Fiction: Who Are Your Friends?

By Caroline Osella

Check-in done, security over – only the formality of immigration now and she’d be leaving India. Her phone was pinging non-stop but she couldn’t stop to catch up on the latest baby or dog photos from the family WhatsApp, nor to read all the ‘goodby and safe journey’ messages and memes from Indian friends. The border guy scanned her passport, looked at his screen, suddenly stiffened.

Asked her, sharply, “Where did you stay this trip, what were you doing?”

Her answer, trotted out down the years so often, bored her with its blandness, but she knew the guy had to do his job. “I’ve been doing some tourism, visiting old friends, enjoying Kerala.”

Somehow, this time, the words failed to produce a smile and a cheery stamp, but caused the guy to drop eye contact and call over his boss. The two of them peered at the computer screen, and she began to wonder what the hell was on it.

Her phone kept on pinging WhatsApps and she fumbled for it in the bag, turning it to silent. In these situations, you have to minimise all possible sources of annoyance to the state official who has, as she well knows, all power over you. Her stomach churned – she hadn’t technically been doing research while on a tourist visa, but, as so often over the past 30 years, she had been visiting old friends and of course some interesting conversations had been held. She was aware that she’d not been in a touristy area.

The boss’ powerful masculine presence was announced by the size of his walkie-talkie and underwritten by the massive amount of hair growing horizontally out from his ear-holes. He began to scroll through the screen, while the first official questioned her.

“Where did you sleep on the night of 16th February? You were not in a hotel. You do know that all foreigners are required to sleep in a hotel and not in a private house?”

God, no, she hadn’t actually known that. Regulations had changed so many times over the past 30 years, and she never read any small print on anything – always in a hurry. She knew with foreboding that this ignorance and corner-cutting was never an excuse in matters of police or law.

The boss asked, “You were here only six months ago; why so many visits?”

Thanking God that her son had come with her on that trip, she responded, easily, “My son was with me, I wanted to show him Kerala. He lived here with me when he was small. You can see we visited Cochin, Wyanad… ”

She trailed off as the boss, pointing to the screen, added, “And Calicut. And this time too, Calicut. Who are your friends in Calicut? Where did you sleep on the night of February 16th? What are you doing, roaming around and staying in people’s houses?”

She tried to focus, ignore the phone buzzing, buzzing in her bag, took a deep slow breath and decided to try another tack. Smiling, she broke into Malayalam.

“I’m a researcher,” she said, witnessing the familiar shock on the face of the Malayali who hears their language spoken – albeit badly and with unfamiliar accent. “If you look at the records, you’ll see I’ve spent some long periods here, on research visa, doing research. For the University of London,” she added, wishing it was Cambridge or Oxford, for the extra clout that would bring to this post-colonial encounter. “So, like that I got to know lots of people here, and sometime I come on holiday and meet them and visit them. I am so sorry that I slept in my friend’s home that night; they invited me, and I didn’t know it was forbidden.”

The pair behind the desk laughed – or were they smirking? – at each other, enjoying the thrilling combination of power over the ex-coloniser, masculine power over a woman who clearly didn’t know her place, roaming around India alone as though that were a respectable or decent thing to do. And loving the fun of hearing this woman speak their mother-tongue, however badly. A boring shift had certainly brightened up with this one!

The men walked away from the desk, knowing now that she would understand any overheard conversation and she cursed herself for outing her secret super-power – the language thing. Her phone buzzing was like a wasp on her leg now, biting and poking. She wondered what messages were on it and whether anything would be incriminating if the guards insisted on seeing it. Could they ask to see it, she wondered, and began to feel seriously nauseous now as she realised how badly this could go, if they decided that she’d been doing research covertly and without proper visa and permissions.

They returned to the desk. The boss looked bored again, now.

“See,” he began in stern tone. “You’re not allowed to stay in people’s private homes. You MUST stay in a hotel every night when you come, and the hotel notify us of your whereabouts. You cannot simply roam around. Where were you sleeping that night?”

Split-second decision needed here: she knew they gather police intelligence on foreigners, that’s probably what was coming up on screen. If she lied, she risked major trouble; if she told the truth, perhaps her host-friend might be in trouble. No way to know how much they know. Shit. Why had she outed herself with the language, trying to ingratiate herself, trying to make connection, when everyone knows you don’t try friendly connection with state officials. Why had she assumed this would be business as usual, easy? Thank God her friend Khadeeja was not politically active in any way, although if their intelligence was any good they’d know that Khadeeja’s brother was active in Muslim society. Innocent, but in this climate of Hindu nationalism, anything can look suspicious. Even eating biryani. The border guards were, of course, higher-caste Hindus.

Squeezing the phone against her leg, willing it to stop buzzing and breaking her focus, realising that she was now possibly in trouble, she adopted a humble, penitent look, thanking God just this once for her present embodiment as middle-aged white lady – was there ever a less suspicious identity in these days of profiling? – and said, “I stayed with a friend, Khadeeja. Our kids are the same age and when I lived in Calicut, we became friends.” Using another super-power – the Indian mother thing – shameless now, desperate to be allowed to pass and get on that plane.

The boss nodded grimly, the border guard stamped her exit visa, she smiled a humble sweet thanks and walked – as briskly as she dare – away.

As she opened her phone to the horror of 35 WhatsApps from Mohammed, her Kerala friend in London, she could hear the border guards calling after her, laughing, enjoying the baiting, mocking her. Mohammed’s WhatsApps began with the information that an immigration raid had picked him up from the Croydon restaurant he’d been working at for the past five years, and he was on his way to the police station. Scrolling fast, she tracked his journey through the cells, into another van, onto a detention centre. No lawyer, no explanation, just something irregular in his documents somewhere. She knew they hardly needed an excuse these days. She scrolled down fast through several messages:

“Are you there?”

“Please answer me”

“I am very scared now”

Then the last. “They have given my phone back, they are deporting me. I cannot go back to my flat or collect any of my things. They will take me back to Kerala tomorrow. Please do not let anyone I know hear about it – this is very shameful for me. I will have to make a story why I left suddenly.”

As she walked to the boarding gate, postcolonial nausea, border fury, and the shame of privilege mixed in her heart with the powerful sorrow that she knew she could do nothing, had no power to help Mohammed.

The Indian border guards called out to her right till she reached the gate, mocking her and laughing between themselves.

“Who are your friends in Calicut? Who are your friends?!”

Exegesis

This story is based on two sets of events which I was involved in, and the fictional aspect is that the two incidents – my visa troubles and Mohammed’s arrest in a UK immigration raid, transportation to a police station, then detention centre, and then onwards within a week to deportation – did not (thankfully) take place on the same day.

I work as a social anthropologist whose fieldwork space is in Kerala, south India. Here, we face a Delhi central state and a political climate which has become, since the 1990s, increasingly hostile to various groups who are not high caste north Indian Hindus. This includes DalitsMuslims, foreign researchers who are under suspicion of ‘bringing the nation into disrepute’ and – as we all discovered from the late and half-hearted response from Delhi when the recent floods hit – Kerala state itself, vilified from the northern Hindi belt as ‘beef eaters’ and ‘Arab Gulf lovers’ who could be left to drown. Kerala is an out-migration state, which has survived down the years thanks to foreign remittancesfrom workers in the Gulf. The Gulf states quickly acknowledged their relationship to Kerala and debt to its workers, and rushed to offer aid, which was turned back by the Hindu nationalist central government.

This story brings together some of my recent and ongoing research concerns with the personal embodied aspects of borders and their implementation, with ways in which the fictions of nations are presented, with subaltern belongings beyond the nation, and with the ways in which law around migration is formed and implemented.

I am being funded from 2016-2019 as part of the REALM project at University of New York Abu Dhabi, (grant RR1-0-008). My project (titled, ‘The Paradox of the Gulf as a Space of Aspiration and Freedom: further investigation into Indian subjects’ evaluations of the migration experience, conducted via ethnographic life course and migration narratives’) builds upon my earlier findings, among migrants and retired migrants, which produced negative evaluations of the homeland and positive ones of life in the Gulf. This was especially the case among Dalits, Muslims and women. This has two major analytical aspects: firstly, to think about Gulf migration as not merely remittance-driven, but as a form of lifestyle migration; and secondly, to challenge liberal assumptions common in anthropology, geography and political theory and thereby permeating the sub-discipline of migration studies, which would assume that life as a citizen in India is necessarily superior (citizenship, democracy, free speech and free press, a common law legal system based on UK colonial system) to life as a temporary migrant worker with no right of long-term stay and no hope ever of citizenship, in a non-democratic state (federation of states under hereditary tribal sheikhs; shariah and civil law; strongly differentiated rights for citizens and outsiders, with tightly closed citizenship based on tribal belonging).

Caroline Osella is a social anthropologist who has worked for 30 years in Kerala, India and in the Gulf with Indian migrants from Kerala. Since 2018, when she left SOAS, London, she is a research associate at University of Sussex Global StudiesCaroline blogs as WoBy at https://worthingethnographic.com, and about migration at https://blogs.soas.ac.uk/osella-realm/en/.

Want to submit your own sociological fiction? The Sociological Review is seeking submissions of sociological short stories that critically and creatively explore the social as well as the politics and consequences of sociology itself. Please see submission guidelines and other information here.

Originally posted 17th December 2018

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