I too would have had many passports but I don’t think that matters. What matters is what you feel inside, and inside me I am Hindu, and only a Hindu, and that is what I have been all these years, no matter what the papers say. And that is what I keep telling the immigration officers, who probably think that, like most writers, I have gone mad. EVERYTIME I go out of the country-and I don’t do it as much as I used to-I get into a fight with the immigration officers there. They are a hopeless lot and their main job seems to be annoying travellers like me. I don’t go to their countries because I like to, but generally they invite me, or used to invite me, for seminars and conferences, or just to meet their ministers and officials and get to know them, which used to be my job.
.Your nationality please,” asks the officer, though it is clearly written in the passport.
“Hindu,” I always say Hindu, never Indian, as loud as I can.
“But your passport says Indian,” says the immigration officer, “not indian.”
“I am not responsible for what the passport says, but I am a Hindu, or maybe I am also Indian, but I prefer to call myself Hindu, because that is really what I am.”
That sends them up a tree. They think I am trying to confuse them, but there is little they can do. They cannot send me back, because it is they who have invited me, and if they do not let me in, it will be a scandal. The man from the foreign office-their foreign office-is waiting nearby to receive me and he puts in a word.
I tell them that I had, or could have had three passports, not just one. I hail from Goa which was a part of Portugal when I grew up there. I was therefore entitled to a Portuguese passport, since I was technically a Portuguese citizen, and a Portuguese passport, in today’s terms, is a European passport.
When I came to India, then under the British, I got a British Indian passport, which mean I was half British and half Indian, not fully British or Indian. With the passport, I sailed for England in 1945, the year the war ended. As luck would have it, India became free two years later, and became fully Indian but the passport remained as before, British Indian.
Three years later, a burly London policeman knocked at my door, which gave me quite a fright. You don’t expect policemen to call on you early in the morning, while you are shaving.
“What can I do for you?” I asked, still in my pajamas.
“Your passport expires in two weeks,” he said. “You can either apply for a British passport, which you are entitled to, or get your current one renewed by India House. Then you will be a fully Indian citizen.”
Of course, I wanted to be a fully Indian citizen. So I had my passport renewed and got a brand new Indian passport, with my nationality shown as Indian.
Which means I could have been a Portuguese citizen, or a British citizen, or an Indian one. How on earth could I be all the three? In fact, throughout these years. I have been what I have always been, a Hindu, which is my real nationality. I was a Hindu in Goa, I was a Hindu in London, and I am Hindu now. This is the only consistent common factor in my life. And therefore, that is my real nationality, whatever the passports might say.
I have a friend who, over the years, has had ten passports, that is, three times mine. He was a Jew, born in some Polish ghetto. He carried Polish papers, as all Jews had to carry, until he was ten or eleven years old. When the Nazis overran Poland, his family was arrested and transported to a series of concentration camps, first in Poland, and then somewhere in Soviet Russia. They were killed there. But my friend somehow managed to escape to, of all countries, Hungary, which at the time was under the Germans. So he got a Hungarian passport, not exactly a passport but some papers which said that he was a Hungarian, which, of course, he was not.
After the war, my friend returned to Poland, but his home had been destroyed, along with the ghetto in Warsaw, where he once lived. So he slipped over into the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany, where he acquired some Soviet papers, along with a German ration book.
One night, he smuggled himself into the French zone-or was it the American one?-and managed to acquire some French papers. With those papers, he got a job as a journalist on some French newspaper published in the French zone, and was doing very well, when he was transferred to Paris, of all places, where he acquired a proper French passport.
In Paris, he worked for an American news agency, and with the usual persistence of a journalist, acquired American papers which entitled him to live in the US-as some sort of a green card holder-and he found himself in New York. By now he had acquired a galaxy of papers, quasi-passports and ration books enough to fill the United Nations library, but not a proper passport. But after ten years in America, he managed to get that too, along with American nationality.
All this took him nearly twenty years, by which time he was married and had kids. I met him when he was working in London as bureau chief for his agency. He still had a slight Polish accent but he looked every inch an American, though, for some reason, he was not too happy about that.
I asked him why. After all, he had done very well for himself and the Americans had been kind to him.
“It’s not that,” he said, “I am quite confused, for I do not know who I am. I have a US passport, but I know I am not American. I do not share their history. Their civil war means nothing to me. It is not part of my life. I spent the first fifteen years of my life in a Polish ghetto, and that is the only thing I care for. Ultimately, you are what you feel inside and not what your passport says. After all, I have had so many of them.”
I too would have had many passports but I don’t think that matters. What matters is what you feel inside, and inside me I am Hindu, and only a Hindu, and that is what I have been all these years, no matter what the papers say. And that is what I keep telling the immigration officers, who probably think that, like most writers, I have gone mad.
(The writer can be contacted at 301, Mani Kancahn Apts, Kanchan Galli, Law College Road, Pune-411004)