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Home > News > Columnists > B S Prakash

'Just a passport, sir'

February 07, 2006

As I came out of the United Nations building in mid-Manhattan and walked slowly towards Third Avenue, it was nearing the lunch hour. The eternally moving spectacle that is New York unfolded in front of my eyes with all its bewitching beauty and bewildering unpredictability. People were rushing in all directions, as if there was no tomorrow.

Walking in Manhattan is a special art form: fast, purposive even if there is no destination or deadline, dodging others who are coming at you at the same pace on crowded pavements with coffee in one hand and cell phone in the other, rushing at 'walk' lights and dodging the 'stop' signals.

I was not doing any of this as I dawdled. I took out my cell phone slowly, called Kulwant, the driver assigned to me by our embassy and told him to meet me at Third Avenue and 45th street towards which I proceeded at a leisurely pace. As I walked I reflected on the contrast between the mayhem inside the UN building which I had just left and the mayhem outside on the streets just five minutes walk away.

I was attending the annual session of the UN General Assembly which always starts in September. I was then in charge of the UN Division at the ministry of external affairs and had come from Delhi as a part of the VVIP delegation. The first few weeks are high-profile and hectic, and thereafter the UN settles to a less frenzied schedule. We had just reached that stage. The prime minister and the other VIPs had just left but some of us as delegates had stayed back. We still had the hired cars arranged by the embassy and as I said Kulwant was my driver.

Anyone who knows New York also knows that the chance of finding an Indian or a Pakistani driver, if you hire a cab is three out of four. In our case, in any case, since the cars had been hired by our office all the drivers seemed Indians or Indian-Americans to use the rather inelegant expression now becoming common.

That morning the discussion at the UN was on the idea of a 'New International Migration Order'. The UN in its history has had many such debates: the new international information order with the objective that the news in the world is not seen only through the eyes of the rich Western media but also projects the voices of the developing world; the new international economic order with the hope that there is better equity and balance between the concerns of the Third World and the interests of the rich world; the new international security order and so on.

These goals are important no doubt but the term snaillike comes to mind in describing progress. In fact UNCTAD, one of the UN bodies dealing with International Trade is known to insiders as 'Under No Circumstances Take Any Decision'!

The idea of the New Migration Order is equally noble, supported by eminent thinkers like Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, but is contentious. The concept is that in a globalising world just as capital, information and goods move freely going to areas where the demand and market opportunities are, so should people move freely and barriers to their migration eased.

Eminently logical no doubt but one suspects, not something which is going to happen tomorrow. The delegates of the developing world had thundered that justice demanded that the rich world accepted their citizens as this too was a natural flow of a factor of production, namely labour.

The representatives of the West in their usual fashion had droned on deflecting the argument in a number of sophisticated ways, not once saying openly what they feared in their hearts -- of being swamped in their countries by hordes of immigrants.

I had listened to several speeches, made my notes and had decided to take a break secure in the knowledge that this is a debate where if you miss a few years of speeches, well, it would still be on.

I had decided to come out and thought I would visit my friend in Columbia University. Hence the call to Kulwant. Why was I telephoning him? Simple. There is no way for a rented car to be parked anywhere near the UN. The drivers are parked miles away and wait the call on their cell phones and pick you up at the address say Lincoln Street and Fifth Avenue. Manhattan is a grid and this is how each location is known, a main avenue and a side street and a number thereon.

Actually all quite simple and logical but not for Kulwant, as I was discovering each day. Normally all Indian drivers were super efficient and knew where you wanted to go even before you told them, but Kulwant was an exception. He was likeable, full of enthusiasm, garrulous on every subject under the sun ranging from his favourites such as India-Pakistan rivalries, Virender Sehwag, Kareena Kapoor, the state of the American economy, and the competence of all Indians.

Well, he was not competent as I had soon found out. Whatever my destination was his first impulse was to get it wrong: for example, if I said Lincoln Street, he immediately said Clinton street and used to take off somewhere on its elusive search to lose ourselves in a hopeless muddle. His saviour was his wife with whom he constantly conversed on his cellphone. Apparently she checked the directions on a map at home while frying puris and gave him course corrections.

The car was thus full of sound: Daler Mehandi hits from the tape, Kulwant's discourse on the state of the universe and every once in a while his call to his wife to ask: 'how does one get to Harvard from Times Square?', and me shouting 'Not Harvard, it is Hayward, it is Hayward'.

Every day was a misadventure, but he was so loyal, loving, helpful, hopeful and all the rest of it, with the result that we had become close.

The car pulled up. 'Let us go to Columbia University, Kulwant,' I said as I got in. 'Right, Columbus street,' said Kulwant but with some difficulty I averted the disaster. We set forth.

'UN finished Sir? PM has left?' asked Kulwant.

'Yes, the prime minister has left. But my work at the UN goes on and so I am still here' I explained.

'You must be close to the PM?'

I did not know how to react to this. A 'Yes' would be untrue. A 'No' would lower me in his eyes.

'Aise nahin hain (Not like that.) You see, I am working in Delhi.' I started.

"Nahin, Nahin after all you have come with PM. You are a big saheb. Actually I need just a little favour', he said.

Duty, proximity and humanity, demanded that I asked what I could do.

'Nothing much. My younger brother, I have to get his passport made; nothing really for some one like you,' he said.

'Where has he applied, which office, Julundher, Chandigarh?' I enquired.

'No. no, he is actually here, he needs a passport now for his driving license test,' Kulwant said nonchalantly.

I was befuddled, as you would be.

'Wait a minute, how is he here, if he still needs a passport?' I asked though through experience I have learnt that life is not necessarily all that logical in these matters.

'Shakal milta hai na'(the face has a resemblance) he said simply.

The facts came out easily. Kulwant's wife had gone home the previous summer. She had Kulwant's passport. The younger brother looked almost like him. He had come in. It was better for him and for me not know the rest of how this had been fixed at various points of the journey and at what cost. But now the brother needed a driving license and had to get his own passport.

I sat in silence for a while. I did not want to know more, though a part of my being was curious about every part of this story.

'Where is he now?' I asked.

'Oh! He is running a truck in Arizona. You want to talk to him?' replied Kulwant trying to dial his brother.

I declined the pleasure. The thought of this lad without a license, a passport, or identity trundling through the wilds of Arizona in a huge truck with only Baba Seghal for company was a little disorienting.

I looked outside. This did not seem anywhere near Columbia. Space, time, travel, everything seemed inconsequential in the face of this scale of human enterprise.

'Just a passport. Will you tell some one in the office here. After all you came with the VIPs,' said Kulwant.

I thought of the speeches I had been listening to at the UN in the morning. The patterns of migration, of demands and supplies, of a new system in regulating flows. And here was something else on the ground, urgent and poignant.

What did I do? I don't think I should tell you that in print here.

'Drop me off somewhere, I will meet you later', I said deciding to see the reality on the streets of New York rather than go back to the UN-reality in mid Manhattan.

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

B S Prakash

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Number of User Comments: 11

Sub: Sab Kuch ho sakta hai

Just goes to show that anything is possible and as always - Indians are very enterprising. I am not saying that it is good or ...

Posted by MS

Sub: Excellent Sir

Sir, I am delighted the way you present the issues. If I were in Production line i would have made a program based on your ...

Posted by D.RAJESH

Sub: zinger..

That was a zinger of a story, Mr Prakash. Global labor is mobile, if enterprising! paperwork can come later...

Posted by karigar

Sub: Just a passport sir

A delightful article read after a very long time. Reminds me of the 80's popular series Yes Minister & PM....

Posted by sp

Sub: illegal immigrants

nice article. But if this article is about illegal immigrants (indians) in the USA, the statistics do not support that. The percentage of indians illegaly ...

Posted by sad



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