Applying and waiting in line to get a visa is an anxious process. Never certain of what questions will be asked, or what documents deemed necessary and missing, anxious strangers often forge momentary friendships.

Are you Sinhala? Are you Tamil? Ah! From Colombo? First time? Is this photo ok? Long wait no? Where you going? Business da? Cheap mobiles there?

In many other contexts, conversations too trite and intrusive become revealing insights to the destitution, fear, hopes and hopelessness of others, waiting without guarantee for an interview that can shape their future.

For five hours last week, sharing the steps of a Western Embassy with travel weary infants, grandparents and the occasional dog in search of tidbits, I realised acutely as I looked around that I was the only Sinhalese applying for a visa that day. At the same time, I realised how irrelevant this distinction would soon be, with the deracination of identity and for many, dignity that occurs in front of the visa officer’s counter. This is a strange intercourse if you think about it. The visa officer, imbibed in the perceived national interest of a foreign country, is borderline xenophobic towards fellow citizens. The questions are always the same – inane probing based on suspicion and fear. Dress, language and diction play, strangely, as much a role here as the quality of photocopies, confirmed hotel bookings and reasons for travel. The entire exchange is absurd and contrived – they are gatekeepers and we are unfaithful supplicants.

Outside, an old Tamil woman had dropped some vital documents into a storm drain. There was no chance of retrieval. It had started to rain and as the crowd of concern and advice turned indoors for shelter, she remained forlorn in the rain.

Few of my friends and colleagues in the West realise, when they suggest the ease of global travel and migration today, the tedium of getting a visa. They do not need passports of three-dozen pages or more, for they do not need visas as we do. International backpacking and the impulsive border crossing are luxuries of travel reserved for very few in this world. Passports are revealing in another sense, for they are documents to be flaunted, desired or shamefully hidden. What has surprises me the most about most Tamil and Sinhala diaspora, particularly from the West, is their fanatical obduracy. They alone know what is necessary and right for Sri Lanka. And it is not enough for them to be right, everybody else – particularly others with just slightly different opinions – have to be wrong, and stand to be exposed as such. There another tendency too – where a passport serves as a sharp reminder of one’s alien nature despite efforts to integrate and acculturate. This is a powerful emotion, compelling otherwise level-headed individuals to support the most detrimental groups and violence in a country they will never really return to, or want to either. A passport is a marker of one’s identity, a way for others to stereotype and judge. It is also a great leveller – no matter how we see ourselves within (or choose to define) our national borders, a passport outside these borders erases parochial differentiations and holds us hostage to foreign yardsticks patriotism and national security.

In all of the countries I have travelled to, conversations in formal and informal settings with Sri Lankan diaspora reveal overwhelmingly how, often for the best intentions, they are blind to or supportive of policies and practices by government, non-State and NGOs hugely detrimental to justice, dignity and peace. The most rabid nationalists are easy to spot, for they are often the most polite at first, but just like the visa officer, eager to quickly identity and rank you according to their own degrees of patriotism and authenticity. Internationally, I am and perceived to be more Sinhala Buddhist than I care to see myself in Sri Lanka. This projection of an exclusive and essentialist identity often jars with the document I carry around with me that makes no greater claim than my citizenship in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. And yet, for the Sinhala diaspora, this is an effort to claim me as one of their own – to automatically assume with wink and nudge that I am, at the end of the day, one of “them”. When it is evident to them I am not, their projected identity them becomes the stick to beat me down as a pariah – the roving traitor. This reputation ironically is sometimes helpful in reaching out to and addressing section of the Tamil diaspora, who very soon realise that my critique of violence and terrorism questions their own shibboleths. My passport to enter the wholly fractured and frictional domains of the diaspora therefore lies in the manipulation of my Sri Lankan identity. The sheer absurdity of this constant negotiation to access and influence diasporic spaces is keenly felt at foreign border control, where the only identity of interest and importance is that I am simply Sri Lankan with a photo that makes me look – as all those in passports tend to be – very dodgy.

One passport may be indistinguishable from another, but they also mark us out. I am on my third, stamped back to back because of valid visa’s in each of them. This is clearly a problem for the current Sri Lankan State, that even post-war sees and treats those of us deeply critical of its illiberal and undemocratic policies and practices as traitors. The manifestation of this suspicion is the casual question, accompanied by a suspicious and supercilious smile, to ascertain my workplace and the nature of my work at the immigration desk. My answer, that I work and write on largely on peacebuilding and work in an NGO, has resulted in, contrary to expectation, some genuinely surprising conversations, where real fears of sustainable peace have matched the elation of the LTTE’s military defeat. But I realise these casual conversations are possible only because my interlocutor and I share an ethnicity (but not an identity), or because my surname – relatively rare and easily pinned to a region that is this government’s strongest support base – is still able to facilitate untrammelled passage out of, or back in, my country. It is never because of a shared Sri Lankan identity that my passport confers upon me when I travel.

My own verbal tango with the visa officer completed, I stepped out of the Embassy to see that old Tamil woman waiting seated in a corner. I did not know how to help, and doubt anybody could that day. I didn’t know where she had come from, or what had brought her to the footsteps of this Embassy. Perhaps it was a husband, lover, son, daughter, brother or sister she wanted to see, or use as an excuse to leave. Maybe she was forced to come. Perhaps she was there because of a promise of a life in a foreign land she knew, deep down, would never in reality match what she imagined. As Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist wrote, “It may be a good thing to know that a passport – a document that records how others stereotype and judge us – can lighten our sorrows, if only a little. But our passports, which are all alike, should never blind us to the fact that each individual has his own troubles with identity, his own desires, and his own sorrows.”

That Tamil woman’s passport was the same as mine in colour, dimensions and pages. Her passport to hope, dignity and acceptance in her own country and in a foreign land, however, could not be more different.


3 thoughts on “Passports

  1. Vivi says:

    So thought provoking Sanj. I have had similar thoughts (i.e. the great equalizing effect of our little passport) in the face of suspicious visa officers while sitting at transit airports and endless waits in visa offices. The image of the woman’s documents in the drain is so stark, symbolic and also poignant. For some reason, reading this brought a sudden, unbidden lump of unspoken despair to my throat. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Indu says:

    Beautifully written and incredibly visual. I enjoyed it very much.

    Having an Indian passport after 25 years in the U.S. raises eyebrows and has been a terrible hassle at times. It is true that it is easier to get a visa as a greencard holder, but it’s still a long and sometimes humiliating process as one tries to prove that they are good enough. And, the inevitable question, “Why aren’t you a citizen yet?” is asked by the suspicious immigration officer almost every time I come back into the country.

    Sanjana, thank you for this. (Can’t believe you wrote it over a Blackberry!)

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