Rejected, With A Smile (The Terminal, 2004)

Is there some other way one can return to India, ie, not through its airports. I wonder how immigration officials at Bombay's port are, for the occasional sea-farer or sailor. Maybe nicer, since visitors are few in these days of air travel. But then you never know.

The reason is simple. Indian airports, Mumbai notably, are among the most abject in the second world. That is well known. But Indian immigration officials who could perhaps have countered the pathos that so swiftly envelops you on deplaning are worse. Where a smile could have made you feel welcome, you are greeted with an expression that typically ranges from bored indifference to a suspicious frown. Your first instinct is to run back.

Immigration officers are usually the first real taste of a country's persona. The infrastructure can be terrible but it's the people who leave a mark. Indians are known for their hospitality, even now. But Indian immigration officers don't quite reflect that. Their attitude makes an arrival a forgettable experience.

Welcoming Your Own

Most nations and their immigration officers welcome their returning citizens. Its not because of their wonderful upbringing but simply because their systems and training demand so. India's dour faced immigration officials typically regard you with the distaste reserved for an insect that has crawled onto your plate. Two months ago, landing in Kolkata, an immigration officer asked me sharply in Bengali, "Kothai gaychilen" (Where did you go?). It was not a question but an admonishment almost. He also assumed that I would know the language.

The airports themselves are beyond redemption. Landing in Mumbai a week ago after more than a month outside, it truly felt like home. Half an hour before landing the pilot announced a delay because, apparently, the runway had been switched ! On landing, you walk through corridors that resemble municipal hospitals with the occasional policeman and uniformed workers loitering around. And then the touts.

No questions were asked at the immigration counter but I felt, like always, as if I had intruded into someone's private space. No hello, good morning, welcome back or such. The passport was taken, stamped and kept on the desk. "Thank you so much," I said, I realized, to no one in particular. The flight from London came in at 12 pm so it was okay. There is nothing more depressing than landing in Mumbai airport at 2 am and encountering such frigidity. Immigration is mostly quick, since there is not much traffic anyway.

The Dover Man

Arriving at London's Heathrow airport a week ago from New York, I stepped in front of a lady immigration officer. She didn't flash a 32-carat smile or rush out to embrace me. But she sounded warm and reasonably welcoming. And only asked how long I was staying. I noticed that there were at least two women of Asian origin seated in the long row of immigration desks.

Many years ago, I took up a bus from Brussels to London, landing up at Dover, England . The bus rode on a large ferry which crossed a particularly turbulent English Channel. It must have been 5 am on a cold March morning and my stomach was still turning. The middle-aged immigration officer took one look, smiled and then boomed, "Sooo sir, did you have a jolly good trip here ?". "Not much sleep I reckon," he added.

He went on to ask what exactly I was doing in Britain and where I was coming from. He did his job of asking all the right questions. Before stamping the passport and letting me off. Here was an officer who was friendly and welcoming. He need not have been so but he took the effort. And it made the experience for me the visitor, a memorable one.

How About Some Real Questions

Immigration officers are within their rights to grill arriving passengers. The Bangkok-Kolkata flight I took two months ago was packed with hordes of shopkeepers, buying low in Thailand and selling high in India. The express purpose of their visit was to ferry goods, making them couriers rather than travelers.

So an immigration officer may wish to ask some questions. Though I would imagine a customs official making some honest enquiries would be more appropriate. One shopkeeper from Dehra Dun was standing next to me while boarding at Bangkok. He said he dished out, on an average, Rs 5,000 as bribes on goods (accompanying baggage) worth Rs 50,000. And there were at least a dozen like him on the flight.

Not all immigration officers are like the Dover man. In the US, one has encountered cheerful and sour faced immigration officers. In Britain, its been more of the former. In Asia, its been more of the latter. Come to think of it, this is one area where we are perhaps comparable to China. But China is not home to me and their infrastructure is world-class. And I don't know if returning Chinese are treated as I am, in India.

We Pledge To Serve

As I was crawling the web, I found that Canadian immigration officers seem to be the most disliked. One traveler said Goa was the best. Lucky guy ! As most readers would know, its not quite the same thing if you were a politician or a VIP. Which typically includes a big businessman or industrialist whose employee roster includes people posted at airports to smoothen arrivals and departures.

The US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agency under the Department of Homeland Security has a pledge on its site. The first line in that says "We pledge to cordially greet and welcome you to the United States ." The second says "We pledge to treat with you courtesy, dignity and respect. Repeated searches of the Bureau Of Immigration in India website did not show up any such pledges. The Bureau does invite you to send feedback. Several email ids are displayed for the purpose, two belong to hotmail and indiatimes respectively. So much for being a IT superpower.

This is not to say pledges and pronouncements are followed to the tee. They are not. But having one is not a bad place to start. And this is where our Bureau of Immigration should begin. Interestingly, employees of the Central Indian Security Force (CISF) who man airport security at national airports are a far superior lot, by international standards. One out of three usually says a pleasant hello before waving the scanner over you. Some even take the effort to read your name off the boarding pass.

Smile If Not Modernise

India's main airports are in a mess. We are debating whether to modernize an airport when we should have modernized a decade ago and built three new airports (Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore) as of yesterday. If passenger service and comfort is of any concern to anyone, this is another `soft' area to focus on. Airport services in general are another issue (a subject of a previous column). A smile always goes a long way in helping cope – for travelers and those sitting behind immigration counters. It costs nothing and the Left does not have to approve.

The writer can be reached at


Anonymous said…
Hi Govind,

I always wish that the immigration officials would smile at me and acknowledge my excitement to be back in India. Say, hey great to have u back but no such luck. Once, I said, "thank you sir!" and he actually smiled back and so, my new policy is to adress them as sir. Maybe, that would work?!

A request. I would love to read a post if any of your perceptions on issues relating to media coverage, the way you see certain issues or anything else have changed (or not) since you spent a month abroad. I know you alluded to debating and unpatriotism . I get that all the time that I talk like a NRI if I dare debate anything even though I am a student, lived all my life in BBay and have just spent a few years abroad.
qaminante said…
Belgian immigration officials aren't exactly welcoming either. I don't remember how they were on most occasions when I arrived in India as a tourist, except that the whole procedure was much quicker at Thiruvananthapuram, being a smaller airport.
But I have had several surreal experiences at Dover when visiting Britain (I'm British but live in Belgium), so I don't think Indian immigration officials are alone in having distaste for returning citizens. Perhaps they are jealous that you have just been abroad when they haven't?!
Lubna said…
Pledges -- some years ago when we were both working at our alma mater (Bertie's word), the tax department had come out with a citizen's charter - a pledge to be more tax payer friendly..... Pledges don't work. I don't exactly blame the tax officials either, what with dingy offices, frequent transfers and lack of recognition of meritious candidates...Trust me to be "taxing", but the word pledge sparked this off.
Lubna said…

Venkat Ramanan said…
Hi Govind,
I completely agree with you, especially the last line "Left doesnot have to approve" :)
The immigration officials at our airports could definitely be more cordial, if not smile and enquire us about out travel. As you have pointed out, many Indians travel abroad to buy goods there and sell here or work there and bring in money and they would certainly be welcomed by the immigration and customs people for the bribes and kind gifts they would give the officials, not us, who would return empty handed :))
Please write more. Your articles are too good!
Anonymous said…
everything said above is quite true but not the part where it says India is a IT superpower?!?! duh... we are worlds backoffice and i havent seen any desi in core development team anywhere. developing banking software and providing customer support to the world does not qualify us as IT super power dude
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