We had to make an urgent trip to Washington DC this week on a small matter of getting a fresh lease of life for my daughter’s passport. I honestly did not look forward to the trip. I did not mind the five-hour drive to DC, but rather the visit to the Indian Embassy in Washington.
My last trip there about five years ago is still fresh in my memory. Back then, I was looking forward so much to the trip to that bit of India on American soil. My head was filled with visions similar to what I had seen at the US consulate in Chennai. A nice, clean, well-lit and well-ventilated hall with spacious counters; courteous staff (these were Indians mind you) directing you with a smile and American officials meticulously doing their job of giving you a green signal or refusing you entry into the US. A huge flag of the US greeted you and whoever was the President then beamed down a welcoming smile at the hopefuls that wanted to make an acquaintance with Lady Liberty. (Okay I am just generalizing here. Whether Lady L greets you or not depends on where you land in the US).
This is practically the first authentic taste of the US ‘system’ for all immigrants and visitors to the country and is a rather pleasant experience I must say, once you get over your tension of “Will he… won’t he…?” Unless of course, you visa is refused and you have to either bid good-bye to your American dreams or postpone it for the time being.
With this image in mind, I looked forward to the Indian embassy. I dreamed of an office along the same lines. I relished the thought of the moment when my heart would swell with pride at the tricolour that would greet me and I hoped it would be a picture of Gandhiji welcoming me in. I sincerely hoped I would not burst into a rather weepy display of emotion, as is my wont.
Getting off the cab, I saw the building – a rather historic building – and as we approached it, we were directed to go down to the basement, which housed the office where we were to submit our forms. Something seemed amiss as we slowly descended the stairs to the basement. We opened the door to the office and — stepped right into India!
I did weep with powerful emotion. Unfortunately it was not pride which overwhelmed me, but rather sadness and bitterness.
It could have been any government office in India – except for the absence of the mounds of files. The resemblance was unnerving. A dingy, dismal place with bad lighting and a few uncomfortable chairs. A dusty portrait of Mother Teresa sat neglected on the back wall and of course no flag. There was one outside the building though. No helpful signs anywhere and no one to direct you.
Of the few counters, half were empty for no obvious reason, and they stayed empty for a long time. And worst of all was the attitude of the officials. Surly, rude, authoritarian and made you feel as if they were doing you a favour for free out of the ‘goodness’ of their heart. People listlessly sat around, waiting their turns, muttering under their breath, and when the eyes of strangers met, I am sure the same thought passed unspoken between them – “You can take a man out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the man!”
Maybe they do it to make us feel right at home, but sorry, it just makes us sad, disheartened and bitter!
It would do well to remember that the ugly Indian does know to be on his best behaviour when the situation demands it. So why is it that when they sit behind an Indian establishment as an official, that they change into a whole other person? I have seen this ‘I am doing you a favour, so grovel before me,’ attitude among immigration officers too. You go before them in a highly-strung state. You are either leaving behind loved ones and flying far away or flying back after years and simply bursting to soak in the sea of love, comfort and familiarity of home. Either way, it is a rather sensitive state.
And what do you get? Insensitive officials who are determined to make things as difficult for you as possible. For those coming home, it is the most unpleasant ‘Welcome Home’ ever. Please, please welcome us home, with a smile and bid us goodbye with courtesy. It means a lot to us.
I am sure many have said this before me – but when will we ever learn that customer service is important? That serving with a smile makes it a pleasant experience for both parties? The simple joy of the two magic words –Please and Thank you. I know that private companies are headed in the right direction. But the fact is that the government entities are our official representatives. And that is the face we are presenting to our visitors. But then again, a change in the colour of the skin has often proved to be a great attitude changer. They can go from sneering to fawning in the blink of an eye.
In this age, when we claim to have ‘arrived’ on the global scene, it is high time we cleaned up our act.
So there I was, prepared for the worst when my husband told me the good news. Everything had been outsourced to a private company. We were going to a whole new office to get our job done. And this time, it was a clean, well-lit office with courteous staff. We were given a time for our appointment and things were on the dot, if not ahead, of schedule. The people behind the counters were extremely polite even to the most difficult of the applicants and we were in and out in a matter of minutes.
There was no Indian flag in there either, but this is the face of my nation that I would like to see; I would want the world to see.