For years after the Indian Consulate in Karachi was closed down, a cousin of mine (an Indian married to a Pakistani) whose parents live in Jaipur, followed the following trail year after year, for many years. She would travel from Karachi where she lived, to Islamabad to obtain an Indian visa. If successful, she would travel back to Karachi to pack up. She and her family would then travel to Lahore, and cross the Wagah-Atari border. They would then take a train from Amritsar to Delhi and then another to Jaipur.
The entire ordeal required her to travel over 4600 kilometres and several days, when in reality, the distance between Jaipur and Karachi is only 1066 kilometres and just a couple of hours.
I understood the real nightmare of this struggle some years ago when I had to travel from Karachi to Islamabad to get a visa for my father-in-law for his medical treatment in India.
My husband and I sat outside the Indian consulate in Islamabad for two days, sharing benches with people who had mostly come all the way from Karachi or Hyderabad. Most had been sitting there every day from 9 am to 5 pm for as long as 15 to 20 days at a stretch. The majority appeared to be daily wage earners, the poor and with no resources to take short cuts, like us, to obtain a visa - we had the parchi ('slip') that would expedite the visa process.
A lady and her husband, a carpenter hailing from Lalukhet in Karachi, had been sitting there every day for almost 20 days, from morning till the consulate closed in the evening, without any clue about whether they would be granted a visa or not. The embassy issues a limited number of visas each day. Names come up on a given day, their luck as unpredictable as a lottery. The more resourceful among the applicants jump the line, pushing these poor people to the back of the queue.
This couple had spent so much money on the travel from Karachi to Islamabad that they could not afford even a cup of tea from the tea stall outside the embassy, which caters to visa seekers. Every day the carpenter and his wife brought with them homemade rotis and pickle for lunch. I asked the woman how long she would sit there, and she replied with certainty: "When the money runs out, I will go back home whether I get the visa or not".
She had applied after hearing that her mother was on her deathbed and had asked to see her one last time. She had been married for over twenty years but had been able to visit her native Hyderabad, Deccan, only once, and that too 12 years ago.
Her marriage had been a stroke of fate when her husband, a cousin from Pakistan, visited them. The poor family had been facing tough times, and found this as opportunity to make their daughter's life better, as the cousin's family was more prosperous.
This story is all too common to many families in the lower middle class strata who marry across the border; their girls are hardly able to visit their parents a handful of times in their lifetime, mostly due to not being able to afford the time, expenses and resources involved in obtaining the visa.
They resign themselves to their fate and learn to live with just memories of home. It is only when another sibling is about to get married; or a parent is ill; or dying, that they gather all their means and courage to try to obtain a visa to go to their erstwhile homeland.
The procedure has been somewhat modified now, so that people in other cities can apply for Indian visas through a courier service, without having to travel to Islamabad. But applicants still have no idea how long the process will take. A friend who wanted to attend her parents' 50th wedding anniversary celebrations in India received a reply after an anxious six month wait, saying that her application papers were incomplete. Some don't hear any news for a year or more; others don't get any response at all.
Over the last two decades I have seen a see-saw situation. Things seem to move towards easing the procedure, then suddenly something occurs and the whole change is reset from the start.
A silver lining is that the Khokrapar-Munabao line, suspended since 1965, has been revived, reducing unnecessary distance for many.
I hope and wish that the latest news about easing of the borders does not remain restricted to the artists who travel on exchange programmes or businessmen attending conferences, but is extended to this quiet, resigned group of poor, invisible women who marry across borders. I am afraid they are the group most likely to be forgotten when the categories are laid down for easing visa procedures.
Most will never be able to raise their own voice and will resign to their fate of seeing their parents or kin, barely a few times in their entire life, after they cross the 'love' border in matrimony.
On their behalf, I beg the authorities concerned to hear the silent wails of these women and to ease the visa process making it easier for them too, so that they may see their parents and families more often.
The writer is an Indian gynaecologist and women's health activist, married to a Pakistani. She blogs at http://thinkloud65.wordpress.com/
Wednesday, August 03, 2011
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