I was in London earlier today (and last Friday as well) at the Indian High Commission, undercover for this blog (well, not really! Mr.R’s passport needed additional booklets as the existing one has been stamped out completely.)
Anyway, there I was, last Friday morning at India Place; I had left home at 6.45 am to reach there by atleast 8.30 – the HCI website warned of timings to be adhered to. I reached there and there were two queues snaking around each other. I asked a friendly face if that was the line for passports and he said yes. A few minutes later, a sweet old Sardarji came up and asked me if I was an Indian Passport holder – Line 2 was meant for us. Sigh.
Moved queues and watched as the other line began moving into the building, getting their ‘tokens’ to go in. By 9.15, the visa seekers, foreigners and British Passport holders were all in and being attended to. The Sardarji who was at the head of our queue kept his social service up, by attending to new comers and guiding them to the correct line. Note: he was NOT a member of staff, but another mortal condemned to the long queues.
9.30 came and went and we (I) felt the glimmer of step-motherly treatment to us Indian Passport holders who were left in the rain, literally. At around 9.45, we were generously let into the sanctum sanctorum and into the chaos of an Indian government office. It reminded me of Mantralaya on a Monday morning. There were the ubiquitous counters, veneered and melamined – standard government issue. There were the surplus staff (standard government issue), who wore ill-fitting suits and just hovered near the door chatting up female foreign visa seekers and looking everybody else up and down. That was their only job description. Then there were the clerks who sauntered in, tiffin boxes in hand at 10 am, oblivious to the crowd at the windows. The familiar condescending tones, harsh with impatience at having to do another day’s work rang out, sometimes scolding, sometimes rushed and yes, sometimes, competent.
We were made to stand in front of a window – token numbers redundant; it was apparently on a first come first served basis inside! A free for all ensued as people struggled to get into correct lines with no clue or guidance from the staff. Chaos reigned. And then settled down once we Indians, figured out (as we do when left to our own devices) how the system worked.
Papers given, I left in relief, clutching a cheery receipt (had a ‘Have a nice Day’ at the end). I was called back in five days to pick up the passport.
That ‘five days time’ ended today and there I was, at 3 pm, standing in a vague queue at India Place, clutching my cheery receipt.
We were let in at 3 sharp, the interiors quiet and devoid of life – staff or other species nowhere in sight. A queue automatically formed outside the ‘Indian Passport’ counter (hastily printed and stuck on the window). At 3.15, a gentleman comes to the window and asks, with a sneer ‘everybody sit down’. Confusion reigns once again as no one knows what to expect. Once everybody is seated, the g’man goes into the next room, brings back a bunch of brown paper envelopes & sets them on the desk. We all look at him expectantly wondering what procedures are yet to come. The room is hushed. Even the baby in the pram next to me forgets to cry.
The man suddenly says ‘ Yesterday’s passports / Today morning’s passports, stand here!’ A dozen frazzled looking men queue up outside window 3 as indicated. A lady clerk takes her place at Window 1 and the queue outside Window 3 is directed to her, diagonally crossing the people being called to Window 2!
The rest of us waited as our names were called out and we picked up our passports.
I hope its a long, long while before I set foot in that place again. Reminded me of all those journeys to Post Offices and how they treat their visitors. It is a humiliating, stressful and unpleasant experience at the best of times.
There’s nothing like a visit to the HCI to beat any feelings of nostalgia or homesickness that one might have. What is it about bureaucracy that makes staff so…incompetent, so uncaring of other people’s feelings and time? Is it a disease that they get when they sign on the dotted line? Funnily, I expected a wee bit of professionalism, considering that this is London. I should have known better.
Some things never change.