Serial Bus

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Your Passports Will Be Mailed To You!

with 6 comments

Those are the magic words that my parents and didi (‘sister’) recently heard at the US Embassy in Delhi after their successful visa interviews that marked the culmination of months of careful planning. For Nidhi and me, getting a visitor’s visa for my folks has been like the all-important science project in school which has to be done with utmost care as it carries a double-digit weightage for the final exams. It all started with a simple notion i.e. how about getting my parents to travel to the US next year?

I read somewhere recently that when they discovered America, they were looking for something else (‘Indies’); then, they did not know what to do with such a huge landmass and wanted to get around it!! It was not until a few decades later that the colonialists took a real good look at America! Given all that neglect in its early years, America did get back with a vengeance. US is like that girl with braces and glasses in high school who somehow grows up to be a model for Victoria’s Secret. Everyone who did not even notice her then now suddenly wants to be with her!!

So, as fate would have it, I am in the US with Nidhi – one hemisphere away from India, where I grew up and where my folks live. Before we decide to move to some other spot on the Earth, we thought this country is definitely worth a dekko for our parents. Not only does it offer some great sights, it also entitles you to some bragging rights in provincial middle-class India where people do not travel outside of their state, let alone the country.

That innocuous idea was going to get tested very severely, once we embarked on the plan to get visitor visas for my parents. As Indian citizens (who aren’t amongst those that can enter the Land of the Free without a visa), the primary hurdle was an interview at the nearest consulate. Now, both Nidhi and I have attended such interviews in the past but those were for certain visa classes that are easier to grant. With a visitor visa, they say it’s like Russian roulette. There is a whole compendium of urban legends regarding how a visitor visa approval depends upon which side of the bed the visa officer woke up that morning. What complicated matters further was the need to attend an interview in Hindi, as my folks are not comfortable with English, let alone American accent. I defended this entire procedure as a sovereign right of a nation to govern who and how to admit someone visiting. But, the sheer inefficiency of the process can dishearten the most deserving of visitors and most ardent of US-admirers.

The first step was to get a VFR (Visa Fee Receipt) for each applicant. This can be received only after forking out more than Rs 5000 at a designated HDFC Bank branch. Despite their nationwide network of branches, only select HDFC branches in a handful of cities provide this facility. Sorry, no online deposit and no mailing of checks. Only possible when someone goes to the branch in person. Since my parents are based at Haldwani in Uttaranchal, this itself was a task. Thankfully, I happened to visit India on an emergency trip and used my sojourn at Delhi to fulfill this first step.

They activate the VFR within 2 days and through the website of VFS (the vendor who the process is outsourced to), one can book an appointment. In theory, that is. In practice, booking an appointment in any language other than English is a nightmare. You need to solemnly fill out the forms (DS156/157) on the VFS website and be prepared for disappointment when the pop-up informs that ‘appointments are not currently available’. After that, everything can be safely left to chance. I would look up day and night for weeks in row but never got any availability. I checked online forums and realized that I am not the only one in misery. Apparently, there are very few Hindi-conversant officers and interpreters available therefore, very few slots are released at a time which get taken up immediately due to heavy demand. Nobody knows when these slots are released – some said late Thursday ET and some others thought early Friday IST. At any rate, one needs to be prepared for that auspicious moment. Its like waiting for Godot. For one, the log-in process into the VFS website is anything but easy. You have to verify your credentials in at least 7 different ways (First Name, Family Name, DOB, Passport Number, VFR number, Mother’s name, an ugly-looking code and Passport Expiry Date) before they let you check availability of dates. For two, if you do not book an appointment within 7 days of creating applications, they erase your applications and you need to start from the scratch. Since everything was so dependent upon chance, they might have never gotten a date and the VFR expires in an year’s time. After trying my luck several times, I contacted VFS and US Embassy with what appeared to be a genuine problem. I wrote to the Embassy:

“………This is proving to be a difficult situation for my parents as:

a) There is no guarantee that I will log in precisely at the moment when you release more slots. Since the demand outstrips supply, I believe most of these slots are taken instantaneously.
b) My parents live in Uttaranchal and need to make travel plans to visit Delhi, which they can not do unless an appointment is taken sufficiently in advance.
c) Every time 7 days pass without appointment availability, we need to fill out the applications again on the VFS website.

I request you to please explore if any of the following solutions is possible:

a) Can you let me know at what times during the week do you release slots on the VFS website so that I may log in before they are exhausted?
b) Can my parents bring an interpreter along to the interview who will translate?
c) Is there an alternative way of booking an appointment e.g. over the counter at the Embassy or through phone or a letter?
d) Instead of releasing appointment for only the next 1-2 weeks, can you release the slots for the next 2-3 months? They are chances that dates farther away will not be booked immediately on release. This will give a window of opportunity to my parents who do not mind traveling later for the appointment.

I will appreciate if you could consider this case in light of the above. In the current scheme of things, I am extremely uncertain if my parents will ever be able to secure an appointment successfully. The US Embassy‘s visa approval arrangements are usually very thoughtful however in this case, I am not sure if the system is serving the genuine needs of people.”

I thought my email would provoke some thought but all it begot was the following terse reply, which could have as well been an auto-generated all-purpose platitude, but for a useless reference to an earlier email.

“Please note that there is no fixed time to upload the language appointments.  As already stated in our previous response, the applicants should continue to attempt to schedule their appointments online at http://www.vfs-india.co.in, as we regularly add appointments to the calendar, weeks in advance.”

So, their solution was an apathetic encouragement to ‘continue to attempt’ while subtly asking us to remain prepared to never succeed. We knew we had to come up against a wall and needed a more innovative approach. It struck us that my English-spoken didi could also apply for a visa together with our parents and she could fend the questions on their behalf. It seemed like the only way out. Didi showed great fortitude in agreeing to the plan. She got the visa fees deposited while I filled out application forms again for everyone, this time seeking an English appointment. I got a date. It felt like half the battle.

Since didi was in Pune at the time, we booked flights for her to travel to Delhi and return on the same day. Her one-year old Chintu wouldn’t have entertained the idea of being separated so he came in tow. Before the appointed day came, all of us mounted a massive document-hunt. While they assembled huge folders, I too DHL’d a bulky file with everything that would be necessary to prove my peaceful and financially-secure existence in the US. Alongside, I sent them a Q&A on my life to make them aware of all the mundane facts like where I live, how I commute and whether Nidhi was pregnant (no, she isn’t!). The key was to have my father respond to a few questions too, lest they get rejected on a technicality (“Please re-apply for a Hindi interview since only one of you speaks English!”). My mom confirmed that papa was on a mission – the way he made it a point to learn the Q&A by rote perhaps reminded him of the last examination he took more than quarter of a century ago – that one made him a postgraduate and this one was going to allow him to see the Statue of Liberty.

And, then the D-day arrived. My parents traveled by train and didi flew. Nidhi’s mom was the Delhi-based coordinator and a veteran of a couple of such interviews. She coolly guided my parents through the documents sent by me, arranged the local travel and finally, looked after Chintu while the applicants were ushered inside the embassy. My father carried a suitcase full of meticulously-arranged supporting documents, in original and duplicate.

For all the hullabaloo that preceded it, the ending of this affair was very tame. My folks were met by a benevolent American gentleman who was ready to listen to their hesitant but bespoke answers. Didi took on most of the questions while papa also pitched in. Mom made it a point to smile throughout the duration of the interview and for good measure, also greeted the interviewer before and after. To papa’s chagrin, the officer did not seek a single supporting doc. Within 10 minutes, he offered that the passports will be mailed to them with visas stamped!

They called me to convey the ecstatic news – I had been dozing nervously until then, but slept like a log afterwards. I wasn’t there but I am sure the 3 of them would have walked in butterflies in their stomach and walked out with butterflies around their heads. Chintu would have been very amused!!

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Written by serialbus

December 14, 2008 at 5:15 pm

6 Responses

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  1. haha, congratulations!!

    Good Short Story, Could be converted into malgudi days type documentary.

    Shashibhan

    December 15, 2008 at 2:40 am

  2. Love this story, Mohit! Boy can I relate. My parents were filled with similar trepidation when my mother applied for a U.S. visa to visit me during my last month in NYC. Fortunately for them it worked out as well and I think, once people have hurdled the U.S. visa requirements, they’re much more confident about all other types of visas.

    Marissa

    December 17, 2008 at 11:07 am

  3. Hi mojo very very interesting.Allthese writings can be compiled into a award winning may be booker prize some day .Keep it up.

    smita

    December 17, 2008 at 11:52 pm

  4. Very well written piece !!! loved it

    ak-77

    December 19, 2008 at 1:47 pm

  5. hi dear apni aapbeeti padker maza aaya.

    bhuwan

    December 24, 2008 at 2:55 am

  6. I think this is your best post yet.. Perhaps its because its about a story that needed to be told 😉
    I’m sure Nidhi and you can’t wait for your parents visit, I have no doubt, they will make the most of their trip.

    Purva

    January 6, 2009 at 5:09 am


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