No cash, no passport: The story of an Indian student from Harvard who got mugged in Tanzania

“Nothing can be done. Even if you give me two crore rupees, nothing can be done," was the response of the consular officer at the Indian Embassy in Tanzania.
No cash, no passport: The story of an Indian student from Harvard who got mugged in Tanzania
No cash, no passport: The story of an Indian student from Harvard who got mugged in Tanzania
Written by:
Charanya Kannan
Charanya Kannan, a Chennai woman, is a student at Harvard Business School. She was in Tanzania recently for a course when she got mugged. She shares her experience.
Exactly two weeks ago, forty of us had landed in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, for a course on public private partnerships. We were 5000 kilometres to the west of Chennai, yet that city was so much like home with its beach, the oppressive heat and humidity and most of all, the food.
We had a sumptuous, literally finger licking lunch of South Indian thali and very authentic dosais with no jaggery sambars that are even hard to come by in the north of the Vindyas. In order to ward off the excessive comatose induced by rice and rasam, I decided to walk back to our hotel instead of taking a taxi, along with four others.
We were in Addis Ababa the previous week, but Dar looked so much more warmer and friendlier with its broader roads and bigger buildings. As we walked past the Indian Embassy, the fluttering tricolor evoked a sense of love and belonging that stemmed from all these years of conditioning that I instinctively pulled out my phone and snapped a picture. A few girls were dancing on the road and were getting filmed for some TV show. We stopped by and danced with them (which was when the above picture was taken!) The whole evening was so magical.
Just as we turned around the corner and were walking down the footpath, a red helmet biker came surreptitiously from nowhere and snatched my bag. I tried to resist but he accelerated and I got dragged along. When my head hit the unsympathetic asphalt, I knew I had to let go. Before I could release the cross shouldered bag, I got dragged a few feet. I got up and was surprised I could get up, and turned to look at the four others who were walking with me.  
None of them had noticed the number plate. In fact, they hadn’t even noticed that I was robbed. It all happened in less than a few seconds that they thought I simply fell. I was surprised that it was that quick, in my mind it had all happened in a cinematic slow motion where I actually had time for a mini debate in my head to let go or not to let go of the bag.
One of the four of them was an ex-military man but that still didn’t put him in the league of Vijayakanth (a Tamil actor) who could have somersaulted his way into the pillion seat of the bike.
I had lost two phones, cash, credit cards, driver’s license and worst of all, my passport, and had gained bruises all over my hands and legs and one particularly noticeable bump in my head for the bargain.
I wasn’t flustered because we had a week left. And the Indian embassy with its CCTV cameras was two blocks away, and the biker had just turned into that road. Also I've come to realise that for the self-proclaimed raconteur that I am, everything makes for good fodder in my book of life experiences as long as I live to tell the tale.
Last year, when my phone was stolen from a women's washroom at the Paris airport, I was moping and moaning for a month.
After a ceremonious first aid session, where it was ascertained that my ability to count was intact and hence my head was fine, we went to the police station. Once the ‘H bomb’ (that I was a student of Harvard) was dropped, the interactions became more congenial with the friendly policemen trying to ascertain what “tribe” I belong to. Tribe apparently is a huge part of everyone’s identity in Tanzania.
Eventually, they decided that my tribe is an unflattering category called “foreigner”. I was also reminded how lucky I am that my arms and legs were still working fine, that isn’t always the outcome of such bike thefts, chuckled a friendly officer.
When the Police Officers want a picture with you because they haven't met anyone from Harvard before. (Image courtesy: Charanya Kannan)
Too bad it was Saturday evening and I had to wait till Monday happened for everything else. On Monday, armed with the police report and tonnes of optimism, I went into the Indian Embassy to meet the consular officer. India’s foreign ministry runs one of the most efficient operations now, this should get sorted out in seconds, I thought. 
But, apparently, not. The consular officer wouldn't even look up at me or the Assistant Dean of Harvard Business School, Gabe Handel, who came in with me. For some reason his empty table was more attractive to him than our faces.
I explained my situation to him, and he said, “You can’t return this Saturday. Passport issue takes 3 weeks here. I can give you an emergency certificate with which you can go back to India and apply for passport from there. That will take 2-3 months in India."
At this point I knew he was simply playing tough. I tried recalling all that was taught in negotiation, forced myself to smile and said, “Surely Sir, I’m sure with all your power you can do something for a quicker re-issue. I have no money or phone now, I cannot afford to stay back in Tanzania for 3 weeks. My semester starts this Monday, and I have left my two-year-old son in the United States. My whole course ends in three months and I need to graduate, I cannot go back and wait in India for three months, that would mean I have to forego my degree. Is there something I can do like paying extra for tatkal issue or fast courier?”
I may have even managed to get my eyes teared up as I mentioned all this.
“Nothing can be done. Even if you give me two crore rupees, nothing can be done," was his response.
“Sir everyone is tweeting to our foreign minister these days, I hear that Sushmaji helps to accelerate processes, do you think that will help in my case, sir?”
“You tweet to anyone. Let’s see what they can do. What will they do? They will tell us to do and again we only do it. You tweet to anyone, let’s see what you can do,” he said with furrowed brows and a higher decibel level.
Gabe, who was visibly tinted to a mild pink out of embarrassment, politely asked if we could at least have access to the CCTV cameras outside the embassy.
“We installed it only last week, it’s not yet working, there is no footage."
Excellent. We walked out. The security head of our hotel who had accompanied us said, “Even the poorest person can walk into a Tanzanian Embassy and will get treated better than this."
Gabe said, “Sorry that the Indian Embassy isn’t helpful, let’s see what the US embassy can do for you."
I wasn’t even flustered when I was mugged, but at this point I was. I had lost everything and went to the consular office desperate for assistance. The irony of being treated with insolence by the place that was supposed to be my abode of shelter in a foreign land where I had lost everything didn’t escape me.
I realised there was no point in being the good Samaritan who follows processes any more.I immediately wrote a message to my friends all across the world, Ashwin Bhaskaran (Third Secretary, Indian Embassy in Spain) and Banu Prakash (Deputy Director General, Indian Embassy in Taiwan) and I called Kapidhwaja Pratap Singh (Third Secretary, Indian Embassy in France).
In two hours, I got a call from Mr.Robert Shetkintong, the Deputy High Commissioner of the Indian High Commission in Tanzania, and he chortled as he said, “Looks like you have friends in Paris."
He was very professional. He said I could call him anytime, and that passport re-issue here would take 7-10 days and that it would take a little longer if I go back to India because of mandatory police verification there. He also gave me a third option, a handwritten passport, that could be issued the very next day, but said that he wasn’t sure if the US would accept a handwritten passport because one can’t even fly back to India with a handwritten passport.
He also said the embassy will provide me with financial assistance for my flight, (which I politely turned down) but I was pleasantly surprised with the sudden turn of events and timelines. Meanwhile, Banu had also spoken to Mr.Shetkintong and assured me that everything was under control, and Ashwin had made all arrangements in India for my passport to be re-issued in 4-5 days if I chose to go back there. Kapi and Ashwin were on the phone with me several times that day, and I’m sure that they did no other work than attending to my case. Incredibly grateful for having friends like them.
Mr.Shetkingtong went way beyond what was expected of him. I turned up in his office without even filling up the required forms, he gave me his computer to fill up everything, printed out my documents and even apologised for the theft and my bruises. It is just completely sad that helpful officers and common people are separated by bureaucratic barriers in the name of processes. The normal man who walks into the embassy only gets to meet some front desk staff or worse, the consular officer who makes sure you think the theft was trivial in comparison to his treatment of you.
Never had a passport picture taken like this before! (Image courtesy: Charanya Kannan)
The handwritten passport seemed like a great idea, but we needed written confirmation from the US embassy. The HBS Dean, Dr.Nitin Nohria, was kind enough to send an email within minutes of us asking him for help, that too on a holiday, to the US Ambassador in Tanzania.
Contrary to all expectations, the US embassy said handwritten passports are acceptable, and three days later, I had a US visa in hand. I boarded the plane with everyone else as planned. I was nervous about entering Trump’s America with a handwritten passport, but I was almost offended by the complete absence of any drama, this was in fact the fastest immigration I had at Logan Airport and I wasn’t even stopped for an embarrassing inspection of the piled up dirty laundry in my suitcase (which happens every single time otherwise).
Gabe Handel, the Assistant Dean was on the trip with us and he did more than I ever would for another person - from tapping into his network to accompanying me to every place. He stood outside and waited the entire time when I was in the embassy for my visa interview. He was even wiling to stay back in Tanzania in the eventuality that I didn’t get my visa on time. HBS also paid for my expenses for that trip entirely, thanks to some generous alumni funding which apparently exists for obscure things like “Students Travel Emergency”. I bet if we looked enough we will find alumni money for “slipped-and-fell-in-the-bathtub-fund” and “Bad-break-up-go-get-drunk-fund’.
And then I spent the whole of last week in a mundane and mind numbing loop of printing, scanning, signing, posting dozens of forms in an effort to restore my documents, which I think was the most annoying outcome of this whole episode. My phone line was restored this weekend, my credit cards have been reissued, I’ve re-applied for an actual passport and my license is on its way. Normalcy seems within reach.
And not a day has passed by without me wondering how very different this would have been if I was in a similar situation two years ago and how much of a difference privilege makes. Here is hoping for lower Gini coefficients that would make theft obsolete and better Indian Embassies where who walks in doesn’t make a difference.

Note: Views expressed are the personal opinions of the author.

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