In India, any trip to a government establishment is guaranteed to be an unique experience. Yesterday, I had the good fortune to enter the hallowed halls of the Regional Passport Office in Bangalore.
The office opens at 9:30 a.m, but as I'd heard about the popularity of this place, I decided to be there by 7:45 a.m. A few straggling touts at the entrance offered me random forms I didn't need. Inside, expecting a huge mass of fellow citizens, I was surprised to see only a few dozen people ahead of me. Temporary notices on the walls explained that fresh passport applicants need to go to Counter #1 and Miscellenaous Services to Counter #2.
There's really no activity in the decrepit interiors and one wonders if they will ever open. Finally, around 9:27 a.m, a car drives into the gates and a sour looking man and woman, both well into middle age, get off with barely concealed disdain for the long queue of hopeful passport service customers.
At 9:31 a.m, the metal gates to the inner abode open. People are let in two at a time. Suddenly, another notice catches my eye. It says in block capitals that all photographs should have only light colored backgrounds and should absolutely not be red or blue. As luck would have it, my photograph has a vivid red background. With much trepidation, I approach the security guard to await my partner for entry. There's a small counter inside where a guy looks over the documents you have and puts a sticker with a token number on your application. He then vaguely points to his right. Afraid to ask more questions than essential, I walk straight according to the hand pointing. I end up in a small room with a name "Tatkal". I ask another bewildered looking fellow customer if this is the right place to be in to get an additional booklet. He replies to me succintly "Tatkal". I return to the token gentleman and ask him if I need to go upstairs. "Yes", he says like it was obvious all along.
Upstairs, things look to be more organized. A digital display shows the token number being serviced along with the counter number. A Orwellian voice calls out each number by digits only. Again, the counter numbers being called have no bearing on the outside notice which talks specifically about Counter #1 and Counter #2.
Surprisingly, the numbers are moving quickly and soon #31 is summoned. I get to counter #2 and the guy says that he stopped calling at #24. Befuddled, I approach counter #6 where six hands are trying to squeeze into a small opening that a cat might fit in. A guy is shouting "I am #33 and #34 and they were each called at a different counter!" #17 is glowering at him and brief hand match occurs in the small animal opening. The passport officially studiously ignores all the goings on and sips his tea with much relish.
I finally get my hand in. The official (resembled Illayaraja to some extent), returns my forms with alacrity saying I need to get the documents verified by some other guy sitting in a corner of the waiting area. I rush back to this hitertho unseen person. A long queue is already parked in front of him. Good natured ribaldry and wise-cracks ensue from the waiting customers as I proceed to the verifier. I give him my forms. He looks over all the documents and asks the one thing I don't have-passport copies. The instructions online very clearly say that passport copies are not required. I should have known better.
I now run back downstairs and outside to get copies of my passport. I dash back in and ask the verifier if I need to stand in the lengthening queue again. Since I speak in Kannada, I am shown some bias and he bids me to give him the papers. This time, luckily, everything is in order and there is no comment on the red background of my photograph.
I go back to counter #6. Mysteriously, the crowd has disappeared except for one guy. He is told that he needs to wait for 2 hours right there. The guy protests saying that he hadn't informed his office that he would be taking off on a mission of this nature. The passport officer grimly reprimands him "You should not take off from work without informing. It is very bad! You should always tell your boss". As this doesn't solve the immediate problem, the truant office worker resignedly stands by.
A lady beside me is asked to fill out a PP form. As this is mumbled with some speed, she has no idea what the officer just said. He finally clarifies and tells her the verifier will have this form. The verifier sends her back to the counter and she complains, and rightly so, that she is being given the run-around. The counter official, probably taking pity on her, produces the PP form from a stack of other PP forms lying a few feet from his reach.
I finally submit all my paper work and he has no objections. He tells me everything is fine and I will get my additional booklet soon. I try to probe on what 'soon' would be in terms of days but he just smiles sweetly and stretches his hand out to take the papers from the next customer.