I first travelled to the United States of America as a student more than 45 years ago. The procedure, then, for obtaining a visa at the American consulate involved filling up numerous forms, producing chest X-ray photos from designated doctors and, finally, submitting finger and palm prints. Those were the days of old technology. The consulate produced a large ink pad and each of the fingers of my two hands was coated, and the print transferred on a form provided with columns for each of the fingers of my two hands. Finally, my whole palm was coated with ink and the print transferred onto the same form in the space provided for the right palm as well as the left palm. It took a few days to soap-wash the ink off my hands and by the time I left for the US, my hands were clean. I imagine those handprint records must be gathering dust somewhere in the archives of the American consulate. Obtaining a student visa, even in those days, was quite a process. At the time, the requirement did not seem to be anything out of the ordinary. In any case, my knowledge of the US and its ways was very limited and I was totally preoccupied and hugely excited about travelling to that distant country to pursue advanced studies and research.
The immigration and customs procedures on arrival in New York, the port of entry, was longwinding even then. The X-rays and reports which I had to carry with me were first checked. My suitcase was then opened and the contents gone through with some thoroughness. In the process of unpacking and re-packing the hand grip of my Indian suitcase broke — the proverbial straw. I had to drag the dog-eared handle and the suitcase attached to it for my flight to Chicago and then, by train, to the university campus — that is, until I could give it a decent burial in the local garbage dump the next day. In India, I could have got it repaired by the local cobbler. Obviously, India those days did not manufacture luggage for the rough-and-tumble of international student travel.
Over the years, I have been travelling frequently back to the US in connection with my work and also to meet old friends. Travelling to the US gradually became easier and progressively hassle-free. That is until 9/11. Strangely, the travelling experience to the US nowadays seems more and more like travelling back in time to my early student days. My most recent experience of travelling to America underscores this point. Last week, I landed in the US at the O’Hare airport in Chicago. The immigration queues are no longer than they were before, but now moved at a very, very slow pace. The immigration officials were invariably polite.
The immigration process required the index fingers of both hands to be pressed, by turn, against a glass plate, for finger printing; then a quick facial photograph by a high-tech camera. I was travelling on work and had nothing to declare and stated so in the customs form. Notwithstanding, I joined a long queue, once again, for a customs inspection. My carry-on baggage was opened and rummaged through. The customs queue was a bit shorter since only non-Caucasian passengers were being required to go through this process. The Indian carry-on luggage now stands up very well to the rough-and-tumble of international travel and don’t break down, as my suitcase did more than forty years ago. It took me close to two hours to get out of the terminal building, after completing all the formalities. My host waited patiently and was ready to drive me to my old university campus. Along both sides of the highway, time seemed to have stopped over the decades. The vast acres of cornfields were in gentle rest in their winter hibernation. This was both nostalgic and reassuring. The roadside cafes and gas stations looked more spruced up and my old university campus was transformed and looked modern beyond recognition.
The warmth and friendship of my hosts wiped away the tiredness of my journey and the long wade through O’Hare. One of the new landmarks at this university is an advanced Inter-disciplinary Research Centre. It had been built by a generous donation from a former alumnus, who had become famous and rich by developing instruments for scientific research, analytical laboratories and hospitals. The Centre is housed in a spectacularly modern building. The core theme of the Centre is the exploration of creativity. In one of its initiatives, physicists, mathematicians, artists and musicians work and interact in close proximity to discover the different forces which produce creative juices. The sheer magnitude and originality of the scheme are what America does best and does so way ahead of the rest of the world. There are a number of other similar new thought initiatives at the Centre, exploring tomorrow’s problems and finding innovative solutions.
While the work at the Centre is hugely exciting about what America does better than the rest of the world, another encounter during the same trip of mine was somewhat different. During the course of my campus tour, I was introduced to the head of the department of inland security. The department was supposed to be undertaking research in biometrics or human physio-profiling. The individual somehow did not seem to be an obvious academic type. Incidentally, the university has a very large number of foreign students. Following this encounter, I was left with some uneasy conjectures. Be that as it may, the visit to my old university campus was a wonderful trip down memory lane. There is no place more dynamic and exciting compared to a US university campus.
The return journey through O’Hare was less taxing. I had time to spare and visited the food court to lunch on a “Polish Dog” and a half litre bottle of soft drink. The serving was so enormous that I could not even finish a quarter of the helpings. America is having a serious obesity problem. Close to sixty per cent of Americans, of all ages, are classified as obese and it has been reported that more Americans are at health risk from weight-related problems compared to cancer. A sample of the obesity problem was starkly visible in the food court. Amongst the diners, there were Hispanics, African Americans, Anglo Saxons, and Asians, the majority across all ethnic groups were large men, women and children, poring over huge helpings of a variety of good fare with gusto. Amongst a group of eight airport officials on their lunch break, only one appeared to have his weight under control. We may not be aware of the fact in India but obesity, as a topic of public debate, is way ahead of business outsourcing in America.
On my flight back, I went over the events of the past few days, of arriving at O’Hare, visiting my old university campus and departing from O’Hare. I came to the reassuring conclusion that America will be remembered for discovering the roots of creativity and innovation, much after finger printing and traveller profiling would have receded into the annals of history and its troubles with obesity would have been satisfactorily resolved.