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March 30, 2018

Laughs In Transit

Text by Huzan Tata

You can’t pass through an airport without seeing the face of an immigration officer…. A world wanderer writes about some of her most absurd adventures

“Are you a housewife or a homemaker?

“What’s the difference?”

“Oh ma’am, a housewife doesn’t work, while a homemaker works around the house.”

“Well then I’m a housewife, would you please just stamp the passport?”

If you’re subject to such inane questions at 6 a.m. when all you want to do is get onto an aircraft and catch the forty winks you desperately need because you were up all night, you’d definitely want to punch this ‘quizmaster’ in the face. They’re unmissable — anytime you leave your country, these people are the last ones you interact with before take-off and the first ones to greet you on landing. That’s right, they’re immigration officers. Though their only duty is to ask relevant questions and add to the stamps in your passport, they consider imparting their own two-bits of life knowledge or advice whenever they feel like it as an extra responsibility. And these conversations can be as hilarious as they come. Sample this: at the immigration counter in Las Vegas, the officer asked why I was travelling without “adult supervision” — a question I’m subject to quite often, on account of my baby face — and on seeing my birthdate in the passport and realising I’ve been an adult for almost a decade, went on to tell me the best places in the city to pick up men. “You could have your bachelorette in Vegas!” Thanks, stranger, I’m here on work but now I will make scouting for a groom my first priority.

It’s not just travel tips they offer you. Sometimes, officials will find the most random of subjects to engage you in conversation, even at 2 a.m. — my surname is a much-loved topic for many. “Oh, you’re a Tata and still stood patiently in the line? That’s not new, even Ratan Tata does it even if we ask him to skip the line and come in front,” I was told by a Mumbai officer on my return from Amsterdam last year. And that wasn’t the end of it — I was subject to a five-minute-long lecture on how it’s important for famous people to be humble and down-to-earth, and that is something they should learn from the Tatas! (“I think you need to remember that it’s almost 3 a.m. and normal people want to get home and sleep at this hour,” I was in half a mind to tell him and snatch my passport back). “You have a royal surname”, “Are you related to the Tatas?” and “Why are you travelling economy class if you’re a Tata” have been a few other gems I’ve been greeted with at the counter.

Speaking of gems, a colleague, on her return from a three-month study-abroad programme in Chicago, was asked “Aap vapas kyun aa gaye?” as though she needed his permission to re-enter her own country. Not to forget, the more you’re getting late to catch your flight, the more their questions tend to rile you up, making you summon all the willpower in the world to not strangle someone — which was my situation when I was travelling to Tokyo via Delhi. The domestic flight was two hours late, leading to a horde of passengers running across terminals to make it to their connecting flights. Does the immigration officer care that you have just 10 minutes to clear security and reach the gate? Nope. He’d rather discuss the joys of eating Nagpur’s amazing oranges when he checks your passport and discovers that it’s your city of birth. “And the orange barfi at their airport is ‘best’ also!” I’m told by the nice officer, who was the reason I had to cover a six-minute walk to my boarding gate in a 45-second sprint.

Of course, more often than not, the officials generally give you a pleasant smile, ask a question or two about your journey and let you proceed — something all travellers welcome. Sometimes, they’ll say a nice thing like “You have a beautiful name” (the not-so-nice things said to me include “You look handsome in this photo” for a passport picture where I had an unfortunate boy-cut) or even a simple “That’s a lovely country, enjoy your trip!” But all said and done, it’s actually the hilarious little conversations that get etched forever in your memory that make for many a laugh even years later. That means, orange barfi-lover at New Delhi immigration, you’re one of the reasons my trip to Japan is a favourite!

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