My travelogue starts on something of a bum note.
I flew from London to Delhi in late 2012. When I arrived, I was told by passport control that I had been “banned” from India and would be immediately deported back to the UK.
No one at the airport had the faintest idea why this was happening. They just said that a “Line of Control alert” had come up on their screen and I had to leave. I raised my voice, but this only resulted in wobbling heads and patient smiles. Ultimately, the choice came down to accepting deportation (and paying for the privilege) or checking into an Indian jail. I didn’t spend long on my decision.
“Don’t worry - this is not the first time I’ve seen a Line of Control case,” said a friendly member of the airline staff as he escorted me back through the airport. “We had one recently. It was a man who was running a child sex ring in London. He was also not allowed in.”
I did not find this as comforting as his tone suggested I should.
Back in London, and after many tedious phone calls and emails, I discovered that I had been banned for writing stories about India while traveling on a Business Visa. It seems India has already internalised a harsh truth about modern journalism - that only a fool would consider it a business.
People often over-complicate journalism. In my experience, it amounts to talking to interesting people, and then writing down the most interesting bits. Being a foreign correspondent means you do this on holiday.
Despite its reputation as a liberal democracy, India demands that you get special permission before you carry out this combination of talking and writing. The idea of a Journalism Visa is to control the number of people discussing your country. It stems from a strange mix of power-assertion (‘We control the narrative’) and insecurity (‘Foreigners hate us and are trying to malign our country’). It is also a creature from the bowels of the Great Bureaucracy-Kraken that sits atop Indian society, devouring reams and reams of paper and pointless bits of information which it uses to defecate endlessly on the millions trapped in its tentacles.
I run the risk of sounding bitter and petulant about this, because I am. But I recognise that there are rules and I broke them. I would like to believe that my research into controversial topics was the reason for the melodramatic nature of my expulsion. But I think my friend was closer to the mark when he said: “Don’t kid yourself. Like a Mexican berry-picker in South Carolina, you got kicked out for visa fraud.”
One great moment came out of the experience, however. On my way back to the plane, I was taken to a stand-alone security scanner - a shortcut for members of staff and deportees. By this stage, I had given up on being confused and angry, and was getting on quite well with the Indian ground crew that were escorting me (the earlier pedophile comparison notwithstanding).
“It feels weird being told you can’t enter an entire country,” I said to them as I put my bag on to the conveyor belt.
To which one responded: “Now you know what it is like to be a brown person. If I want to stay in your country, it is very difficult.”
This could have been said with bitterness, but it wasn’t. I looked at him - a young Delhi-ite in his 20s. He was smiling. He had meant it as a sort of joke - the sort that is entirely true.
That comment cushioned the blow of my return to London. I realised my arrogance - the in-built, ignorant assumption that I could stroll from country to country, acting as I pleased, and never getting turned away. I’m a European of the Schengen generation, and a quirk of parenting means I have a British and American passport (and a French one, too, just for kicks) - all of which had made me hopelessly blasé about borders.
It’s a few months later, and I’m setting out on a fresh journey through Asia. My experience was piddling and silly, but it has nonetheless armed me with a new appreciation for how the lines on a map dictate our experience of the world in unexpected ways, and alter our perceptions of ourselves when we least expect it. To move as we please has become an awesome privilege, to which few of us are party. Borders play many roles, restricting our horizons, but also building bonds of community. People struggle and die to preserve them, to alter them or to ignore them. The relatively new concept of borders has a complex relationship with ancient ideas of culture and ethnicity, perhaps nowhere more so that South and Southeast Asia. So I’m off to have a look.