For previous chapters click here Chapter 1, Chapter 2
The US Visa – An Unexpected Predicament
A crowded train platform
I left Hyderabad by train on the afternoon of Saturday, December 8, 1962 for Bombay, where I was to obtain the visas for my travel via Africa and Europe and onward to the United States. The overnight journey was to take eighteen hours. Usha Mami and I had made reservations that guaranteed a seat for each of us — an important decision because train travel in India could be an adventure.
My earlier travels to Bombay in an unreserved compartment had taught me that squeezing in a crowded train in India was one big problem. There was limited capacity for reserved seats and one had to visit the railway station much in advance of the travel days to pay a reservation fee. The reservation only guaranteed a seat, not a berth for sleeping during overnight trips. People who had reserved seats had to check a handwritten list posted on the compartment door to see if their name was listed and their seat had been assigned. This information was not on the ticket. God forbid if a name was misspelled or appeared similar to someone else’s — the person was at the mercy of the almighty ticket checker. This process also did not deter some transient passengers from coming in the compartment and occupying the floor space close to the door. Complaining to the ticket checker was of no use because he was probably paid under-the-table by these people. When confronted as to why they were occupying the space, the passengers would nonchalantly say, “Theek hai babuji, hum utarjayenge ek do station me. (It’s O.K., sir. We will get down shortly at the next station or so.)”
At the time there were not many travel agents to book trips. Most middle class people didn’t bother. They traveled by the unreserved third-class accommodation since it was four times cheaper. I remember the times when we sent a friend or family member to Secunderabad to board the train and occupy a seat for a passenger who was boarding in Hyderabad, while the passenger was getting ready. Secunderabad was the starting point for the Bombay Express. Even then, as the train arrived in Hyderabad a mass of people would rush to get in, pushing themselves and their luggage through the compartment door and windows. There would a big scramble to get in, with accompanying shouts and pushing. Children would cry. It helped if one had hired a hamaal (coolie) who knew the exact location where the third class compartment would come to a halt on the platform. Otherwise, one had to follow the crowd.
Once in the compartment, people became more civil to each other, even though they were smushed together like sardines in a can.
“Kahan ja rahe ho Babuji? (Where are you going, young man?)”
“Main Bombay ja rahan hun. (I am going to Bombay.)”
“Kal sabere ke bara buj jayenge. Sabere Dound nahito Poona par chay pani milega. (It will be almost noon tomorrow. You can have tea or breakfast at Daund station or in Poona in the morning.)”
Someone overhearing this would ask what time the train would reach these stations.
“Mere khayal se Dound sade sath our Ponna nawoo baje. (I think Daund at 7:30 and Poona at nine in the morning).”
Most people carried their own food from home and would offer some to people sitting next to them. Everyone would forget the tussle from just a while before.
Trains in those days were driven by coal-fired steam engines. If one was lucky enough to sit by the window it was common for the person to have a dark face and sticky hair after an overnight journey.
Then there was disembarking from the train, which required the agility and will-power of an athlete and the quick-thinking of a logistician. The might was necessary to push ahead against a mass of oncoming people and the logistic skill eased gathering the luggage and positioning at the appropriate location in the compartment, as near to the door as possible, to be able to get down within a short time.
Usha Mami and I got two seats facing each other by a window. At night, we put our bags in front of us and propped our feet up so we could get some sleep in a semi-sitting position. Whenever the train stopped at a station at night we would see men in soiled white shirts and pajama bottoms walking on the dimly lit platform along the train. They were each carrying a bucket full of cups and a kettle of tea.
“Eh, Chai, chai, chai. Garam chai. (Tea, tea, hot tea, anyone?)” they would chant in a lilting tone that would resonate throughout the station. The sounds would pierce through the chatter of passengers getting down with their luggage and the hiss of the steam engine.
The calls of the tea vendors seemed to come from a distance amidst the snoring of people inside the dark compartment. Some who were awake or could not sleep would order a cup. It was a challenge to finish the hot cup of tea before the train started moving again. It amazed me how the vendors completed the transactions in such a short time and in a relaxed manner.
Usha Mami got off at Poona in the morning. She had to attend a wedding there. I continued to Bombay.
It was late morning on Sunday when the train reached Dadar station in suburban Bombay. It would stop there for only two minutes. Several people stood in the aisle with their suitcases, hold-alls, and other belongings. I was glad I had carried just a single metal suitcase with me. As soon as the train hit the platform, the hamaals, dressed in dhoties and wearing red coats and matching turbans, pushed themselves in the compartment in search of customers. I fought my way out and stepped on the platform to see Madhav Rao a few feet away among a group of people who had also come to receive their relatives. He was wearing a cream-colored kurta-pajama (the traditional outfit men wore) and leather sandals. He took the suitcase from me and we walked off the platform.
A Hamaal carrying luggage
“Prawas jhala ka theek? Maushi waat baghat basali ahe. (Was the trip O.K.? Aunty is waiting for you.),” he said.
I replied that I had managed to get some sleep, but it was not easy.
The one bedroom co-op apartment where Madhav Rao lived with Baby Maushi was in a complex called Prabhat on Tulsi Pipe Road, a short walking distance from the station. We decided to hire a taxi because navigating through the crowd on the street with my bag would have been difficult. We entered Prabhat through a gate and walked past a building that faced the street toward another building in the rear. There was a small open courtyard between the buildings where a half-dozen children were playing cricket. We climbed a few steps onto a stone foyer of the second building. Baby Moushi was standing by the door as we walked in. She smiled as she greeted us. I bowed and touched her feet with my fingers as is customary in India upon meeting elder relatives.
I had little time to rest — I needed to focus on the task at hand. I had about a week to get all the travel documents. My route: sail from Bombay to Genoa, Italy, on the T/N Sydney (a small Italian ship); take a train from Genoa to Calais, France; a ferry from Calais to Dover, England to cross the English Channel; then a train from Dover to London. In London I had to take another ship, the SS United States, for onward journey to New York City, and then finally take a Continental Trailways bus from New York City to Norman, Oklahoma. Mallik from the Trade Wings travel agency in Hyderabad had booked the entire itinerary, and it was paid for. I had paper tickets, some handwritten and some typed.
Mallik had told me that I had two options to get a U.S. Visa. I could go to Madras or to Bombay, both overnight journeys from Hyderabad. Going to Madras meant I would’ve had to spend money to stay in a hotel for an unknown amount of time. I wanted to save on my expenditures as I had limited funds. Also, the people in Madras spoke Tamil, a foreign language to me, so communication would have been a major issue. And, I had no one to turn to for help in Madras if some unforeseen issues came up. I chose Bombay, where almost everyone spoke Marathi, my native language, and I had a place to stay and rely on for assistance from Baby Maushi and Madhav Rao. Mallik had told me that the U.S. consulate in Madras was more lenient than the one in Bombay but I decided to take a chance.
Madhav Rao showed me the bus and the local train routes that I could take to visit the various Embassies and consulates. By Friday, December 14th I had obtained the required transit visas for the other countries. All I needed was a visa from the U.S. Consulate and I was done.
I went to the U.S. Consulate by bus and waited in line for my turn to turn in the required papers. I was hoping that this would be a mere formality. That turned out to be wishful thinking — my visa application was flatly refused on grounds that I did not have long-term financial backing. A loan scholarship for one semester was not enough. They needed an affidavit of support from someone with enough cash or proof of current income shown by three years of tax returns. There was no flexibility.
Tears welled up in my eyes and my hands started shaking. I felt as if someone had pulled a trap door from under my feet and I was falling fast with no one to pull me up. I had no idea what I was going to do. Where would I get this evidence of support at short notice? I dreaded returning to Hyderabad in shame.
I came back to Baby Maushi’s apartment not knowing what I was going to do next. When I told her what had happened, I thought she would also be worried. But instead she remained calm as if nothing of significance had occurred and inquired about my favorite dishes so she could prepare them for me during my last days in India.
“Tula happe karoo ka? Ka masale bhaat awadto ?” [Should I make happe (small rice cakes similar to Idlies) for you or would you prefer spiced rice?]
I had no appetite. How could I think of eating delicacies at a time like this? I didn’t say anything.
“Kalaji karoo nako (Don’t worry),” she said, trying to console me. “Hey baghatil kahitary. Kahitari howun jail (He will look into something. Let’s hope something will happen).” I was sitting on the bed in the inside bedroom with my feet up on the mattress and back resting against the wall by a window with steel railings. Baby Maushi sat at the edge of the bed, partially facing me.
The ‘Hey” in Marathi was a respectful “He”. She was referring to Madhav Rao. In India, wives never addressed their husbands by their first name.
“But what if nothing can be done?” I asked.
“We will think about it then,” she said.
I was supposed to sail on Wednesday, December 19th. I had the weekend and two days for something to happen.
That Saturday, Madhav Rao took me to Fort, a well-known commercial area in lower Bombay that had specialty stores. I had to shop for a new suitcase and clothes. I was told that in the U.S. it was customary to wash clothes once a week, unlike in India where clothes were washed every day by a servant. In Hyderabad I had bought shirts made out of Teralyn, a new fabric that could be washed at home and didn’t need ironing. I kept saying the shopping was a waste of time because it looked as if my trip to America was not going to happen. Madhav Rao just ignored me. We purchased a red soft-leather suitcase, a matching shoulder bag and clothes, mostly underwear.
On Monday, I whiled away my time sitting gloomily in Baby Maushi’s living room, reading newspapers and magazines and listening to the chatter of children playing in the courtyard. I was contemplating buying a train ticket back to Hyderabad.
In the afternoon, Madhav Rao returned from High Court with a broad smile on his face. He had contacted Mr. B. U. Joshi, who lived on the fifth floor of their co-op building. Mr. Joshi had obtained an affidavit of support for me — he owned a business selling dry goods and had the financial depth to offer the affidavit. He had agreed to provide copies of his tax returns for the past three years.
“I told him not to worry about my nephew,” Madhav Rao said, smiling as he looked at me. Later he took me upstairs to meet Mr. Joshi and I thanked him profusely, choking out the words. I explained my plans to support myself by doing part-time work and that I would never put him in trouble. He smiled and said it was a bold undertaking and wished me well.
On Tuesday, I went again to the U.S. consulate and this time they accepted the documents. I was given a non-immigrant Class F-1 visa for three admissions into the United States, signed by Kathryn O. Clark, Consul of the Unites States of America.
That night I packed my new red soft-leather suitcase.
I was leaving India on Wednesday. My family in Bombay was working that day and couldn’t take time off to give me a big send-off. Baby Maushi had a tight schedule at her school. Nana Mama, my mom’s and Baby Maushi’s younger brother, was working in the Bombay Secretariat as a translator. His wife, Viju, a teacher, also had to work that day. Madhav Rao had an important appointment with a client in the High Court that morning that he could not miss.
I got ready to accompany Madhav Rao to the High Court. We left home at 9 am and I waited for him in the lobby of the court with my suitcase until he was done and then he took me to the Ballard pier where the boat was docked.
The entrance to the Pier was crowded. Madhav Rao accompanied me to the counter of P. Framroze & Co for the currency exchange. I bought travelers checks worth $210. That was all the money I was going to have.
People at the entrance to the Pier
“Sambhaloon raha. Tu ekata aahes. Amhi koni jawal nasnaar (Be careful. You are on your own. We are not going to be with you),” Madhav Rao said.
I said I would and not to worry.
“Jamel tasa patra pathav. (Send us a letter when you can.)”
Madhav Rao left without getting emotional. He was not that type. I went in through the gate and joined a host of other passengers, mostly students, waiting to be processed. In the crowd I came across a Mr. Lakoti from Hyderabad, who was there to see his younger brother off. He was so glad to see another Hyderabadi to give his brother some company. I learned later that upon returning to Hyderabad he invited my dad and mom for dinner at his home.
It was dusk when we boarded the ship. My assigned cabin was on the lower deck, below the water level, and had a three-level bunk bed. I took the uppermost bed. Our cabin didn’t have windows or portholes.
After a while, the ship signaled that it was time to leave with a sound like a loud bullhorn. We all came up to the main deck and stood against the railing, looking at the Bombay skyline, until the lights disappeared into the horizon and there was only water everywhere.
Author’s note: The pictures used in this story were obtained from Internet sources.
For chapter 4 click here Chapter 4