When we noticed Kanchan, Bharati’s elder sister exiting the International arrival’s gate at the Washington Dulles airport all by herself with a load of bags we got worried. She was supposed to be accompanied by her younger sister and the sister’s husband.
“What happened? Where are Sujata and Shekhar?” We asked when she came out.
“I don’t know,” she replied and added. “They took them for questioning.”
“Questioning?” Bharati and I asked in tandem. “How did it happen? Weren’t all of you together?”
“They checked our passports and then they took them somewhere.”
“And they didn’t ask you?”
“Why didn’t you stay with them?”
“The lady said I can go out.”
“But you came with the entire luggage, theirs and yours. What if they have to show their luggage to the interrogators?”
She just kept quiet.
My wife Bharati’s two sisters, Sujata and Kanchan and my brother-in-law Shekhar were to arrive from India for my son’s wedding a week away. According to Shekhar’s itinerary the arrival time was 8.40 a.m. We have sufficient time to take breakfast and leave about eight I had said to Bharati the night before. The airport is only twenty minutes from our home.
“What about the rush hour traffic, maybe we should start earlier?” She said.
I understood her concern not to be late to welcome her sisters.
“But, even if the flight is on time, it will take at least an hour for them to clear the customs, etc,” I said.
“I know,” she continued. “It is better to go to the airport and wait.”
Next morning I turned on the computer at 7:30 and searched for the arrival information for Emirates. It showed a time of arrival at ten after eight, thirty minutes earlier than the scheduled time.
“Let’s go, get ready, we have to leave immediately.” Bharati was concerned.
“Don’t worry. We have plenty of time. They will take at least an hour to come out.”
We got dressed.
Before leaving for the airport I thought I should check the arrival time again. I realized that earlier I had clicked on the departure tab rather than the arrival tab. When I clicked on the correct tab the time was 8:40 a.m. as it should be. We were both relieved but left for the airport anyway. We needed to take two cars to accommodate the luggage of three international travelers. Bharati followed me. People kept merging in and out and I lost her several times. Each time I worried if something happened to her car.
I gave a sigh of relief when I saw her right behind me at the airport parking garage.
A surprise awaited me as I approached the turnstile that was blocking my entry. I looked for the button to get a stub to lift the access control bar, but there was no button. A sign on the terminal asked me to insert my credit card.
I was not sure if I should do that. What if I insert the card and it didn’t come out? I thought. There was a construction crew working next to the pole. I didn’t bother to ask them. How would they know?
Timidly, I inserted my credit card and retrieved it immediately. The turnstile opened and I entered. I had no idea how I was going to pay for the parking. How would they know how long I had parked?
I was relieved to see Bharati manage to enter too. I asked her if she had to use the card. She admitted she too was confused but had seen me insert the card. Lucky for her, one of the construction crew members helped her to get a stub by tapping somewhere on the screen.
“Well,” I said. “If it comes to that I may end up paying for the entire day.”
The large screen with arrivals information said the plane is going to be late by an hour.
Just our luck. We come here in time and now we have to wait an hour. I suggested Bharati wait near the arrivals display screen to keep an eye on the constantly changing information. I walked over to the information desk and relayed my concern about my parking quandary.
The clerk, an elderly gentleman, smiled as he approached me from behind the counter.
“What can I do for you, Sir?”
I explained what happened and that I had used my credit card but didn’t get any stub.
“Don’t worry,” He said nonchalantly. “It’s the new system.”
“But,” I asked, still puzzled. “How will they know how much to charge me?”
“You have to insert the card again when you exit.”
“And what if my wife has used the same card?”
“Good question. Also what if you have two cards and you forgot which one you used upon entry?” He asked. He seemed to be skeptical of the new system too.
I didn’t have an answer.
“Who decided to replace the old system?” I was curious.
“Don’t ask me.” He said.
I walked back to Bharati, slightly relieved that I was going to be okay about the parking. She was all smiles.
“The time has changed. The flight has arrived already.” She said.
I didn’t care for the earlier message about the flight being late. We found a couple of chairs facing the doors that opened as the passengers exited. We kept looking at our watches to see how much time had elapsed. We were hoping to welcome all three of them with a hug and head home. Instead, Kanchan had come out alone.
A while later a man dressed in a dark suit approached us. He was talking to someone on his walkie-talkie.
“Yes. I see the names,” he was said as he turned the tabs on the suitcases one by one.
We weren’t sure what was going on. Before we could ask him any questions he was gone.
“Tell us exactly what happened,” Bharati asked Kanchan again.
“They pulled them aside after we showed the passports and took them somewhere.”
“Took them where?”
“I don’t know.”
Now we were really worried. With the recent orders for travel bans, one never knew what the authorities would do. But our guests were traveling from a country, not on the banned list. Could it be that they got suspicious because Shekhar sported a graying beard and balding head and looked like Mohammad Karzai?, a thought went through my head. It can’t be, I murmured. We asked a woman in uniform who didn’t know what was going on.
We waited for another hour. People had stopped coming out. A young lady waiting with us had not seen her elderly mother coming out yet. She was concerned too.
“There must still be some people inside,” I said loudly.
“What do we do now?” Bharati questioned.
I had no answer. Do we wait there for the whole day? Do we contact our congressman? This had never happened to us. Why this time? We could have been home by now.
We just sat there.
The doors opened after another fifteen minutes and we saw Sujata and Shekhar walking out. They appeared tired and exhausted.
“They are here, they are here,” Bharati said loudly and ran to greet them.
“What happened? Where did they take you? What did they ask?”
“Nothing happened,” Shekhar said calmly. “Maybe it’s our luck. They just picked us at random. Maybe to meet their quota.”
“Did they take you anywhere?”
“But Kanchan said they took you inside.”
“No. they just asked us to stand nearby and didn’t ask anything.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s go home, forget this happened,” Bharati said as she started pushing the luggage cart towards the exit.
As I drove home I thought what would have happened if everything had gone smoothly without a hitch. I would not have a story to tell about what happened when they arrived in the United States of America.