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Cell fever

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 15, 2018 Published on March 10, 2017

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We’re standing in the Immigration Queue, Bins and I, at Boston’s Logan Airport. The 28-hour flight from India was relatively peaceful. But I’m nervous. All the news reports about travellers being hassled by overzealous immigration staff at US airports have rattled me. I’m convinced that I will no longer be allowed back in even though my papers are all in order.

Bins, as usual, is completely unperturbed. “Pah!” he snorts with Gallic scorn. “You worry too much. You should be like me. Calm as a lotus pond.” Just as he says this, however, he remembers that he’s got a new gadget that needs to be tried out. It’s a dual-SIM cellphone that he bought in Delhi just a day before leaving. It’s a Samsung, but so small and cheap and light that it seems more like a toy than a 21st-century communication device.

It worked perfectly well in Delhi. “It might not work in the US, you know,” I say. “Of course it will!” exclaims Bins. “Why not?” I murmur something about it being too cheap. He taps his forehead and tells me that I’m crazy. But here we are now, on US soil.

He turns on the phone and... uh-oh! No signal. We’re standing in the Immigration Hall, surrounded by dozens of fellow travellers. Children are whining, parents are looking tired, and immigration personnel are standing at strategic locations, barking out instructions.

Meanwhile Bins is focusing the entire energy of his six-foot tall wiry-haired energy on a tiny unresponsive gadget in his left hand. “Bins!” I hiss at him. “They don’t allow cellphones here!” He glances up, looks around for signs forbidding cellphones, doesn’t see any, tells me I’m crazy and returns to his phone. At the electronic kiosk which verifies passport and visa details he confuses the automatic camera by refusing to stand still long enough for it to take a photograph.

Finally we are summoned to the booth where we stand in front of an actual immigration officer. He’s a steely-eyed young man. “Purpose of your visit to India?” he wants to know.

Bins gets a dreamy look on his face. Mentally, he’s still punching the buttons on his phone. “Oh ... I don’t know,” he says. “Just like that. We like the air pollution, you know?”

The officer’s eyes narrow in irritation. “Visiting family and friends!” I squeak, “Tourism! Nostalgia!” “Okay,” says the officer, glancing in my direction before returning his gaze to Bins. “I guess you folks are retired?” Bins looks even more dreamy. “Maybe. Sometimes. Sort of.”

The officer’s eyes have become dangerous slits. “What does THAT mean?” he wants to know. “What work do you do?” I leap in once more, babbling about being an author and artist. The officer looks at me, looks back at Bins and opens his mouth as if about to ask another string of questions. Then, just like that, his attention snaps off. He sighs, shrugs, stamps our passports and hands them back to us. “Enjoy,” he says, as he clears his memory of our annoying presence.

We walk away, towards the baggage claim area. “Well!” I say. “I guess we got through, huh?” But Bins is punching buttons on his phone. “You worry too much,” is all he says. “You should be relaxed. Like me.”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on March 10, 2017
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