'I decided to record the experience because the country concerned was Canada, a country that prides itself as a champion of human rights around the globe.... It appeared to me that the Canadian consulate in New York was trampling upon the human rights of nearly 200 men and women, mostly Indians and Chinese,' says T P Sreenivasan.
My advice to anyone planning to get a Canadian visa in New York at short notice is: "Don't."
To say this after getting a multi-entry visa on my Indian diplomatic passport for two years in a matter of two days and that too without any charges may sound hypocritical, but there were several moments when I felt that it was not worth the effort to go through the agony of obtaining a visa just to be on a cruise.
At least my respect for Canada and for myself would have remained intact, had it not been for that experience.
In the old days, getting a visa on a diplomatic passport was the easiest of things to do. The passport was sent with a note from the ministry of external affairs or the mission concerned and the passport came back the same day with the visa.
I knew things had changed, but did not think that they had changed so much that the colour of my passport had ceased to be of great advantage.
I did not wait for the last minute to download the required forms and to fill them. But my heroic effort was thwarted by the provision that I could apply only after I arrived in the United States.
The time available before I arrived in the US was of no consequence. The only choice was to arrive in New York, fill the form the same night and appear before the Canadian consulate and hope for the best. At least the onus of not doing enough for the visa in advance was not on me.
I equipped myself with a courtesy note from the Indian consulate on the day of my arrival itself, thanks to Deputy Consul General Pradeep Bajaj, who was courteous and efficient. My joy was boundless when the guard on duty, who gave me the envelope, was someone who had worked with me years ago. So far so good!
The night was spent downloading the various forms. Every time a form was validated on the computer, there was elation, as the choice was bewildering. The visa form was complicated enough, but even more complicated was the question as to which forms were really needed.
We concluded that since I was travelling alone, I would not need the details of all my relatives dead and alive. On the other hand, we made sure that I made the necessary declarations required for those who were in authority at any time.
Whether being a diplomat was a position of authority remained vague, but we did not take a chance. The checklist was laboriously downloaded and studied, but things were still vague when we finished the process of filling the forms and printing them.
There was no indication whatsoever that diplomatic passport holders might not pay a processing fee and I decided to begin with acquiring a money order for $150 for a multi-entry visa.
I was determined to be the early bird to catch the worm and arrived at the bank at 7:30 am to collect my money order. There was someone, who had come even earlier than me and she walked away satisfied with the service she obtained.
I walked confidently to the teller and demanded service and what followed was a nasty conversation between the teller and her machine, which showed that things were not working and she told me exasperatedly that the "system was down."
She could not tell me how long it would take to get the system up and she helpfully suggested that I should walk up to another branch just a mile away. Was the system working there, I asked. She telephoned the branch and assured me that all was well there.
I was a bit irritated that things did not work as well as I had planned, but thought that my morning constitutional would do me some good.
No one will believe that the system collapsed the moment I entered the next branch and a third one. A teller even told me that I was some kind of a jinx, which would bring the system down the moment I entered any branch.
I was losing faith in technology, but I began to believe that I had some kind of supernatural mind power to knock computers down. After spending more than an hour on the wild goose chase for a bank money order, it dawned on me that I could get it from a post office for an extra dollar. Sure enough, I got the money order, obtained in the old fashioned way, manually from a service window.
Having done more than my day's quota of walking, I decided to take a yellow cab to the Canadian consulate and confidently waved at every taxi that went by, whether it had the free sign on it or not. I had told someone the previous night that the taxi was the best mode of transport as parking cost would be prohibitive in Manhattan.
But what I had not realised, even after many years in the US, was that there could be at least one occasion, when no cab would stop. Since I was walking in the direction of the consulate, I reached my destination before I could get a cab. Well, I had also saved the taxi fare.
There were earlier birds in the consulate, as what greeted me was a long line of people, much like in my Moscow days when lines were part of life. One would instinctively join any line of people as something worthwhile would be available at the other end of any line.
Three men controlled the whole movement of the people, firmly, in a business like manner. First question would be answered fairly politely, a second question elicited an angry response, but from the third question onwards the answer was silence or a statement that he was doing this everyday and he knew how to handle visa seekers.
When I finally reached one of them, he had a quick look at the sheaf of papers and declared triumphantly that I had missed the form on my relatives and I had to get it filled at a "One stop shop for Canadian visa" down the road.
The place was even less friendly than the consulate, but it turned out that they had the form already downloaded and I could fill in the details of my relatives in ink. Then I realised that a lady who was behind me on the line at the consulate had borrowed my pen and disappeared. I consoled myself that it was a complimentary pen and not my precious Mont Blanc.
I took liberties with the details of my parents and brothers, particularly on their birthdays, but I rushed back with the new form to meet the deadline of 10.30 am, after which the forms could not be submitted that day. This time, when my papers were searched, the money order on which I had spent money and time was missing. I had dropped it sometime on the way.
When I expressed my distress that the money order was not to be found, I was told that the money order "might" not be required in the case of diplomatic passports. I was relieved, but cursed myself for not taking care of my precious document.
The lady at the counter appeared the very picture of courtesy compared to the others I had encountered that morning and said that since I had a diplomatic passport, I should be able to get the visa in about three days. She said nothing about the money order.
But I needed my passport to travel by air over the weekend and I asked her whether I could have the passport back with the visa the next day. She said nothing, but gave me yet another form to fill in if there was any urgency about getting the visa early.
After a long wait, I was summoned and told that I could come the next day to find out "our decision" on the application. I returned home, half hopeful that I would get the visa the next day and half despondent that the money order issue would come up at some stage.
To be doubly cautious, I went to the bank and took another money order on an assurance that I could get a full refund if the money order was not required. Armed with the money order and the "invitation" to come to the consulate at 1 pm, I reached quite early, but decided to wait for the appointed time.
When I approached the security gate as I did the day before, I was rudely told that I should go back to 49th street and stand in line to come back to the same spot. I had not realised that nearly a hundred people had already lined up on the street.
This was an unusual line of people, standing by itself, without beginning at a counter or entrance. I joined the end of the line, wondering what would happen to this line and when. Then the guard I had met the previous day appeared and I told him that I had a diplomatic passport to collect.
"Stand in line!" was the instruction I got with the additional demand that I should not block the way to the snack bar on the sidewalk. Then he began to guide the first twenty of the visa seekers into the building, leaving the rest of us standing in the warm sun, as it threatened to rain too.
By the time my turn to be herded into the building came, it was well past 2 pm, but there was certainly light at the end of the tunnel. After another round of security checks and wait, I reached the window, where I was greeted as the Indian diplomat, much to my relief.
The agent said my visa was through, but it would take some time for it to be printed and pasted on my passport. Ironically, it was printed on the visa, that the visa was issued as a courtesy and not "gratis", as is normally done. The wait suddenly became sweet as there was no talk of the missing money order and in another twenty minutes, I was happy to receive my passport with a Canadian visa.
I felt that I was particularly blessed that moment, as I could not only go on the cruise next week, but also fly to Atlanta the next day!
One would normally forget such tales of woe, once the mission is accomplished. It was no fault of Canada that the computer failed in three branches of a bank in Manhattan or I could not find a yellow cab for an hour. But I decided to record the experience because the country concerned was Canada, a country that prides itself as a champion of human rights around the globe.
It appeared to me that the Canadian consulate in New York was trampling upon the human rights of nearly two hundred men and women, mostly Indians and Chinese. (American citizens do not require visas to travel to Canada.) I wondered whether senior Canadian diplomats were even aware of the treatment meted out to visa seekers in their consulate in New York.
I also felt that potential Canadian visa seekers should know that getting a Canadian visa in New York is no cakewalk. I also had some secret joy that no Indian consulate would have treated Canadians like this even in the world of reciprocity.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.
He is executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council; member, National Security Advisory Board; member, India-UK Roundtable; and director general, Kerala International Centre.
For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here.