We are spending Christmas in India this year. It’s time for Sonali to meet Sasmita’s family. But visiting India requires a visa.
I’ve received multiple Indian visas in the last 10 years. The process requires many documents but is straightforward. I thought it would be simple this time as well.
I could not have been more wrong.
The Indian government contracted out their visa services to a company called Cox and Kings. To secure a visa, you must start an application on their website. I began the form and answered the question about where I was born. That brought another question, ‘what was your previous nationality?’ I chose India and then came two new questions.
‘Have you renounced your Indian citizenship?’ and ‘Do you have a Certificate of Renunciation from the Embassy of India?”The answer to both questions was ‘no’.
In January 2017, the Indian government changed the rules. India no longer allows dual citizenship. If anyone has ever held an Indian passport no matter how long ago, they must renounce their citizenship and turn in their passport.
The application asked if I possessed my original Indian passport. I don’t have it, which required a sworn Affidavit of its loss.
I was born in 1979 and received an Indian passport in 1980 when I was adopted to the US. It was only valid for six months. I’ve never considered myself an ‘Indian Citizen’ since I left India when I was one year old. My Indian passport says my birth name, Joseph. But no middle or last name is listed.
I’m 38 years old. My Indian passport expired 37 years ago. In 1981 I became a Naturalized citizen and legally changed my name from Joseph to Adam.
The Indian government was refusing me a 10-Year Tourist Visa unless I renounced my Indian citizenship.
I thought the situation was lunacy, but it got worse.
The application asked questions about my birth mother and father. Again, I don’t know anything about them. After finishing the online forms I printed them and realized a problem.
I wrote ‘NA’ in the last name field for all the questions about my Indian origins, and the application program had automatically input ‘Bryant’, my legal last name.
Both the Affidavit of Loss and the Renunciation Certificate said ‘Joseph Bryant.’
That has never been my legal name.
A bureaucratic nightmare was unfolding.
I called C&K multiple times explaining my dilemma, but they said it would be ok. They encouraged me to write an explanatory note to the Indian Embassy describing my unique conundrum. As sweet as they were on the phone, I knew they were clueless. It was going to be a huge problem.
The Affidavit of Loss form must be notarized. However, because ‘Joseph Bryant’ is not my legal name, I was unable to do so. Notaries cannot process documents if the person is not using their legal name for liability purposes. Without a notarized Affidavit, I could not submit my paperwork for an Indian Visa.
In addition to the Affidavit and the Renunciation forms, I presented documentation of my legal name change, proof of Indian origin, my Naturalization certificate, and provided my parents’ names, birth dates, and place of birth.
Naturally, I used my adoptive parent’s information, because I know nothing about my biological parents. The web application kept giving me errors. If I indicated I was a former Indian citizen, why were my parents US nationals, with no mention of their Indian nationalities?
It was as if the Indian government never considered the possibility that an Indian national infant would be adopted by US citizen parents and visit India later.
Stuck in notorious Indian paperwork purgatory, my frustration grew daily.
I went to my visa appointment, bringing all the documents needed. I included the unnotarized Affidavit and hoped to explain my situation to the Visa officer, wishing for the best.
As expected, they would not accept the application without the notarized Affidavit form. I reiterated my problem with the name and the impossibility of the form being notarized using a non-legal name.
Expressing my frustration, I told them that this was their problem because I had followed every direction, there was nothing else I could do.
The visa officer called his supervisor, and I explained the problem to him. After listening to my story he told me to wait and quickly returned with a hard-copy hand fillable Affidavit of Loss form.
I wrote ‘Joseph’, left the last name blank and got the Affidavit notarized. Returning to the processing center an hour later they accepted my application.
I had pleaded with the phone representatives for hours about sending a blank form to fill out, rather than using their web form. They repeatedly told me it was a computer program issue. After showing my displeasure in person with the process, voila! I received a blank hand-fillable form. Though the saga was complete, the process left a bitter taste.
60 hours I spent, securing a visa, between filling out applications, resubmitting paperwork, explaining my situation over the phone and traveling back and forth between my work and the Cox and Kings processing center.
The victory was eventually mine, but not without a huge amount of effort and energy. I was once again reminded how lucky I am to live in the United States because that paperwork maze is not the norm here, but is well-known in India.
Earlier this summer I read a fascinating article titled ‘Death, Redesigned.” As I read the piece, it struck me how vastly different the West views death and how Sasmita and Indians view death.
The story begins with Paul Bennett, the founder of Ideo, a design, marketing, and branding firm in San Francisco Bay. It’s famous for among other things, bringing the world a standing toothpaste tube, creating Apple’s first mouse and re-engineering Pringle’s potato chips.
Bennett realized the way the US discusses death, the funeral industry, and everything related to dying in the United States seemed outdated.
While he admits there is much about death beyond people’s control, there is he posits, all that happens after someone dies. We actively make choices about those things.
He started zeroing in on all the unspoken decisions around that inevitability: the aesthetics of hospitals, the assumptions, and values that inform doctors’ and families’ decisions, the ways we grieve, the tone of funerals, the sentimentality, the fear, the schlock. The entire scaffolding our culture has built around death, purportedly to make it more bearable, suddenly felt unimaginative and desperately out of date. “All those things matter tremendously,” Bennett told me, “and they’re design opportunities.” With just a little attention, it seemed — a few metaphorical mirrors affixed to our gurneys at just the right angle — he might be able to refract some of the horror and hopelessness of death into more transcendent feelings of awe and wonder and beauty.
To begin with, I have never once heard Sasmita say anyone died. She calls death ‘expiring.’
Her youngest uncle ‘expired’ on Christmas Eve 2014. It was a traumatic event, mainly because her family is on the other side of the world. She could not be with them as they celebrated his life.
By saying someone expired, it seems to me that she is more in touch with the act of dying. They see it as a natural progression in one’s life.
To say a person died seems harsh, separating their identity from their body. Whereas for me, to say one has expired is a gentler way of saying the same thing.
Food reaches an expiration date and is no longer safe to eat; humans reach a point where they can no longer survive. To clarify, for me, the fruit expiration analogy breaks down when one discusses sudden and early death. Death’s such as a child killed in a car crash seem weird to call ‘expiring’, however, Sasmita still calls it that.
The United State avoids talking about, contemplating or evaluating death. We are terrified of death. But many people across the globe have the opposite attitude towards life’s end.
In India, death is not taboo, because it’s viewed as a shared human experience.
One cannot escape it and people are unafraid of it. I think a few major reasons for this are:
- Indian identities are wrapped up in the community, the strongest social bond in society. People are more connected, humanity enjoined, making death easier to examine and discuss. In the US, we value individual identity, relishing separation as unique people. Indians see individualistic tendencies as outside the norm, viewing people lacking social ties or strong group identities suspiciously.
- India has a larger population. When there are 1.2 billion people in your country, death is common and not easily hidden.
- Hinduism’s dominance in all cultural spheres, particularly its emphasis on karma and death. For example, the goddess of Calcutta, Mother Kali, is known as the deity of death and destruction. For millions of Indians, they view their life as one of small value, instead of living with the faith of a rebirth on a higher social plane or wealthier existence.
One of the oldest cities in the world, is Varanasi/Benares/Kashi, India (it is called all three names). It is essentially a city of death. Tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, pilgrimage to the river banks of the Ganges cremating bodies on funeral pyres. In some areas, entire hotels are packed with Hindu pilgrims waiting to die in the ancient city’s holy confines.
Anyone can watch bodies being ceremoniously burned at the large Ghats which dot the Ganges riverfront.
It is a surreal experience because, for Westerners, cremation is an intimate, closed, family only affair. In Varanasi, it’s still sacred. But there is nothing private about it.
My friend Adam and I visited there in 2011. It was mesmerizing watching a body burn just a few yards away. I will never forget it.
And the smell, well, you can only imagine how awful that was. But yet, my friend Adam and I sat there, transfixed, for nearly an hour as the flames consumed the entire body, head and all.
Even today, I could write a whole post just about my Varanasi experience. The memories are stamped in my mind forever.
There is no US city where people make pilgrimages to die.
Rather, we spend billions of dollars trying to extend our lives through medicine.
It seems as though every month someone publishes an article asking questions about the end of life care in the United States or ways to live longer.
Most people in the US never want to think about death and life’s end. We ostracize our elderly because they remind us our mortality. In India and many other parts of the world, older folks are revered and honored.
In Western funerals we wear black or dark clothing, signifying mourning. We’re finally embracing the reality that our loved one is gone.
When Sasmita and I discussed what color sari she would wear for our August 2012 wedding, I asked if she would wear white. Aghast she replied, ‘Definitely not, women only wear white saris when someone has expired.’ I had no idea that was the case.
Thanks to Sasmita, I’m learning about the differences between India and the United States on a variety of topics, including death.
Sasmita and I celebrated our third Christmas holiday season together in 2014. But it was the first Christmas that I actually know my Indian side of our family, the Nayaks.
As I wrote about here, Sasmita and I visited them in June 2014. We had an Indian wedding ceremony and stayed in her village, Alligonda at her parent’s house for a week.
Before I finally met them (they did not attend our August 2012 wedding) I was tempted to always be cheerful and to mask any emotion that was not joyful. I was going to visit for a short time and it certainly crossed my mind that maybe I should always be happy since 1) I didn’t know when we’d see each other in person again and 2) I was genuinely excited to finally meet all of Sasmita’s family. Maybe they would get the wrong idea if they did not see me really excited and happy all the time.
However, due to many circumstances in our brief time there, they saw a gamut of emotions.
They saw me laugh (a lot), cry, show frustration, be disappointed, and they felt my enthusiasm, passion and saw my feelings of sadness. In short, I was completely ‘real’ in their presence. read more …
Ajit Nayak is my brother-in-law and he is mentally and physically disabled.
Since I’ve known Sasmita, I have heard stories about her brother who is two years older than me and his disability.
One day this summer, my father-in-law Valentine and I were chatting about life in Village Alligonda. He began telling me about Ajit, referring to him as ‘the great family tragedy.’
The story goes something like this: When Ajit was eight years old he and his mother went to the local pond where his mother usually washed clothes. She was beside him, beating the clothes into the stones, cleaning them and he was playing nearby with his hands in the water.
Suddenly he slipped and fell into the water. Polina, horrified because she could not swim, jumped immediately into the waterhole and tried pulling him out. Thankfully the water was only waist deep. After a struggle she was successful, but Ajit nearly drowned. read more …