Thursday, January 09, 2014

Passport woes

My annual flashback for 2013 is still pending, but recent events have fueled bitter tweets on my twitter timeline, which in turn prompted me to write this post that I really wanted to write almost two years ago, but thought it wiser to wait.

Some of you might remember a fleeting reference to a it-can-only-happen-to-me type incident from my annual flashback last year. This, dear reader, is the long-promised post about it.

This story truly begins in 2004 when I applied for a passport renewal in good old Dilli. In those days, children, Indian passports were still handwritten, and had none of these fancy bar-scannable stuff. So of course, when my new passport was issued on March 1st, 2004, the person filling it out glanced at his calendar, and put down 29th February 2009 as the expiration date.

Quick, who sees the problem with this? Wait, wait, it gets better.

Since we had applied for the renewal through the tatkaal process, it was issued only for five years. After the "verification process", which involved a drunk cop showing up at home at 10 PM and my  mum having to go ask our neighbours to write out and sign utterly useless letters, we then applied to have the passport extended to a ten-year validity, where again, yes, again, the fellow writing down the new expiry date on the next page glanced at the first page and put down 29th February 2014 as the expiry date.

Now, if you haven't gathered the problem by now, allow me to elaborate. 2004 was a leap year. 2009 wasn't; neither is 2014. So neither of those years have a 29th February. You savvy?

So anyway, when we realized this, we contemplated trying to get it fixed, but by that point any energy or motivation to go back to the passport office in Bikaji Cama Place had left us, so we decided to let it be till it became an issue. This, my friends, is the story of how it became an issue.

Honestly, for eight years, it wasn't an issue. I got multiple Schengen visas issued - from at least four different countries, visited the UK, China, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, and got two-two US visas issued. And never had a problem. Till two years ago.

After eight years of people from all over the world looking at the date there, applying the brains the Good Lord gave them, and using 28 February as the actual date of expiry, one bright lady decided that to do so would be perjury. And so four days into my internship in Chicago in the summer of 2012, I received a call from HR saying I was being let go till I could sort this out.

And so I did what any strong, collected, independent woman in my situation would do - called my father even though it was past midnight in India. Who in turn called every friend in the US he could think of, and also found me the phone number of the Indian consulate in Chicago.

After much hesitation, and also getting advice from sundry people who were really not much help, I finally called the consulate, where one old Uncle picked up the phone. And heard my situation and promptly handed me over to another Uncle. Who had the bright idea that since my home address in the US was in North Carolina, I should go to DC and apply for a new passport. Which, I mean, hello, I had already researched and discovered that it would be too expensive, take too long, and may not even work since I had more than a year before my passport expired.

So I went into whining mode. 
"But Sir, I'm a student and they've asked me to leave my job so how am I supposed to go to DC and get a new passport?"
"Hmmm. Achha, why don't you come to the consulate tomorrow morning and we will see what we can do."
So at 8 AM the next morning, I was at the Indian Consulate in Chicago. Where I got a ticket and waited for my turn, and when I finally approached the counter and explained my situation, got a big grin and:
"Oh, so you're the one who called yesterday! Wait, wait, give us your passport and we will call you in 15 minutes."

So I waited 15 minutes till one Aunty called me and gave me my passport where they had essentially written on the first blank page they found that the correct expiry date was 28th February 2014, and stamped it, and made a note near previous expiry date to look at other page. Very complicated, and yet so simple.

After thanking them profusely, I called HR to ask if this would work, got a yes, and went shopping on Michigan Avenue, where I splurged on a lovely red dress from Nordstrom and sent my family a long emotional email.

And the first thing I did when I got back to school after the summer was find out if I could renew my passport even if more than a year of validity was left (yes, since the passport wasn't bar-scannable), and sent off my application to DC. Who promptly sent it back since I had forgotten to sign one measly form on one measly page. But then sent me a new passport eventually after I resent everything correctly.

So there you go. Eight years of no one but one airport security guy asking me about a wrong date, one woman who blows up the wrong date into epic proportions, and an Indian consulate who were incredibly sweet and helpful to me at least.

Honestly, I think I need a label for all passport-related incidents posted about on this blog. This is at least the third or fourth such post.