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Thursday, January 14, 2016

FLTA Diaries - The Run Up

It was a time of great change in the world; it was a time of great change in India. While the Middle East was melting down under riots, revolts and revolutions and the ISIS was taking over as the world's most deadly terrorist organization, the USA was trying its hand at legalizing marijuana, making friends with Cuba, and trying to figure out China (well the whole world was trying to do that, while China was busy trying to buy land on the moon), and India was trying its hand at banning beef, religious conversions, pornography, Maggi, controversial books, NGOs, movies, documentaries, western style parties and pretty much everything else that didn't fit into the narrow definition of Indian culture that existed in the minds of a few saffron-clad men in power.  It was in such times that I left India - the land of yoga, the Buddha, of unity in diversity, the land of a million gods, and the land of farmer suicides. It was in such times that I landed in the USA - the land of dreams, the land of opportunity and the land of hope and glory, the land of the international police, the land that destroyed the Middle East in the name of waging a war on terror. It was difficult to say which way the world was headed. Some said it was progress, and a majority of the others agreed, but the more I looked at things closely, the more difficult it was to fathom the true meaning of this word - progress, until there was Donald Trump. He made it clear - that 'progress' has no true meaning, no one knows what it means; all it requires is for a certain number of stars to align, and these aren't the celestial stars, these are the stars that light the earth from within it's gravitational pull - the satellites that transmit what funded media channels want them to transmit, capturing people's imaginations in large numbers, keeping them busy with a barrage of trivial news that makes little difference to anyone's life, and keeps them busy enough to keep them from thinking - yes, that is progress - the ideas of a handful of people with power, projected upon the masses that are content in living from sunrise to sunset, from the 1st to the 31st, slaving for a living from Monday to Friday, and barely getting a chance to get their senses together over the weekend, if they can afford one in the rat race they are a part of. China of course was a different story.

Yes, China was indeed trying to own the moon, the very moon that I used to look at while hearing stories from my grandmother, of how an old man and an old lady lived there and how they went about their day making butter from the milk that flows all around the moon; that same moon that I looked at several times, sitting outside the kitchen door, with my mother cooking inside (the smell of mustard seeds and onions being deep fried in oil just before hitting the dal, and the smell of fresh rotis being taken off the tawa and tossed into the casserole) and my father sitting next to me with a glass of whiskey in his hand, pointing to the stars and introducing me to some planets (stars that didn't twinkle) and constellations like the Great Bear and the Orion Giant, with the moon shining brighter than them all. It took a lot of convincing before I was ready to believe that the moon in fact was the smallest of all those objects we saw in the sky, and that it was nearly impossible for us to reach any of them except the moon, which they had reached already, or so they claimed. This was much before the age of Ipads and apps that could show you the entire sky at a glance. These were days when video games were things that could be had if one had a granny who could travel abroad and buy one for you. Three decades, several technological innovations and several philosophy books later, my own existence is sometimes as suspect in my head as the moon-landing seems to be. The difference between the real and the unreal, the video game and the non video game is increasingly blurred - something only reason, guided by my senses, has convinced me to believe. Some believe in Ram, some in Jesus, some in Allah, some in a million other beings that I'm not sure any of them has really seen or met or felt, with a fervour so great that it allows them to take the lives of several others who may not have seen the same apparitions they have. I'm glad to hear that not so many have killed because some others don't believe someone landed on the moon.

I had first heard of America when my father introduced me to Elvis Presley - his childhood hero. He was in college when Jailhouse Rock had released, and he stood in line from 5 AM at Filmistan so he could get to watch the first show on the first day of the release. His friend tells me that he went and watched it every day for the whole first week of its release. Needless to say, I grew up with Elvis all around me. Vinyl Albums that played on the Turntable, Audio Cassettes, Video Cassettes that played on the National VCR and the Sony TV that he had got during his trip to Singapore. Elvis had defined my life in many ways - with his flamboyant lifestyle, his larger-than-life personality, his ability to rock'n'roll, and the insurmountability of death, for even Elvis couldn't evade it, with all his aura and fan following. Nevertheless, I was flying to the land that had produced Elvis - the white man that sang like a black man, thus uniting all of America, and to an extent the whole world. My application for the Fulbright FLTA programme was not free of it's events and hiccups. It started with the form, which takes a month to fill, for someone like me. I took one look at it and almost gave up, but when I met a few friends who had done it before, they convinced me that as long as I saved my work once I was done, I could return in a few days and carry on completing the form - with it's academic record details, job history details, essays, a requirement to attach transcripts of all your academic degrees as a single file - it took me about a month to complete it, and I finished it maybe a few hours before the deadline.

The next step was the eligibility test, which was at 9 AM on a Saturday. Anyone who knows me just a little bit would know how bad a situation that was, even if you ignored the fact that it was on a Saturday, which I'm not really sure if it was. I had reached Delhi a few days ago and was staying in Brahmaputra hostel, where there was a party the night before the test, which I very kindly obliged to be a part of, with every intention to leave before the stroke of midnight. Well that did not happen. I was actually about to leave, when three girls walked into the party. So, I decided to stay another 15 minutes, and the next thing I knew was that it was 2 am, and that when the party was over, I was walking back to my room with Akash (a previous FLTA who was supposed to give me tips on cracking the test) and a girl, where I played the guitar and we sang songs for maybe another hour, by the end of which the former had ended up passing out on my bed in Brahmaputra and Akash and I had sung some song that came to his mind, the chords to which I invented and we sang the lines, "wherever you are, wherever you go, just be in love, just be in love" maybe a 100 times, besides a few other songs I could play. Well, to cut the story short, I woke up at 8:45 AM, much like a soldier at border patrol during war would wake up when woken up by his superior after their bunker had been destroyed by the enemy because he had fallen asleep. By 8:55 AM, I had brushed and showered, and the girl couldn't decide if she wanted to carry on sleeping or if she wanted to leave, so I got her to step out of the room while she engaged in her thought process, locked the door and ran, about as fast as anyone in Brahmaputra hostel must have ever run, all the way to the IIMC gate. The first auto wallah didn't know where Hailey road was, and neither did I, so I continued running, and the next auto wallah told me he knew the route very well. I asked him to ride as fast as he could without crashing or being caught by the cops, and set out to do what I seem to do best - telling myself, "Well, I'm here now, in this situation; what do I do now?" So I called up Neelu, who was appearing for the entrance as well. She had given me a few missed calls by the time I had woken up, and it was possibly her calls that managed to get me up in the first place. I called her and she started yelling at me, and I told her that I was on the way, and that she should inform the Fulbright folks that "Asher is on his way... cab broke down... he's taking an auto". The story was told, and when I reached at 9:50 PM, I found out that I was only 20 minutes late for the test, since they had started only at 9:30 AM, and that 9:00 was only the reporting time. It was a two hour test, that I managed to finish in time, and that is when I heaved my sigh of relief, hungover like a lake gone dry!

Amit Ranjan was also appearing for the Fulbright exam, Amit Ranjan was a senior of mine from college, whom I don't think I'd ever spoken to in college, except for a few passing conversations at best. He was two years senior to me, and we hence had only one year to interact in college. He was also my senior in JNU, but I had never really lived in JNU, except for the last two years, so my only interactions with Amit were at random house parties where he'd also be present, and we'd go, "abbe, tu yahan kaise??!!" So Amit and I used that phrase once more at the Fulbright office in Hailey road, after the Hindi test, where I had discovered for the first time that 'doodhiya' was a valid word in Hindi, and he had come out of the test having given the examiner a few suggestions on how the test could be improved. So, needless to say, he was a 'little' more confident than I was, and I was elated that they still cleared me for the next round. The next day, we decided to meet outside Amit's house, from where we were to go to Hailey road in his car. I was probably a few minutes late in reaching his house, only to find out that he needed 15 more minutes to get dressed and come down. So I sat there outside the theka that I had frequented so often on weekends, wondering how different a place could look in the morning. I met a couple of dogs who agreed to let me pet them for a while. Amit arrived and we left for Hailey road in his Maruti 800, dressed in formals, shaved, hair neatly done, the passenger seat pushed all the way back to accommodate for my height, the relevant documents neatly filed... what could go wrong, right?. We were still good to reach just in time for our interview slot, and after Amit stopped for a cigarette and smoked it on the way, we wee still good to make it and be only ten minutes late for the interview. Ten minutes is not so bad by Indian standards, considering that both of us had always been at least 2 days late in submitting all our documents, and I had obviously been 20 minutes late for the entrance test just the previous day, so no real worries yet. I did urge Amit to drive a little fast though, which he obliged to do. As we entered Chanakya Puri though, we spotted some cops at a circle, but not before they spotted me - desperately trying to get my seatbelt on. Well, what could have gone wrong, right? By now, Amit was beginning to get calls from the Fulbright office, as his interview was scheduled to be held just before mine. I didn't even know where my phone was, so I'm not sure if they'd called me or not. Nevertheless, we paid the 'chalaan' of Rs. 100, and we were on our way, in time to be less than half an hour late. Amit called up the Fulbright folks and told them what happened, and they told us that it was okay, and the reason they had called was because the person scheduled before Amit hadn't turned up on time, so they were wondering if Amit could have taken their place. However, by the time Amit had called back, the person had turned up, and all the interviews happened to be pushed foward by 20 minutes or so. So when we walked in, we still had 5 minutes for me to get a cup of coffee while Amit got another smoke before he headed for his interview.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

FLTA Diaries - The False Start

There I was, sitting at a window inside Frankfurt airport, sipping a glass of draught beer, chomping on a Burger with Swiss cheese inside, and wondering why nothing had gone wrong yet. It felt almost unreal that everything had gone so smoothly. I had my farewell party two nights before, so I wasn't drunk for my flight. My friends had booked a cab and hence I was at the airport well in time, had checked in with 19.5 Kgs, my hand baggage was clear too, and there I was, waiting for my connecting flight to Chicago O'Hare airport, wondering how nothing had gone wrong. "Surely, something must go wrong", I thought to myself, as I looked first at all the United Airlines flights landing, taxiing, taking off, and then a little further, in the vault of my mind, as my memory took me to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I had just landed there on an IBM project, and realized that my salary hadn't been credited, and that I needed $50 for my 3 month multiple visa. They let me go to the ATM machine, which I knew was pointless, for there was usually never any money in my account after the 20th of any month; but I still went, clutching for a straw of hope, their words ringing in my head, "We will find the next flight back for you, and it will be free!!", as I pictured my boss's screaming, face distorting with disbelief and fury, yelling at me upon my return, and the ten thousand other embarrassments that I would have needed to undergo, had I not experienced a miracle. 

Here at Frankfurt, however, I didn't seem to be in need of miracles, as I gulped down the beer, finished the burger, picked all the crumbs off the plate, and walked around trying to figure out if I should cash the travelers' cheques at the airport. The conversion rate and the agency fee were a lot, so I decided to wait till I reached the USA before I made any major purchases. I had set out with a wishlist of things I needed to buy - portable speakers, tennis shoes, a Tortuga travel backpack, an electric trimmer, and a decent pair of headphones. I also had a list of things I wished to do while I was in the US - watch Roger Federer play, visit the Grand Canyon, Graceland, New Orleans, and have dinner with Jessica Alba. I wasn't sure how many of these would actually happen, but I was positive that I could make some of these happen for sure. I strolled around a bit, enquired at the UAL counter twice to make sure I was at the right gate, and well, everything seemed perfect; nothing had gone wrong yet. Nothing like the time when I had fallen asleep under the stairs near the boarding gate on my way back from China, before I was to board the connecting flight, or the time when I was on the flight back from Cairo, only to realise that I had left my phone at the hand baggage screening counter, and had to take the air hostess' permission to run back, escorted by security, to retrieve the phone, and caused a resultant ten minute flight delay. I still remember the look on the passengers' faces as I walked back down the aisle, smiling at first, and gradually just hurrying to my seat to hide myself behind the seat in front of me. 

As I got into the line, I thought to myself, "Maybe you have grown up, after all". Thus, with a smug look on my face and a nod indicating agreement with my aforementioned thoughts, I walked on ahead in the line, waiting to board one last flight for the day. I checked my pockets again - wallet, phone, passport - all checked. I checked my hand baggage - each hanging from either shoulder; I hadn't misplaced anything. As I progressed in line, the ground staff was checking the passengers' documents to ensure they had all that was required. A lady called Angela (name tag) came up to me. With the same smug look on my face, I handed her my passport and my e-ticket. She looked at it, then looked back at me, and asked, "Where is your I-94?" I wish someone had taken a picture of my face at that point. She looked at my blank expression, and said, "Weren't you issued an I-94 or a DS - 2019?" I pointed at the visa stamp and told her that I got the visa only after I showed my DS -2019. Long story short, I was escorted out of the line, and a most formal US officer posted there was summoned, to check my documents. He checked a number of websites, made a few calls, and confirmed that if I didn't have the DS form, I would have to be put onto the next flight back to India, unless I could get a German visa, in which case he recommended that I spend some time in Frankfurt before going back. 

There it was, the situation I was anticipating. I had no clue where that stupid DS 2019 form was, and I was positive that it was not in my checked in baggage. It was now time for that miracle, but I didn't see one coming any time soon, or maybe I was wrong. When I had landed in HCMC in 2011, I could imagine my boss's disgruntled face spitting fumes all over my face, when he found out that I was deported for not having had enough cash for my visa. I ran to the ATM machine, inserted the card, but knew that it would be two days before I received my salary. I needed a miracle, and I needed it right then! Well, it didn't happen then, because as expected, there was no money in my bank account. I had no credit card either, and even if I did, I don't think they were accepting cards at the visa counter. I don't generally panic in these situations, as I was solely focused on what to do next - something that has held me in god stead in most difficult situations in life. Like that time when I had gone for Pauline's wedding, and the day after the wedding, we were headed downhill on one of the streets of Aizawl in a Maruti 800 cab, the driver and I in the front and Mami and Mimi in the back seat, when a bus driver behind us lost control and hit a Scootie driver, ran her over (she died on the spot), dragged her scootie along and hit our car, dragging our car downhill to almost certain death. The girls in the backseat started screaming wildly, but the driver kept his calm and kept driving, the bus pushing us downhill with all it's momentum. The same thought came to my mind - "I'm here now; what can I do?" And then the miracle happened - I saw a vacant parking spot on the side of the road. I pointed to it and the driver turned into it. The cars were parallel parked and the driver's skills, especially considering the situation he was in, were exceptional. He pulled in and the bus took his left tail-lamp with it, screeching to a halt maybe 50 metres downhill, somehow. No one in the bus died that night. Neither did anyone else, apart from the girl on the scootie behind us.

So that day in HCMC, as I was walking back from the ATM, to almost certainly be put on the next flight back to New Delhi, I thought to myself, "I am here now; what can I do" - something that IBM taught me, when as a 'fresh' graduate I had joined my first job, my manager would always tell me, "Don't come to me with a problem; come to me with a solution". So I went to the travel desk, and there were two Vietnamese girls in their Ao Dai, talking to a customer. I patiently stood in line, my guitar and my suitcase in my hand. When it was my turn, I walked up to them and told them my story - "My card isn't working... I will get my money next week... I need $50...I can leave my suitcase and guitar here till I return with the money..." Ridiculous, right? Well, I didn't know what else to do. And wait, what happened next was that one of the girls pulled open the drawer, took out $50, and said "Please return it, because I'm taking this out on my account". I could barely believe what had happened, and offered to leve my guitar behind, but she wouldn't have any of that. I got her phone number, thanked her maybe a hundred times and ran to the visa office. I paid my dues, got the three month, multiple entry visa, and went back to thank the girl. She smiled and said it was no problem, I promised her I would return the money soon, and left. It took me 7-10 days to find the time from my schedule to call her back, and when I did she was surprised, for when she had told her story to her friends, all of them convinced her that she had been cheated. I called her for dinner to a restaurant close to the place where I stayed, and returned her money, and she thanked me for returning the money and restoring her faith in kindness, and I obviously kept thanking her all throughout dinner.

Back to Frankfurt, when I was given the option of boarding the flight back to India. I thought to myself, "I am here now; what can I do?". I tried writing to the IIE folks and the Fulbright office in India, but it was a Sunday, and neither office was open. I didn't have an international calling card, and the official from the US was extremely business like, without any appearance of feeling in him - he may well have been a robot or a coded clone. "I have checked with the authorities concerned, and the only options available to you at the moment are to locate your I-94 or be deported back to your home country". I realised there was no use reasoning or pleading with him - he was certainly not another Nga Nguyen - he was just another American who wouldn't see anything that hasn't been printed in his book of rules. As I stood there, waiting for a miracle, Angela from UAL came back to me, and figured out from my face that I had had no luck, and looked me in the eye and said, "I know you said that you don't think it's in your checked-in luggage, but why don't you check once? Your flight leaves in 20 minutes, so you don't really have much time". I said okay, and she made a few phone calls, escorted me three floors down, and 5 minutes later, I was rummaging through my checked in backpack - and tucked in neatly and carefully, under a few layers of clothing, was a file where all my important documents had been filed neatly, and right in front of all of them was the DS 2019 form. I could have hugged and kissed Angela at that moment, but I realised the inappropriateness of that action, and not wanting to get into further trouble, I thanked her thrice as I quickly packed my bag up, and thanked the guy who had got it up, for he had to now take it back to the cargo slot. I ran back and showed the American the DS form, upon which he remarked, with no sign of a smile remotely appearing on his face, "I'm glad you were able to locate it. You saved yourself a lot of trouble". I couldn't possibly have been bothered with that statement, and almost feeling victorious, I walked up to the line, where they were nearly done with the boarding. I walked in, placed my hand baggage in the overhead cabin, and as I sat down and buckled up, I realised that maybe I still had a lot of growing up to do.