En-route from Bangalore to Colombo, I transferred planes in Chennai. I was surprised at how familiar the airport felt, considering it had been six years since I had last been there. Six years since an immigration officer ripped up my plane ticket and stopped me from boarding my flight home.
It really was a case of needing to be careful what you wish for. One day in October 2006, I had woken up that morning with one all-consuming thought – I don’t want to leave India. It seemed Mother India didn’t want me to leave either.
I had just spent six months travelling in South India, three of those months studying yoga in Mysore. I had met my teacher Sharath, who, on my last day had said…stay for one more month. How I wished I could, but my visa was up and my flight was booked. What I hadn’t realised was that my visa had already expired. I had unknowingly overstayed by three months.
I was sent back to Chennai city from the airport and told to make an appointment with the immigration department the next day. Initially I felt confident that the officials would be forgiving of what was just a misunderstanding. I calmly tried to explain to the man behind the desk “…you see, I asked my travel agent for a six month visa, but they only gave me a three month….”
He looked at me with contempt and said…”Lady, everyone has their story…just fill in the form.”
“Sure, okay,” I said, determined to remain calm.
“So how long do you think it will take to process this?”
“Well, we need to send it off to the Delhi office, so probably one or two months.”
Every skerrick of composure I had drained out of my body and into the floor. My head spun, my stomach turned and I felt myself bite my lip as tears welled in my eyes. Suddenly staying in India was not so appealing. I wanted to be on a plane home.
After lodging the form as I was told to come back the next day for an interview with the senior officer. I spent the next twelve hours repeating the mantra “home in seven days home in seven days” like a religious fanatic.
Finally I was in the room with the man in charge. He looked at me, he looked at my passport, he looked at me again. The room was silent with a pregnant pause, except for the murmur of my mantra, whirling around inside my head.
“Hhhhmmmmm,” he exhaled, deep in thought.
And then “Yes, I will give you the exit clearance,” he stated suddenly and defiantly in the strong India accent I had come to know so well.
“But I want you to know, that normally a serious case like this would go to Delhi. Normally it would take two months to clear. But in your case, I will grant you the exit visa. But you will need to pay 300 rupees as a fine (around AUD$15).”
He gave no explanation for his leniency. I didn’t dare tempt fate by asking, but just thanked him and headed for the door, my heart racing.
His assistant walked with me back to the main reception.
“You are a Krishna devotee,” he said indicating to the small bag I was wearing that featured a photo of the flute-playing Hindu deity. It had been a gift from my mother a few years ago and I had worn it throughout my trip.
“Yes I love Krishna,” I said. Which was true. I think most people after spending some time in India develop affection for a particular deity. Being a flute-player myself, Krishna was my guy. I was even staying the Sri Krishna Lodge in Chennai, chosen because of my preference.
“So is he,” he smiled with a knowing twinkle in his eye as he pointed back to the door of the immigration officer who had moments before done me the favour, which at the time seemed to be completely random. Who’s to know, perhaps it was. But to me it was a magical moment of serendipity that was a fitting end to my first Indian adventure.*
*I didn’t know at the time that I was to return to India just three months later. Fearful of begin rejected of a visa due to my previous indiscretion I applied for a new passport and entered the country on a clean slate.