I vividly recall the sheet of paper in my father’s hands, as we waited to meet the chief divine entity administering the admissions process of an engineering college. It was a big deal. Standing in a queue in India by default is a big deal. Mostly because the queue exists in the first place. Clearly whatever was going on inside had enough dignity, gravitas and a threat of rejection that people were compelled to be civic and behave. College admissions were such events. I remember standing in line for hours as we inched towards the government servants who eagerly waited for that one day to unleash every ounce of pent-up frustration on hapless students and their parents.
“That’s not how it should be filled” he barks at us, grimacing irritatedly. Another mark on an already tired paper. We go back a few places in line to fix the offending entry and crawl our way back. By then it’s time for lunch, so the emperor pushes back his creaky wooden chair, stares with amusement and contempt at the snaking queue and leaves. My father waves the sheet of paper but to no avail. The waved sheet of paper is ignored. We are ignored.
No entry, says the guard outside the airport. I point frantically at some digits on a paper that’s been folded, opened and re-folded dozens of times. The flight number is here! HERE! No entry. I smooth out the paper so it’s more readable and point again. He squints but isn’t convinced. I wave the paper in his face and tell him I’ll miss my flight. He lets me go. It’s the paper. He can see the desperation on my face because the rest of my day is tied up in that paper.
Waiting in line at immigration. I firmly clutch passports, tickets, boarding passes, a customs form. The officer looks at me and my family, then back at the pieces of paper adorning his surprisingly clean workstation. A few cursory questions and the rubber stamp moves quickly across three sets of papers, bestowing us with legal presence in a new country. The lack of a stamp on those papers carried the power to send us back six thousand miles. Just like that. There’s no argument without that paper. You can do nothing to convince him that you’re good and decent. It’s the paper.
There’s something intensely personal about paper. Its physical existence is proof of your own. Especially when it captures your entire life in succinct sentences, like a resume. I’ve been interviewed and I have interviewed others so call me silly, but the moment when an applicant carefully removes his resume from the folder and places it in front of you is a very awkward moment for me, I’ll confess. It’s someone placing their lives in front of you. It’s a moment of vulnerability. Here, this is me. This is everything I’ve done. This represents the hopes of so many who love me and mean well for me. I hope it’s good enough for you. My heart breaks when I see resumes tossed around, scribbled upon or carelessly folded. It’s someone’s entire professional life captured in a few sentences and that fact alone merits respect. I’ll hold onto them out of that sense of sentimentality and a month later won’t know what to do with them anymore.
I hate how much of my life has been defined by these sheets of paper. Ration cards, report cards, admission forms, passport forms, and resumes. Glazed, laminated, naked, brittle. Written, scribbled, passed, duplicated, triplicated, supplicated. Clutching at the sum total of your life as you wait to present it to another apathetic official who adds another layer of ink to the litany of bureaucratic approval. There’s an affirmation in holding that piece of paper. It’s proof that you exist, that you mean something. It’s a symbol of righteous struggle. When you’re standing in line, that paper is clutched with a sense of urgency, as if tighter the grip. the greater the claim. The sweat from your fingers changes it slowly but permanently. Every smudge recording the pivotal moments of your struggle for validation and recognition. But we’re so much more than smudges on paper. It’s one of the reasons I lead an active digital life. It allows for many facets and the ability to move them around fluidly depending on the occasion, painting a true – sometimes worryingly true – picture of ourselves.
There are two kinds of paper – one in books that represents imagination and freedom. There are no limits to its potential and it whisks you away from life’s daily drudgery. The other is the restrictive and limiting kind, the one I’m railing about. The one I never want to see again if I can help it because it’s not me. A number, a stamp, a watermark aren’t me.
A couple days ago, I went to my son’s school to complete admission formalities. When I arrived, I realized I’d forgotten my proof of residence – typically a utility bill. I was reminded of my father standing in line for my admissions, waving a sheaf of papers at the Emperor Atop His Creaky Wooden Chair, but this went a little differently:
“Do you have your proof of residence?”
“Sorry, no. But I have the bill here on my phone.”
“That’s okay, email it to us. We don’t need the paper copy.”
Damn right we don’t. Good riddance.