When I was asked to write on why — and how — I live life without a passport, at first I got a creepy feeling that my therapist was asking me to write a daily diary on the meaninglessness of relationships after my companion eloped with someone with a passport and a thicker passbook. If that had indeed been the case, I’d have first sought refuge in the eternal Simon & Garfunkel lines that proclaimed: “Don’t talk of love /Well I’ve heard the word before / It’s sleeping in my memory ...”
But refuge is temporary while imagination can be permanent. I had fallen in love with John Lennon long before I started admiring Paul Simon, and Lennon’s words still ring out loud and clear as a disdainful response to dear friends who openly laugh at me for not having a passport even as I approach the sunset of my working life. You just have to have imagination to reimagine the words: “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do…”
It definitely sounds corny. But I used to literally feel I am living in that great Australian sheep farm when Meggie Cleary first falls in love with Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds. During the rare days of peace and tranquillity in my college days, I often felt like that genial Russian lad Dmitrich Levin of Anna Karenina, whose farmhouse seemed to resemble the one owned by my grandparents… without the snow of course. There have been many times when I have gone back to reading The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, just to secretly gloat that I am like the protagonist Larry who gives up the shallow American lifestyle to seek salvation in the east. And yes, I share the sea breeze and contempt Alexis Zorbas has for “intellectuals” while basking in the sunshine in Zorba The Greek.
Some polite folks smile weakly at me when I say I can’t join them on a holiday in Pattaya or Colombo since I don’t have a passport. I can sense they want to slink — if not run — away from my presence. There have been a few occasions when I have almost lost my job because I couldn’t travel overseas on office work because I didn’t have a passport. Many of my old friends have “accepted” me as a certified nutcase because of this.
My first wife worked for Lufthansa, with a free return flight ticket for herself and her spouse (me) to any destination in the world once a year. I never travelled with her to any place except Kathmandu which did not need a passport back in the 1990s. But I am certain that was not the reason she divorced me. I met her a few years ago and she laughed uproariously when I quoted the famous Chinese-American Hollywood star Joan Chen: “My fairy-tale life ended the moment I wanted to apply for a passport.” Then again, I feel Aldous Huxley was also right when he said: “To travel is to discover everyone is wrong about other countries.” I don’t want to be proven wrong. Besides, there are so many myths I have about regions within my own country — India — that I feel I can spend the rest of my life busting them without a passport.
Believe me, I am not a nutcase and it wasn’t always like this. Perhaps some personal life experiences shaped the seemingly weird persona that resides within me: the passport-less man.
Armed with a first-class Master’s degree in Economics, I was prodded by my lady friend to apply for higher studies in the United States. I scored far more than most in both my GRE and GRE Advance tests while sleepwalking through TOEFL. So a passport was the automatic next possession I needed.
But fate is cruel and while I did get admission in many universities, none offered me a full scholarship or assistantship. I still looked longingly at my passport application form and thought my day will come. Then, my lady friend unceremoniously dropped me — after saying all the ‘right’ things one says while kicking someone out of their life.
But if fate is cruel, it can also be ironic. Even as I was wondering about filling up my passport form, I was offered a job in a leading Indian financial daily, and had to move to (then) Bombay. I still nursed hopes of making it one day to an American university for my PhD in Economics. In maximum city, I met a lady from Canada who had come to India for some work that I don’t really remember. We chatted once in a while over a couple of pints. One day, when we were more than a few pints down, we talked politics. She was from Quebec and looked truly astonished when I gave her chapter and verse on how French-speaking folks in Quebec wanted their own country. “How do you know so much about us without being in Canada?” she asked. I told her I read a lot. That evening, our political conversation turned into something more cordial that the French would be proud of. And I literally forgot about my passport application form.
There have been many occasions since then when I have been — for personal and professional reasons — compelled to think about a passport. But somehow, the memories of that magical evening with the lady from Quebec whose French I couldn’t understand remain with me and I end up postponing applying for a passport by believing I am Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind who says: “Tomorrow is another day.”
Writer Julie Burchill is reported to have said: “It’s been said that a pretty face is a passport. But it’s not, it’s a visa, and it runs out fast.” I have also been told by well-wishers that a passport gives you power like nothing else in contemporary times. But since I do read a lot, I know it is, as the British would say, a lot of codswallop.
Let me pose a question: Since the times of the ancient Pharaohs, who ruled over a lovely civilisation next to river Nile in Egypt, which has been the greatest Empire in the history of the world? Most would say the Ottomans almost made the cut while many more would say a modern navy ensured the British boasted of one. But realists know that no Empire — politically, socially, culturally, economically and militarily — has been as influential as the United States of America for more than 100 years. How did the Americans come to craft and build such an Empire? It is a mystery even to many Americans. As “rebel” documentary filmmaker and American author Michael Moore said: “Should such an ignorant people lead the world? How did it come to this in the first place? 82 per cent of us don’t even have a passport. Just a handful can speak a language other than English.” Though more than 80 per cent of Americans don’t have passports, it is the most influential Empire. The people “who matter” in that country have passports and have ensured the American passport reflects both influence and power. I, like most Americans, am a Yahoo and leave such matters to “powerful” people. India’s Foreign Minister must be having a passport. And I will be happy if he projects Indian “power”. I am more happy with the power that Amla juice gives me every day since the time the pandemic temporarily made passports meaningless.
That doesn’t mean I don’t respect passports. I do. I know that passports have been literally — and metaphorically — critical for social and political dissidents to flee despotic regimes and seek safety and liberty in safer havens. I know that passports have enabled hundreds of thousands of people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to find meaningful jobs in the United Arab Emirates and send money back home to their loved ones. I know all that and much more.
But I also know this. The passport is a mere blip in history. When the Chinese monk Fa Hein travelled to India thousands of years ago, he didn’t need a passport. I have strong doubts if Christopher Columbus or Marco Polo ever had a passport. I don’t think even the wonderful American author Mark Twain had a passport when he travelled to India in the 19th century. I could go on and on. But the real reality check on how “new” this whole concept of passports is comes from Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “In 1914, there were two countries in the world that required you to have a passport if you wanted to enter: Czarist Russia and the Ottomans. Anywhere else, you could come and go as you pleased.”
Coming back to imagination, I do feel the passport has imprisoned our imagination even as it has given us wings to “fly” across the world in cramped airplanes where the smiling airline stewardess actually looks like someone who would burst into sobs if given a chance. While taking domestic flights within India (which, fortunately, don’t require you to produce a passport), I see the simpering, queasy and manifestly “manufactured” smiles of the super smart and efficient air hostesses and wonder: would the smiles be the same if she were flying in Alladdin’s magical carpet? Wouldn’t she be laughing and chortling with childish pleasure? Such thoughts are almost always interrupted by a voice that evokes mythical memories of a stern school headmistress when I am asked to fasten my seat belt. Did Aladdin ever ask his fellow passengers to tighten their seat belts? Or did heroes and heroines in ancient mythological tales about flying fortresses take so many “safety precautions”?
I believe in both Karma and the wheels of history. One day, just like it used to be in the good old days, the passport will become a vestigial organ if not an extinct species. Don’t think I am being facetious. Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland says, “In a globalised economy, jobs no longer need a passport, but workers do.” The Covid pandemic has, in a way, demonstrated even Freeland is behind the times. Zoom calls and Google meets have allowed people to remain globalised without physical travel. And the rate at which technology frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things are being breached, we could be literally going Back to The Future. Sure, we will probably still need to travel. But even elephants and gazelles travel endlessly. So as I glide gently and peacefully towards a stage where the Government of India will grant me the “senior” status, the passport has become a thing that could be important, but I can live without: like romance, parties and gossip.
Who knows, life and circumstances might just compel me to apply for a passport. Like I might want to see Barack Obama eloping with Sarah Palin in pay-per-view channels only available to residents of Los Angeles while Oprah Winfrey delivers live commentary and Hillary Clinton delivers another lecture on the “deplorable” who don’t and won’t vote for her. I would love to have a passport just to be able to see what Bill Clinton has been doing during this live telecast. But both you and I know that’s fantasy even for Donald Trump fans.
Since I strongly believe in karma and reincarnation, I have no doubt that in the next life or the one after, I will spend one more magical evening with the lady from Quebec — with not even a passport to control our inhibitions. And I am sure Olivia Newton-John would be crooning in the background:
“I’m saying all the things that I know you’ll like,/ Making good conversation/ I gotta handle you just right/ You know what I mean /I took you to an intimate restaurant/ Then to a suggestive movie/ There is nothing left to talk about/ Unless…”
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