Wearing a kifaya and a skull cap, typing away with one hand on his 10-year-old typewriter and smiling his toothless smile, 71-year-old Babu Khan helps hundreds apply for a visa to Pakistan every year. But he clarifies he is not a tout. He has a petition writer’s licence from the NDMC office. Though he doesn’t think much of the neighbouring nation, he finds joy in the little part he plays in reuniting friends and families.
He reaches the footpath outside the Pakistan High Commission at 5 am, unfolds his chair, unwraps his typewriter hidden away inside a nearby tea stall and starts his day. “There is usually a queue of people here by the time I reach even though the visa counter opens at 9 am,” Khan says. His customers are mostly people incapable of filling out the details in the visa application form. Khan types their details and also helps them procure bank drafts for the visa fee.
He is a man of habit. A section of the form asks the applicant’s eye and hair colour. Despite the applicants’ protests, Khan types “black” for everyone. “It’s an unnecessary detail,” he quips. He judges the applicants by profession and tells them why they will or won’t get the visa.
A farmer’s son from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, Khan graduated in English literature from Aligarh Muslim University, taught mathematics and science in a school for a year and then moved to the city when his sister married in Delhi. “I was jobless in the city. Between 1979 and 80, I kept hunting for a job and didn’t know what to do,” he says.
Khan decided it was “worth it” to go job-hunting in Pakistan as an uncle of his had done it years ago and “ended up with a lot of money in Dubai”. It was then that he noticed the long queues of people lining up outside the Pakistan High Commission and started helping them with filling out their forms. “I went to Pakistan that year and spent three months there. I didn’t like it at all. I decided I will go back to my own country and live there whether I have to beg or steal,” he says.
“The MLA in Bulandshahr was known to me. He said he would give me money to start a tea stall but I refused that,” Khan says. He couldn’t find a suitable job and decided