By Rihan Najib
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I’ve never counted the lack of a passport among the great grievances of my life. Being sedentary by nature, I had led a fairly untroubled existence without it. But in my sixth semester, after having bummed around enough with my education, I summoned some uncharacteristic initiative and attempted to step out of the country for an exchange semester. It was through this exercise that I was forced to concede that the whole endeavor of obtaining a passport could be a larger commentary on the many amusing ways in which we conduct our civilization.
In the un-outsourced days of yore, the Shastri Bhavan was the Chennai local office of Hell. Additionally, the elusive tatkal passport application was the modern day version of the deal with the Devil. Sure, you got the exalted document eventually, but not before you have been made to forfeit all that is good in you. Had I known this back then, I would have been better prepared for what lay ahead. But the most I was told about the battle ahead was, “Ey, you’ll have to take lots of print-outs, okay.”
The first thing to know about a bureaucracy is that it loves paper. Even in this starkly technological age, bureaucrats cannot renounce their paper-fetish. They love the soft rustle of the sheaves, the important look of five million files on their desks. Paper is the substrate of the bureaucrat’s empire. Having said that, I should also introduce you to the Form, which is the true beginning of any bid for citizenship. The Form is an innocuous-looking sheet of paper with a monstrous capacity to inflict trauma. At Shastri Bhavan, that combat zone between applicants and administrators, Forms led the charge. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to pry and pry.
The average tatkal passport application required one to first fill out an online form, which was to be then attached to a donkeyload of other forms, all of them duly attested by gazetted officers and a suspicious humanoid called the notary public. For the first time in my life, I realized how important it was for a citizen under a benighted bureaucracy to preserve little paper trails of existing as so-and-so in such-and-such place at such-and-such time. I found myself reduced to receipts, outdated ID cards and letters signed and stamped over and over by officious buffoons who seemed to think they were vassals of God in how they could certify the truth of one’s presence.
Specifically, there were two forms with particular malevolent force; they were called Annexure I and Annexure F. Annexure I required the applicant to spend a day at Saidapet’s district court, trying not to get ambushed by questionable characters who offered, among other things, signatures of district judges and magistrates, various IAS officers and notary publics, all at very-very-good-price-madam-only-300-rupees. The Annexure F surpassed the previous document in sheer hilarity. It was a certificate that verified the good moral conduct of the applicant. Mind you, good moral conduct can be authenticated only by a gazetted officer. I didn’t know what a gazetted officer was, but I believe they are a breed of bureaucrat specially developed to divine any criminal tendency or political tomfoolery in the applicant. Their training must be rather thorough, because though they seemed phenomenally daft, a citizen couldn’t leave the country without their saying the applicant “has a good moral character and reputation” (sic).
After wrangling with all those forms, the grand finale was to take place at Shastri Bhavan, literally at the crack of dawn. I was advised to appear early for the appointment, so on that day, I woke up while it was still dark and left for Shastri Bhavan just as the morning was about to break. With visions of glory, I walked briskly towards the wrought iron gates of Empire. I had arrived, I had done it, I was going to have that bloody passport in my hand soon. Just when I thought it was all going well…
The passport applicant queue snaked down three floors of the building and out through the entrance, around a cluster of flowerpots, through a row of parked cars, stopping just a few feet away from me. But the worst was yet to happen. Within Shastri Bhavan are resident officials who uniformly cultivate a filthy temper as well as the obstinate refusal to speak English words apart from ‘You just come tomorrow’ and ‘Murali, first you bring the file, ya!’
My queue led me to one such descendant after having waited for something close to half a day. I respectfully offered up my passport dossier to him, who went through it cursorily, flipping the sheets with a practiced hand. Then he stopped and looked at me searchingly. “Ears enge?” he asked suddenly. I thought I had misheard the question; my functional knowledge of Tamil couldn’t be prevailed upon for much sense. But then he repeated in English, “Where are your ears, ma?” Fearing they might have fallen off somewhere amidst the jostling queues, my hand shot up to my head to indicate where the ears usually were. The officer impatiently shook his head and pushed my passport dossier to me and pointed at my photograph. “Where your ears are? I can’t see them.” He was unfortunately right. As if to spite me in my moment of chagrin, my ears had purposefully gone to the back of my head when the photo was taken, making me look like I had completed the job that Van Gogh had left half done. The officer commanded, “Now you take another photo and come tomorrow. Next person come please!” I flattened my nose against the glass barrier and looked imploringly at him. The thought of another few days trudging in and out of these offices made me feel weak-kneed. “Sir, please…” I choked feebly. He looked up from my dossier and recoiled upon seeing my pleading face squashed against the glass. Offended by the grotesque spectacle, he quickly pushed my file across and waved at the person behind me, muttering “Kadavale! Muruga! Saaami!”
The crusade ended slowly and gracelessly. When I finally collected my passport from the post-office, I was conscious of some victory too wretched to celebrate. Never has citizenship weighed down more heavily upon me. Of course, there was still the visa ordeal ahead, but that’s a story for another day. These days, when I meet fellow students about to take off to some foreign land, I defer compliments till I ask them, “I take it you have a passport then?” For those who respond in the affirmative, I bestow indulgent smiles and inquire about their plans of imminent decadence. But every now and then you get a poor soul who casually shrugs and says, “Well, I don’t have a passport yet, but I’ll be applying for one soon”. I place a hand on their shoulder and silently pray for them.
Rihan Najib is a fifth year student of the Humanities Department. She believes writers can’t be prevailed upon to say anything reasonably honest about themselves.