Although I’m a veteran paralegal and have seen all kinds of people neck deep in circumstances, certain faces still make me curious. On February last year, a mountaineer visited our office. He had yellow, glass eyes, which I imagined was a result of merciless journeys he’d endured. They reminded me for some reason of my cat, Indira, when she was aloof. As is common among men from the mountains, his face was flat and broad, and as peaceful as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I looked around thirty-five. Most of our clients were younger and restless. He was the opposite, placid, like wood. There was a creeping, upward stretch on his lips but whether it was a physical condition or an expression of his psyche, I don’t know. I didn’t see him smile.
|Art: Sworup Nhasiju|
Namaste, he said, feet firmly planted in front of my desk. A firm stance, I thought, not even an avalanche can shake him. His boots came up to his knees. A coat lined with fake fur and a woolly hat protected his head from the winter. He was ready to embark on an expedition. The only thing missing was an ice pick.
I’m here to see Mr Mohan Rauniyar. Lawyer.
I knew that. Mohan’s the reason they came. He specialised in asylum law, and was a graduate from the University of Chicago. He hung fifteen certificates stamped with golden seals on his wall, and sat underneath those certificates on a swivelling chair, making steeples with his hands. His clients used to be Chinese, Russians and Colombians. But this year there were also Tibetans, Uighurs, Nepalis and Afghans. You could tell where there was trouble in the world from the people walking into Mohan’s office.
Come in Ang Nuriji, come in, Mohan waved him in and shut the door. After about an hour of muted talk, Mohan opened the door and led our latest client out of the office. Just before he re-entered, he stood before me and spoke, or rather, declared, befitting a man who charged his clients by the hour.
Nishchal, you’ll have to interpret for Ang Nuri Lama next month. Write it down. On the 17th. The interview is going to take place in New Jersey. He thinks he has better chance in that state. I can’t stop him, if that’s what he wants. But there’s no point in me going, he’ll be denied. We’re headed for the courts.
Gladly, I said, looking at his ornate tie sprinkled with what looked like strands of gold and silver. Not that I had a choice in the matter. Gladly or not, I had to obey chief’s orders. But this case was different, I wanted to know Ang Nuri better, and I wanted to help. I wondered about his mountaineering life all afternoon. He had climbed Chomulungma, I instinctively knew. I’d never met anyone who’d done it, nor had I seen the famous peak, but somehow, he seemed to be that kind of person, a climber by birth. I was so carried away that I came to my senses only at two-thirty, half hour past lunchtime, to find Mohan thrusting his case file in front of me. I spent the rest of the afternoon photocopying affidavits and letters from the police, the district headquarters of political parties, newspaper clippings, and a graphic letter, written, as they say in the Nepali tongue – a crow shit handwriting. It claimed to be from his mother, Nyima Sherpa Lama, warning him not to return to his dear village Khumjung, or even to Kathmandu. The communists are ready to crush your bones to powder and slit your tender throat with a khukuri, it warned.
I met Ang Nuri on a Monday a week later. It snowed steadily throughout the weekend. The cars along the sidewalk were buried under piles of snow and people on the subway to work looked sullen than disgusted. The blue mailbox outside the office had turned into a white dome. Its opening, a slit of darkness for the letters, appeared like eyes of an underground creature peeking out of its hole to survey the landscape. I hurried inside. Some snow had managed to slip through the mouth of my boots, and the toes were starting to numb.
I used to keep an old electric heater under the desk to warm my feet on the coldest days. I was thus thawing myself when the door to Mohan’s office opened, and he walked out with Ang Nuri.
Ang Nuriji, meet Nischal. He will be the interpreter tomorrow.
I smiled and shook the man’s hands. They were rough and cold, as can be expected of a mountain man.
You might want to discuss some things, Mohan said. He went back to his shell to play with his hands.
As a rule – you will see that I have a few rules when it comes to dealings with clients – I wait for them to speak first. This is because I want them to choose the direction of our conversation. But Ang Nuri didn’t say anything. I showed him the chair and fumbled with the papers at my desk, trying to appear busy. He sat down and waited. I had to give in.
You probably want to practice your story with me, I said. He did not respond, so I continued: The thing is, Ang Nuriji, I have a rule when it comes to rehearsing stories with the client. I don’t know what your story is, but if we rehearse the interviewer will find out that we collaborated. That looks bad.
He still didn’t respond, so I mumbled on: Ang Nuriji, your story is between you and the asylum officer. I’m there just to facilitate the conversation … the exchange of information. Do you have my phone number?
That was a rhetorical question. Of course he did not have my phone number. I’d never given it to him. I held a visiting card between the index and the middle finger, examined it, and handed it over in what I considered a professional manner.
Do you know how to get to the place of interview?
Huh? He made a sound, finally. Yes. Yes. It’s in Rutherford, New Jersey. I am applying to New Jersey because there is a better chance than New York.
Ok. So where should we meet?
I have a friend. Taxi driver. He has agreed to get you. Where does sir live?
I live in Pelham Parkway, Bronx. When did you say your interview is at?
We agreed it would be best to get there at least a half an hour early – just in case. It takes about 45 minutes to get to Rutherford, New Jersey. Ang Nuri was to pick me up at seven.
Don’t worry, I said in the most reassuring voice I could manage, I’m an experienced interpreter. I even have experience with the United Nations, at the General Assembly. Don’t worry about the interpretation.
I was pleased about keeping intact my rule not to hear the client’s story before the interview but felt vaguely guilty, knowing that he’d have felt more secure with a rehearsal. Anyway, rules were rules, and it was better to be spontaneous. The good thing was there wouldn’t be any evidence of collaboration. There was a reason I had made that rule. I’d discovered if you knew the client’s story, you were transformed into a confidante. In the middle of the interview, when the asylum officer had them holed with arguments, they looked at you, men and women, young and old, everyone. A web was being spun around them, using, to their horror, their own statements. But there was nothing I could do to help. Even if there was, it wasn’t included in my list of responsibilities. I’d no desire to shoulder that burden. As Mohan said in the safety of his office, this isn’t home. Here, you’re a professional.
Later that day, at around nine in the evening, I received a call from Ang Nuri.
Sir, my friend says it’d be easier if you met us downtown tomorrow morning. Instead of us driving over there. Is it okay?
I was annoyed. But here was a man who needed respect and support, a son of the mighty Himalaya. So I deferred and agreed to meet him at 7:15 at the corner of 8th Avenue and 43rd Street.
There’s no point in being honest with these people, snorted the taxi driver, Ang Nuri’s friend, to hit home the ridiculousness of it. The more honest you are, the more they think you are lying. So you just have to make a story and stick with it. That’s what I’ve learned in America.
I’d gotten up far too early to follow what he was saying. I was in the back seat, Ang Nuri sitting beside me with original documents resting on his lap. The taxi driver had introduced himself as Pemba. He craned his neck ninety degrees to the backseat and took a quick look.
Pemba said: Really, I was the interpreter for our Ang Nuri here the last time. Right, Ang Nuri?
Ang Nuri grunted yes in response. Pemba continued: We got unlucky, we got a black woman. A fatty. She didn’t like me. She didn’t like Ang Nuri either. They don’t like us, have you noticed? The black people. I’ve never had a problem with the white people. Some of them understand. They don’t shoot at us in the middle of the night. Two died in Texas last month. They were working at the gas station. Think of their parents! This woman, she was black. She stopped the interview in the middle of it and told Ang Nuri to come back with another interpreter. Said we were collaborating. What does it mean, collaborating?
He swore and hit the accelerator. The taxi was speeding like a rocket under the Lincoln tunnel. I pictured bones mangled and blood splattered. A certain death if there was an accident. Ang Nuri looked tranquil as ever.
Look here, Pemba screamed. That bastard just switched lanes. You’re not supposed to switch lanes inside the tunnel!
I was thinking of warning him. But before I could make up what to say, we were out of the tunnel. He swerved violently into one of the exits. An industrial scene unfolded before us, factories, electric plants and frozen parking lots. I looked out of the window at the cold sun shining over the snow. Pemba turned, craned his neck to check out the backseat again. Our eyes met.
The dates, he said. You should practice the dates with Ang Nuri. Dates are very important. They’re going to ask him about the dates.
I ignored his suggestion but spoke nevertheless, although I’d have preferred to stay silent and stared at the scenery outside the car. It was not every day that I went to Rutherford I’d imagined it different, with sun-dappled houses and trees, because a poet I used to admire lived and died there. But this Rutherford was highways and parking lots with fist-sized wires overhead.
Ang Nuriji, as a professional interpreter, I must tell you not to look at me during the interview, look at the officer instead. Let me repeat because it’s so important. Please. Do not look at me. Look at the officer. Look him in the eyes. That way he’ll know you’re telling the truth. If you look at me, he’ll think you’re lying. Or worse, that we’re collaborators. In the eye, Ang Nuriji. In-the-eyes. I tell all of my clients, but all of them seem to forget it as soon as they enter that office.
Ang Nuri grunted some more. I don’t know what Pemba thought of my advice. He fidgeted with the temperature control, impatient to start his own session.
Let us practice right now, Pemba said. Ang Nuri, when did you escape from Lhasa?
The full date, Ang Nuri.
March 29th, 1980.
I don’t think Pemba noticed the discrepancy. He seemed happy to hear the full date. He continued with the interrogation.
When did you get married?
In Orissa. India.
The date! The date! Pemba screamed.
1997, February 21st, in Orissa. India.
With an interpreter like this, no wonder the interview went bad. I was annoyed at Pemba. I intervened before he could demand another date. I didn’t want my client to become nervous and panic.
Ang Nuriji, I cleared my throat and launched into a monologue. Sometimes, during the interview, the interviewer, ahem, the officer, might ask for a date. When did you leave Lhasa? Something like that. Perhaps he’ll ask for an address you stayed at in Kathmandu. Or something else entirely, a thing you did ten years ago that you can’t remember anymore. Whatever may be the question, if you find yourself unable to answer remember the answer, it’s okay to say, ‘I forget.’ That’s right. People sometimes forget. I forget. You forget. We all forget. Especially at interviews. Interviews are stressful. Very easy to forget. If you want, you can ask for some time. Time to think. To remember. But if you forget, and it refuses to come back, please don’t start making things up. It’s okay to forget. Even His Holiness forgets things…
By the time I was done with the speech, we’d arrived at the parking lot of the Department of Homeland Security in Rutherford, New Jersey. Pemba parked the car but didn’t get out. We jumped over the puddles and walked towards the gray building that looked, from the outside, like a wet matchbox.
Don’t forget the dates Ang Nuri, Pemba called out from the driver’s seat.
A middle-aged black woman with thick glasses and made-up lips manned the lobby. Two white men, both fat, guarded the gate. They held metal detectors in their hands the way policemen hold batons. The waiting room of the asylum office looked like a slice of the airport, except for the posters of various American presidents with inspirational quotes underneath. We took off our belts and put them in a plastic tray, along with keys and wallets. There was a large poster spanning an entire wall with pictures of people of many colours, all smiling, but none laughing, labelled New Citizens of the Year.
When, eventually, his name was announced over the speakers, I led Ang Nuri to the glass cubicle. A curt woman in gloves took his picture and finger prints. Back at the waiting area, we observed the visitors. They came in twos and threes, the lawyer, the client and the interpreter. The lawyer always wore a suit and tie. He greeted the guards and spoke jovially to the faces behind the glass walls. The interpreter also spoke a little, but usually with a distinct accent. You could tell the asylum-seekers from their subdued demeanour. They looked at the glass walls with curiosity, and spoke only when they were spoken to, like children who have surrendered their will to their parents.
Hours passed. I started fantasising about oversized breakfasts. Bacon, pancakes, hash brown, sausages, coffee.
Ang Nuri’s name was announced again. A middle-aged man in blue shirt, white, balding, stood at the entrance of the waiting room.
Please follow me, he said. We followed him into his office.
Please have a seat, he said. We sat down in the chairs opposite him.
You can take off your coats if you want, he said. We took off our coats and hung them on the back of his chairs.
He poured himself a cup of coffee, added some sugar, stirred, and left it alone next to a laptop. He moved his hands deliberately, with a precision and ease that suggested a ritual.
Are you the interpreter? he asked, looking at me.
There’s no lawyer.
Ok. Interpret this. Do you want to proceed without a lawyer?
I remembered Mohan in his office, probably playing with his hands again.
Yes, Ang Nuri said, before I could translate.
The officer didn’t like it. He exploded. Mr Lama, he said, there’s a reason you’ve brought your interpreter with you. We’ve by now established that your English is not good enough to talk to me in English. If you remember, this is the third time you have been here. Let’s not forget. The first time you came, you came without an interpreter. The second time you came, you came with an interpreter who was incompetent. So please, let’s try to get it right this time.
I relayed the message to Ang Nuri, although I was sure he got the gist of it already. He locked his fingers and placed his hand at the edge of the officer’s table.
The officer turned to me.
In order to ensure that the interpretation is accurate, we’ll have a monitor who understands your language listening in to our conversation, he said. He brought the cup of coffee to his lips and dialled.
Hi, I need a Nepali monitor for affirmative asylum.
Just a moment, sir.
Sir, we’ve found a Nepali monitor for you. Have a good day.
A good day to you. Monitor, are you there?
Yes, I’m here officer, sir, said the voice on the telephone. It was a mixture of British, American and Indian accent, as if each word was being pronounced by a different tongue.
Ok, we can proceed then. Mr Lama, whatever you tell us here in this room will be strictly confidential and not shared with anyone. You may answer the questions honestly and without any fear. Do you understand?
I repeated it in Nepali.
Okay, said Ang Nuri.
Mr Lama, now I have to ask you to take the oath. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Right when I was in the middle of translating, the voice on the telephone screeched. Excuse me, officer, sir, that translation is inaccurate. The pronoun used, the interpreter is using the first-person singular whereas you used the second person.
Excuse me, I rushed in, ma in Nepali, is the first-person singular. Ta, timi, tapai, hajur – they’re all second person. I used the second-person singular. This man doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
The officer was confused. He didn’t understand the complexities of Nepali grammar, so he became conciliatory.
Obviously, I don’t know Nepali so I can’t say, he said. Then, looking up from the speakerphone: sir, leaving this second-person business aside, there might be times during the interview when you do not know the equivalent for a certain word. A word like persecution, for example. In that case, feel free to consult the monitor. We might be using some technical and highly specific words.
Coincidentally, I’d forgotten the Nepali word for persecution. But I didn’t bring it up. Suddenly, a scene from a grotesque novel I was reading flitted by, about man who lived inside the Trojan horse. At first, he couldn’t find any opening to get in…
The officer interrupted my thoughts. Do you, interpreter, swear to interpret accurately and truthfully, to the best of your abilities?
Officer: (Opening the folder and leafing through the documents) Let’s proceed, is there anything you’d like to change in your application?
I translated and responded for Ang Nuri.
Ang Nuri: No, there isn’t.
Officer: Mr Lama, can you tell us your last address before you came to America?
Ang Nuri: Jorpati. Jorpati, Kathmandu.
Officer: And how long did you live there?
Ang Nuri: Many years, ever since I fled from Tibet when I was nine years old.
Officer: Mr Lama, when did you flee from Tibet? Can you also tell me why? The circumstances.
Ang Nuri: I fled Tibet on March 19th, 1973. I ran away to escape from Chinese persecution, although it was a very hard journey. The snow ate my feet. I had to leave my family behind. I was sad. Very sad.
Officer: And where did you go?
Ang Nuri: I went to one of my uncle’s who lived in Jorpati. I went to him and he gave me a room, and I stayed with him.
Officer: Mr Lama, what languages do you speak?
Ang Nuri: Nepali.
Officer: Do you speak Tibetan?
Ang Nuri: No…
Officer: Mr Lama, why is it that although you were born in Tibet, as you say, and you lived with your Tibetan uncle in Kathmandu, you don’t speak any Tibetan?
Ang Nuri: (Hesitant) Because … People speak Nepali in Nepal. Outside. Everyone speaks Nepali so I also speak Nepali.
Officer: (Incredulous. Takes a long, hard look at Ang Nuri before going back to examining the documents in the folder) Mr Lama, you claim to be a Tibetan. Yet you carry a Nepali passport. How did you get this passport?
The officer plays with the passport. Turns to the biographical page and puts it below Ang Nuri’s nose. Ang Nuri sharply withdraws his hands from the officer’s table and puts them in his lap. At once, he is facing away from the officer, by about 30 degrees, head slightly high, like some imperious princess, or an arrogant child. He maintains this pose throughout the rest of the interview – it’s almost as if he’s suddenly frozen and turned into a robot. The only parts that move are his lips.
Ang Nuri: (In an aristocratic manner) A friend helped me get it.
Officer: And this visa for the US? Did you get the visa providing false information too?
Ang Nuri: I don’t understand.
Officer: You understand very well. Did you get the passport pretending to be a Nepali? Presumably, you got the visa pretending to be a Nepali? Whereas you, as you claim, are actually a Tibetan!
Ang Nuri: Yes, I suppose so. I’m Tibetan.
Officer: You suppose so! Mr Lama, do you know that it is a federal crime to obtain a passport, and a visa, using false information?
Ang Nuri: I had to get the passport in order to travel.
Officer: I see. You had to.
The officer flips a few more pages in the file until he comes to a letter. Taking a sip of coffee, he examines the letter.
Officer: Mr Lama, do you have any evidence to show that you are a Tibetan? A certificate from the Tibetan Reception Centre in Kathmandu, perhaps.
Ang Nuri: I do. I have a letter from the Tibetan government-in-exile, in Dharamsala.
The officer, who has been studying the letter, pulls it out and shows it to Ang Nuri.
Officer: Is this the letter?
Ang Nuri: Yes, it is.
Officer: When did you get this letter?
Ang Nuri: Four years ago, February 14th, 2006.
Officer: Mr Lama, but the letter is dated August 21st, 1999. Look.
Ang Nuri: That’s right. That’s when I originally got it. But there was a fire in my house in 2001 and I lost it. So I had to get a copy. A friend of mine got the copy for me.
Officer: (Sarcastic) there’s always a friend involved, isn’t there? Mr Lama, can you tell me why you are applying for asylum again, now, two years after you made the original application in Alabama?
Ang Nuri: (After a considerable pause) I found out I did not fill the application correctly. There were mistakes. My application was returned. But my friend received the mail and I couldn’t get it.
Officer: Why didn’t you make the corrections and return the application?
Ang Nuri: I never got the application back. A friend received the mail and he moved.
Officer: Where did your friend move to?
Ang Nuri: To New Hampshire.
Officer: Mr Lama, how often do you see this friend? How many times have you met him since 2008, how many times have you talked to this friend since 2008?
Ang Nuri: I talked to him a few times. Once a month, once two months. I’ve met him since he moved to New Hampshire.
Officer: (Angry) Yet he never gave your application back to you. Did not mail it to you either.
Ang Nuri: (Flat and expressionless) No.
Officer: (Angrier, louder) Mr Lama, why don’t you tell us why you really left Alabama?
Ang Nuri: Because, because I did not have any friends there. There are no Tibetans in Alabama.
Officer: (Angriest, foaming at the mouth) Mr Lama, you came to Alabama on a guest-worker programme to work in a factory with 250 other Nepalis. Yet you claim that you did not have any friends. How is that?
Ang Nuri: They were all Nepalis. There were no Tibetans.
Officer: And you can’t be friends with Nepalis! Heaven forbid!
Ang Nuri continues to maintain a wooden face, staring somewhere behind the officer, who studies him, like a tiger studies its prey before the kill. His eyes sparkle with anger. He takes notes, scribbling furiously on a notepad in large, wild handwriting.
Officer: (His tone low and hard, he means business this time) Mr Lama, you’ve lived with Nepalis all your life. You don’t speak Tibetan. You speak Nepali. You went to school with Nepalis. Yet you can’t be friends with them?
Ang Nuri does not answer.
Officer: Answer me!
Ang Nuri: I’m only friends with Tibetans.
The officer keeps his eyes glued on Ang Nuri.
Officer: Mr Lama, are you afraid to return to Nepal or to Tibet?
Ang Nuri: I ran away from Tibet when I was young, to escape the Chinese government. The Chinese government will put me in jail if I go back to Tibet.
Officer: And are you afraid of returning to Nepal?
Ang Nuri: Yes. The year before I left Nepal, I participated in a demonstration in Kathmandu. For human rights in Tibet. The Nepali police arrested us and beat us. I’m afraid that if I go back, there’ll be another demonstration and I’ll be arrested again.
Officer: How long were you put in jail?
Ang Nuri: Two nights.
Officer: How did you get out?
Ang Nuri: I had friends outside who knew people in human-rights organisations. They released us because of their pressure.
Officer: Were you physically harmed during the demonstration or at the jail?
Ang Nuri: I was kicked. The police kicked us and hit us with sticks.
Officer: Where did they hit you?
Ang Nuri: Everywhere. Here, here, here, here. (Touches the back of his head, shoulders, back and legs) They beat me until I was unconscious.
Officer: Did you get treatment after you were released?
Ang Nuri. Yes. I got basic treatment.
Officer: Just basic treatment?
Ang Nuri: Yes. Some bandages, I have a scar on my leg from the beatings. (Pulls on his pants up to show his scar)
Officer: (Quiet) No, no. You don’t have to show me the scar. You told me that you were hit in the back of the head with a stick until you were unconsciousness. I’d imagine that’s a serious injury. You didn’t get treatment for that?
Ang Nuri: Yes, I did. I got treatment for all my injuries.
The officer looks at Ang Nuri some more and closes the folder. He arranges all the notes he’s been taking.
Officer: Mr Lama, as an employee of the United States government, I have to confiscate your passport (He holds the passport high and shakes it). It contains a visa to the United States that you obtained providing false information. We’ll contact you in two weeks. That’s all. Let me show you the way out.
We all rise. Ang Nuri and I grab our coats and we exit in a line – the officer, me, and Ang Nuri.
This sweet cold, Ang Nuri murmured as we scrambled out of the building, and again I remembered the tips of Chomulungma. Pemba was waiting for us in his taxi. I could see that he was dying to ask. It went extremely well, I pre-empted him, almost in the same tone as the sarcastic officer, the man took Ang Nuri’s passport!
Oh good, he said leaning back on his seat. I was worried when they didn’t take it the last time. Everything is going according to the plan.
I was too tired to ask him about his plan. He drove in silence for a few minutes until he came to a gas station and he bought cold sandwiches and coffee. Then he started to talk about San Francisco, about how much easier it was to get asylum there, and how all the Tibetans in the world were descending on the bay area. I finished the sandwich and watched the spires of tall buildings pierce the grey belly of the sky.
Look, it’s snowing again, Ang Nuri said after a while. The snowflakes crashed and dissolved on our windows. They left behind narrow, dusty trails on the glass. Pemba took the longest to eat his sandwich and drink his coffee. Then, as if we were in the same hurry like the horde that lives in the city, he jerked straight, and the taxi roared forward to meet the tunnel to New York.
~ Kiran Adhikari is a writer in Kathmandu.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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