Monday, April 16, 2007

Kripya Prateeksha Karen

There's a point in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night where he points out that people, in general, have no repose.

Nowhere is this more evident, in my experience, than in the waiting room of a government office.

I was at the Indian embassy at New York this weekend, getting my passport renewed. The website says the time for depositing applications is from 9.15 to 12.15, so I, being my smugly punctual self, show up at exactly 9.12. I'll beat the rush, I think, then discover the milling hordes that have got there before me. I feel like stout Cortez when they told him about Balboa. Ah, well.

I walk over to the guy handing out little pink chits (this takes some ingenuity; the notice at the entrance says you need to turn left for passport renewal, so of course the guy handing out queue numbers is sitting on the far right, hiding behind a big unmarked desk - it wouldn't do if he were easily spottable now would it?). I get my number. I then eye the line of ten people or so standing at the entrance of the passport renewal section. I ask him what they're waiting for. Nothing, he tells me, there's really no reason to be queuing up. Just as I suspected [1]. I walk past the queue and enter the waiting area. I check the number flashing on screen against the number in my hand. There are some 35 people ahead of me. Sigh. I find myself a desk to perch on. I put Metallica on my iPod and turn up the volume [2]. I pull out the book I'm reading - Camus' Resistance, Rebellion and Death - and proceed to read.

Five minutes later I look up and realise everyone's staring at me. Evidently I'm guilty of a serious faux pas. Using the time waiting in a government office productively is an unpatriotic act. Actually relaxing while you're doing it is practically an act of terrorism. Hoary old uncle-jis are shaking their heads at the sight of such westernised decadence, such blatant disregard for Our Indian Culture.

The RIGHT way to wait in a government office, as strenuosly demonstrated by dozens of people around me, is this:

First, take all and any official looking papers you might have and hold them in your hand in a folder / envelope. Better yet, if you can find a polythene bag from a Karol Bagh saree house, put all your papers in that and hold that in your hand.

Next, stand as close to the application window as you can without actually standing in front of it. Be sure to leave just enough space so that an anorexic twelve year old can squeeze past you to the window while holding her breath - you don't want to be in the way or anything - but no more. You never know what invisible forces might be lying in wait, trying to steal your place in the non-line. Your position in this crowd is important, and you must prove yourself worthy of it. Hold a tense posture at all times. Stare intently at the screen on the off-chance that they've gone and changed the number system overnight and 94 now comes right after 81. If someone calls you on your cellphone, tell him you're really busy and can't talk now, but will call him back later (unless, of course, it's a friend / distant cousin, in which case feel free to have a conversation with him standing right there; make sure to talk loudly though, other people will naturally want to know about Tau-ji's operayshun).

Once you've perfected your stressed out pose, be sure to pay careful attention to everything that gets said at the actual counter. Never mind that the person submitting his application isn't talking to you and that you can't see the papers he / she has handed in. As a concerned citizen it's your duty to follow every detail of the case and make an independent decision on its merits and demerits. That's what democracy is about. If you feel the person is wrong and is wasting the official's time shake your head in sage disgust. If you feel the person is right and is being treated unfairly by the passport office, nod your head in vigorous support. If you find his / her case particularly moving, don't be afraid to go up and tell him / her so. Don't worry about holding up the line. Feel free to stand at the window trading complaints about the passport office. Sympathy for your fellow-sufferers is very important to building a spirit of national integration.

Just to be clear though - on no account should all this result in your being better prepared when you actually get to the window. Under no circumstances must you open your folder and take the time to put your papers in order. That's what the window is for, after all. Nor should you assume that anything the person behind the counter says to anyone else (or anything written on, say, an official notice board) has any relevance to you. It may be part of some elaborate practical joke. And besides, you're special - there must be separate guidelines for people like you.

When the blessed time arrives and you do get to the window, here's what you should do. First, remember that the person behind the counter may look like a sweet middle-aged lady, but she is NOT a human being and must under no circumstances be treated with courtesy. You wouldn't say 'good morning' or 'please' or 'thank you' to an airline stewardess, would you? Well, this is the same thing.

Next, always be sure to explain, in a loud, clear voice, what you're doing there. Sure, it's the counter for passport renewal, but that doesn't mean that everyone who comes there wants to get their passport renewed. Who knows what other people might be standing here trying to do. Best to explain the situation first (ideally starting with your birth, and taking it slowly from there) just so there's no confusion.

Once you've got that out of the way and are quite sure the lady behind the counter understands what you're there for, open your magic polythene bag, fish around in it for at least one minute (careful, not too fast bringing things out of the bag now, you don't want to depressurise too quickly and end up with the bends) then pull out your form [3] and hand it over. Just the form, mind you. It's way too early to hand over any of the documentation that goes with it. A good passport application is like foreplay. You have to make it last. Wait for the lady behind the counter to ask for your old passport, photocopies of your visa documents, etc. Make sure you spend at least two minutes rummaging around in your bag for each one, just to build up that sense of suspense. See if she notices that you haven't signed the form - it's a good sign if she does. Once you've got past that you're practically in a relationship. Now you can feel comfortable explaining how you had no idea that when they said 'Paste a Passport Photo Here" they actually wanted you to paste a passport photo there. Of course you've got a passport photo. Rummage, rummage. See, here it is. You just don't have any gum. Oh, look, a glue stick. The joys of modern technology. What's that? Three more pictures. Yes, yes, of course you have those too. Rummage, rummage. One. Rummage, rummage. Two. Rummage, Rummage. Three. There.

What's that? All done now? But when should you come back to collect it? At 4.30? But when at 4.30? What if you come before 4.30? What if you come at 4.31? Will your passport turn into a pumpkin? Where should you come back to? Here? This window? Will the same person be behind the counter? Can someone else come to collect it for you? (you must ask this - even if you plan to come yourself - it's always good to know). Is she absolutely certain you'll get it today. Promise? God promise?

Right then, 4.30. Accha, okay. Oh, but madam, I also wanted to give in an application for my son. Yes, madam, my six year old son. He's right here, madam. Tinku beta, yahaan aao. Rummage. Repeat.

And these are just the general instructions. There are also the special instructions for people with wives, families, etc.

1) There is no playing ground more conducive to a child's physical and mental development than a crowded room full of strangers. If you're bringing your five year old brat along with you (mostly because you're too cheap to hire a sitter), be sure to let it romp around running into other people. Do not encourage it to apologise when it does so. This would be 'talking to strangers' - a definite no, no. On the other hand, encourage your brat to get in plenty of loud shouting in order to improve its lung power. Standing on the other side of the room from your brat and talking to it from there is a good strategy for this.

2) Under no circumstances must a woman be allowed to fill up her own form. Women can't fill forms. It's a biological fact. It's not their fault - it's just that their brains are smaller. This is why you must be protective and fill up their forms for them. It may seem, at times, that they actually understand the form better and the suggestions they make make sense, but this is misleading. If a woman is saying it, it's almost certain to be wrong, even if what she's saying coincides with the written instructions. Ignore her and trust your own instincts. Should it turn out that you're wrong, notice that the person behind the counter is a woman too, and clearly doesn't know what she's doing.

Ideally, you should do all the talking at the counter, even if the application is for your girlfriend / wife / sister / daughter. If that's not possible, and you absolutely have to let her talk, be sure to stand close behind her, expressing your willingness to muscle in at any moment and protecting her from the Evil Eye of Other Men. This is the true Indian way, as laid out in Upanishad 4 subclause 32 G.

3) A similar principle applies when dealing with your children. Never mind if your Raju is a hulking 6 foot something twenty-year old. Just because he has a college education doesn't mean he's capable of filling out a simple form. If you feel you have to let him do it for himself (because otherwise how will he learn) be sure to find at least four mistakes in what he does. And again, make sure that when you get to the counter it's you that does the talking, not him.

4) Any and all instructions you receive from the lady behind the counter are merely tentative, and not to be taken too seriously. Say, for instance, that she tells you that your passport will only be available after a week. This doesn't mean that it will actually be available after a week. She probably just said it because she wanted to see what it would sound like. It might be ready the same day. Or the day after that. Best to come back every day and stand in line to make sure. Oh, and when it turns out that she really did mean a week and your passport isn't ready, be sure to complain bitterly about being forced to come to the embassy everyday. Be sure to spend at least five minutes arguing about this at the window. Remember, it's your right as a citizen to get proper service.

Only after you've followed these instructions to the letter will you qualify as true citizen of India and have truly earned the passport you collect between 4.30 and 5.15 pm (be sure to check all the details in this before you leave the window, btw. Twice).

As for the guy with the headphones and the book who - amazingly - seems to have got his new passport too? Chhi! chhi! This is what comes of living in a permissive society.


[1] Isn't it amazing how people will join a queue just because it's there. It's the one thing Beckett gets wrong in Waiting for Godot. If it ever really happened, what's the bet that Vladimir and Estragon would be standing in line?

[2] I'm not in general a huge metal fan, but I find that standing in a crowded place with metal blaring from your headphones means that people give you more personal space. Plus it's the most reliable way to drown out all conversation around you.

[3] This is the New York Consulate Passport Renewal form. Not to be confused with the Washington DC Consulate Passport Renewal form - which looks different and has different documentation requirements. Apparently, what you need to be a bona fide Indian citizen depends on where you live.


jj said...

:) !! awesome post

Cheshire Cat said...

"A good passport application is like foreplay." Well, you can't blame them for trying to get some pleasure from the experience...

I wish you ranted more often.

Anonymous said...

hahaha...seriously hilarious...2x3x7.

Mo said...

Ah, falstaff,
Its been a while since you ranted.

But, how long did it take for you to get your passepartout?

rs said...

will read it again, whenever life is too boring

Geetika said...

Hi, Really really funny.........can't stop laughing.....though I'm sure one can see the humor in such situations only in retrospect.

Revealed said...

Had the same thing happen to me. You left out the insane guy on a tourist visa, dressed like some 80s philum version of an 'American dude' rolling his Rs like a bike without a silencer, who stands in the 'line' for passport renewal and then harangues the lady about changing his visa to a Student visa just cos he's asking, without any documentation.

And also the uncle ji who strikes up a conversation with you intent on finding out every detail of your life, including your marital status, and your exact purpose in being at the embassy today.

Revealed said...

Oh and the guy who stands at the counter loudly insisting that he talk to Mr.Such-and-Such or else he will not leave, even though he just needs a routine passport renewal which is already being taken care of!

G said...

Extremely rib-tickling. Just a query : why is the twelve-year old anorexic a she, while the yelling five-year old's an it?

Supemus said...

That was absolutely rib tickling hehehe!! Now I demand u travel Air India through Newark airport, and explain us the situation at Newark airport in Desi terminal lounge, the art of sitting in and taking off. Yes, please!


Pri said...

@supemus: If I remember correct Falstaff has already written a piece about flying to India with auntyjees and unclejees. It was the first post I read. Can’t remember how I came across it but I’ve been hooked since.

dazedandconfused said...

"God Promise?"- I loved this phrase. Had almost forgotten it.

On another note, i think we Indians are very severe in judging our countrymen when we find each other outside our country. At least that's my personal impression- might not have anything to do with this post actually...

Ricercar said...

lol. loved this. as usual :)

Shripriya said...

Having visited this embassy many times, I have to concur. Btw, the guy handing out the slips is the guard and he's frequently off minding the crowds - so you have to just hang around his "cube" and wait. Fabulous experience, really.

Perspective Inc said...

Hilarious! Its awesome that you can find so much humor in something soooo mundane!

anonymous coward said...

just curious, but were there only indians in the queue in NY ? surely there must be interesting specimens of other nationalities ?

Falstaff said...

All: Thanks

cat: True. But it's still painful to watch

revealed: wow! you really were there, weren't you?

g: five-year olds are always it. Always.

supremus: As pri points out, I've already covered the flight from Newark beat. And while I am actually flying to India from EWR next month, I don't intend to fly Air India - will stick to the non-stop flight.

d&c: Yes, I know. I hadn't thought of that phrase for ages.

You're probably right about being overcritical of one's own countrymen, though I think that may have to do with the fact that it's easier to poke fun at a community when you belong to it. To be clear though, this post isn't necessarily about Indians - for all I know, people at passport offices of any and every country behave the same way. I've just never been to any other embassies.

anonymous coward: Actually, no. This was the passport section of the embassy, so the only people there were those who had Indian passports.

Shantanu said...

Heh! Great post!

antickpix said...

haha. great post.

yes, passport renewal is hell. had to go through it a couple of months back. eerily similar experience.

DoZ said...

If you think reading a book is considered evil, I had a little notebook and *wrote* into it, from my head (look Ma, no text book)! The looks I got placed me somewhere between a Matahari out to ferret out national secrets and a dangerous lunatic who was going to tear the book apart any minute and spring on them ...

Sakshi said...

On a different note, I have mailed you regarding Indibloggies and it might be stuck in your spam folder.

Pls check and reply.