I am supposed to leave for India next week; my seventh or eighth trip there in the past four years. I say supposed to because despite the fact that my flight is booked, my bags packed and my itinerary established, I don’t know whether I will be allowed on the plane at all.
I have applied for my fifth visa in four years and while it should be a simple, smooth process by this point, it never is. For the past week I have been having interrupted, anxious sleep and innumerable maddening calls to CKGS, an outsourced visa provider for the Indian government, whose call center in India (of course) is certainly some circle of Hell. I don’t know whether my visa will arrive in time for my non-refundable trip, and no one can (or will) give me any answers.
Every time I travel to India, I seem to be tested in some way. It’s the universe asking how badly I want to go back, what will I be willing suffer to make it back to the place that I love so much.
On my last journey six months back, I had a similar visa scare, this one undoubtedly my fault: I realized only a few days before I was due to travel that my year visa was set to expire the day I arrived in India. Upon this discovery, a heat wave of horror washed over me – I was going to have to cancel my trip. Ultimately I was saved by the fact that the government had just a couple months back instated a 30-day visa on arrival and I was able to continue on a condensed itinerary.
This time the visa agency has exhibited the kind of convoluted stonewall bureaucracy that anyone who has visited India can attest to having experienced. First a document wasn’t signed in the right place. Then the embassy was requesting original documents be overnighted from India in place of scanned documents. Every day that passes I become more morose, confined to a sort of purgatory of the unknown.
India doesn’t make things easy. Nothing in the country runs smoothly – the roads are a congested theatre of blaring car horns and smog, people give the most senseless answers to the simplest of questions, you are forced to wait days for something that should theoretically take minutes in a more organized society.
But India is not organized. It is chaos. It is constantly challenging me to drop my Western notions of how things ought to be and accept the way they are. Fighting against the madness is futile. Submitting to it is the only method of survival.
And this is the great metaphor of life that India teaches. It breaks you down. It forces you to be patient and to trust that it will work out okay, even if it’s not how you were expecting it to be. It’s saying to you – you think you know what’s good for you? Well think again. We possess only the tiniest speck of consciousness, a granule of sand on a vast desert. How can we possibly know better than existence what is right for us? Maybe you’re not supposed to get on that plane. Maybe on the next one you’re forced to change to you’ll be seated next to your future boyfriend or business partner. You can’t know, you just have to trust there’s some crazy mysterious reason behind it.
And while you’re up against some grade-A bullshit, you will also find some of the best allies in India to help you navigate it. There’s the supplier who will actually overnight you his only copy of his company incorporation to provide the embassy, there’s the friend who will reach out to someone well-versed in government red tape to clarify something on your behalf, there’s another friend who will go to the temple to pray that your visa arrives in time.
For as maddening and difficult as India can be, it is equal parts beautiful and mesmerizing. I really do pray that I make it on that flight.