominal processing fee, they give you a date depending on the era in which you were born—e.g. post-Independence—to enable them to excavate records. My birth has been recorded, but without my name. My paternal and maternal relatives must affirm, in an affidavit, their relationship to me and personal knowledge of my place, date, month, and year of birth.
We travel to Varkala for my wife’s certificate. Unfortunately, hers had not been registered. We are directed to another desk. “To register birth, at 60?” the assistant asks in disbelief. Apart from legal declarations and undertakings, he insists that we furnish a personal authentication from an elderly person known to us in the locality. Fortunately, a relative of my wife still resides there; he is 89 and kicking. (Longevity runs in both our families; we can give the Japanese, record holders in lifespan, a run for their lives.) He stands testimony, though speaking a little more than needed. “That is the problem when octogenarians get a listener,” mumbles the registrar.
The verification report in hand, we are directed to the District Magistrate in Trivandrum. After scrutiny, the latter authorizes the Registrar of Births and Deaths to record my wife’s birth, 60 years later. I ask the assistant why they are so procedure-bound. “That is a good question,” he says, which means he knows the answer well. “Sir, I don’t mean you, but just assume that an applicant comes to us in the guise of a Green Card seeker. But in reality he has a court case pending against him where if only he proves this town as his birthplace, the verdict will turn in his favor. He will walk away with the benefits of the judgment, and I will take his place in the witness box for the rest of my life.”
Nowadays, you can obtain a marriage certificate from any city and not necessarily from the place of marriage. We return to our residence in Bangalore. Armed with proof such as the wedding invitation, our marriage album (moths having made a sumptuous meal of most parts of our body, leaving a final assault on our face for a later occasion), and two family friends who attended our marriage nearly 40 years ago, we walk into the office of the Registrar of Marriages. He goes through the album and says, “You look the same, sir.”
“Either I am not supposed to, or are you surprised that I manage to look this old that long back?” I want to ask. But on all such occasions, an artificial smile, as opposed to than countering bureaucrats’ observations, makes matters move. I smile.
He signs the papers, not before raising a query. “But, why do you require this certificate, sir? Must be writing your will?”
“Not exactly,” I clarify, “we need proof that my wife and I were married before our son was born. He is now a U.S. citizen and is sponsoring our permanent residence there.”
“You mean leaving India?”
Police clearance is required from all the places you stayed continuously for six months during the last five years. We needed one from Bangalore and another from a European city. On remittance of about $100 to the latter authorities, we got the certificate, “no crime recorded,” for $33 per word.
For the Indian report, the constable from the police station visits our home when we are not around and makes discreet inquiries from a cross section of residents in our apartment complex. He leaves word for us to appear before him at the police station, which we do. Standing behind us are a dozen ruffians rounded up during the day and, in front, the police officer himself—a very tall and hefty guy with more hair on his eyebrows, handlebar moustache, and chest than on his head. He surveys us from head to feet.
“I have been here for years, but I don’t particularly seem to have spotted you any time,” he says.
“Sir, we try to keep away from three people: the police, an advocate, and a doctor, in that order,” I am about to respond, but check myself. Instead I say, “Sir, we shifted to this city recently.”
“Ah, so I am right,” he says triumphantly. “You see, we police officials have an elephant’s memory and a snake’s photosensitive eyes.” He sounds as though he expects me to appraise him for his next promotion. I keep mum. “You people seem nice. Your neighbors gave a very good report, which is a rare feat these days.” He signs the paper for our files.
Meanwhile, we must collect yet another report, this one called a Police Verification Report, from the Passport Control Office, where their enquiries have failed to elicit anything incriminating against us. Clearly all escape routes begin with the police force.
Three months after we collect and file our documents, we receive letters welcoming us as permanent U.S. residents.
V.V. Sundaram, retired from the publishing line in a UN organization, is now based in the Bay Area.