Short stories, Travel and Health Information
‘The Democratic Republic of Amnesia’
– Yasmine Gooneratne: The Pleasures of Conquest (1995)
It was my father’s friend Tarzie Vittachi – his oldest friend from their primary schooldays at Ananda College – who first taught me about the Sovereign Republic of Amnesia.
It all happened because Tarzie hated injections.
Unfortunately, as a deputy director in one of the United Nations’ larger organisations UNICEF, Tarzie’s official duties required him to travel all over the world – and everywhere he went he was required to have his passport and health certificates with him so that they could be scrutinised by eagle-eyed immigration and health officials, whose job it was to make sure that these documents were stamped, sealed and signed in all the correct places.
These days, diseases such as smallpox no longer exist – and even the most stubborn health officials have come to realise that trying to prevent cholera by injecting people with cholera vaccine is a virtually useless exercise. In the not too distant past, however, you not only needed to have a visa stamped in your passport in order to enter a foreign country, you also needed a little yellow book called an International Health Certificate, which had pages that had to be stamped and signed every time you received a vaccination, as proof that you had been immunised against the common infectious diseases such as cholera, smallpox and yellow fever. All this red tape was purely for the purpose of convincing the health officials stationed at airports and borders that an arriving visitor was not bringing undesirable communicable diseases into their country.
The inconvenient thing about cholera vaccination was that the immunity it conferred lasted only for six months – so if you were a regular international traveller like Tarzie was, you had to visit your doctor and get yourself jabbed every six months in order to have your health certificate officially stamped and updated.
Since Tarzie, as I mentioned earlier, hated injections (especially if he had to be the injected party) and since he also had supreme confidence that he was long past the stage of contracting cholera or any other infectious diseases, he decided that he would have to do something about this business of needing to get jabbed by his doctor simply to have his documents stamped and validated every six months.
So when he next visited Sri Lanka Tarzie had a rubber stamp made up with a suitably impressive coat-of-arms in its centre plus a scroll inscribed ‘SOVEREIGN REPUBLIC OF AMNESIA – DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH’ surrounding it. Every six months or so, whenever he felt that his next cholera vaccination was due, he would use the rubber stamp to put a seal on his health certificate, date and sign it himself with a flourish. He would then have the book ready to show the newly validated page to any health official who demanded to see his documents whenever he landed in a new country.
Now nobody, least of all a uniformed government official, likes to admit that he is ignorant – especially when he is confronted with something he knows nothing about. So whenever Tarzie confidently presented his impressively stamped documents, the official concerned – assuming, no doubt, that Amnesia was one of those newly independent sovereign states lying in the ocean somewhere between Antigua and Zanzibar -would flip though the pages and solemnly hand the book back.
“Not once” Tarzie used to enjoy telling us children “did any of them venture to ask me where Amnesia was!”
And, even more important from Tarzie’s point of view, not once did he have to suffer, since he obtained his Amnesic stamp, the painful trauma of another cholera vaccination!