Thursday, March 17, 2011

My experience at the Passport Office

Life had promised a delightful vacation. Two and a half years of slogging made me lose my fizz. Each workday had the aftertaste of a hot, sweet, terribly sour and flat soda. And I thought to myself, this holiday is going to be brilliant and I deserve it (maybe). The day I land, I'll fight off jetlag. The next day I'll chill with my parents and pack for Poly's wedding (which did turn out to be a lot of fun!). After the Visa Interview at the Foreign Consulate next morning I'll catch the train to Bangalore. The only impending problem was: Who will collect my passport bearing the fresh Foreign Visa stamp while I'm away at Poly's Bash?

But as a lot of you know, everything had a rosy tint about it, until my Visa interview. Actually, the nightmare had not begun at counter no. 11 where I gave my interview to some American (who looked like the last guy had pissed him real bad). It was afterwards, when that Indian lady at counter 16 told me why I was there. She asked me to fill out the 221G form. And even that wasn't what made my heart sink to my gut.

I knew what the 221G was. Several of my friends had got it. At my last Visa interview, I said I studied how the mouse brain is formed, and avoided getting the 221G. My colleague who was from the same lab and did very similar work and interviewed about the same time said "I study Developmental Neurobiology". The eyes of the interviewer widened, and she is supposed to have stammered "We'll keep your application for further processing". He was unable to leave India for at least two months.

This is what landed me a glorious 221G: "I study how fruitfly eggs are formed". Notice how this sounds utterly trivial and hardly worth studying. That is what is was meant to sound like. To rephrase what I do, "I study stem cell maintenance mechanisms in the context of Drosophila oogenesis." While, this may have evoked awe in any (non-American) semi-educated and educated individual, and made at least a few aspiring developmental biologists drool, this would definitely have gotten me a 221G at the consulate. Well, apparently even fruitfly ovaries are a security threat to the Land of the Free.

But like I said, I was disappointed but not disheartened by the 221G. It is what that lady at counter 16 did next that sapped the happiness from my being, like Rowling's dementors. She took a closer look at my passport. I was still in a jetlagged homecoming stupor, and didn't feel a threat. And then she gave a very typical... and very irritating, wannabe spunky, urban, wannabe movie star, reactionary exclamation: "What is this?!"
My passport. My dear passport! She held it by the lamination coming loose from the cardboard below. It was like your dog being held by its hind leg over a fire. That is when I imagined a profuse nosebleed. And she said "Here's our notification to you. This should help you get a new passport."

Gulp!! A new passport. Did she have the slightest friggin' clue how much $#!t it involves? Clearly she didn't, or else she wouldn't have done it. My experience with my first passport left me a lot stronger. In the two and a half years it took me to get it, my patience must have grown ten fold. My persistence grew to stubbornness when things had to get done. I deduced the Murphy's law through everyday life. This is of course, a very positive retrospection of a fairly harrowing experience :) I must clarify though, people get their passport within a month at most times, or weeks, if they are lucky. I needed to get one within two weeks. I had to see what could be done.

So as I walked out of the Consulate saying to myself "WOOOOooooooossssaaaaaa..... lifeisgoodlifeisgodlifeisgoodlifeis." It's hard to change a conditioned response to a stimulus. Mine was, and is one of terror to the procurement of a passport. But then, I was aware all I could do was to get a new passport. Everything else shouldn't take too long. So with rythmic breathing and a cool head I went told Papa, who was waiting outside the Consulate. He's past the stage of being grown up. Between you and me, I think he's entering his second childhood. His reaction to this news, was as if he had gone bankrupt, lost everything, his life's work... trashed.With great apprehension I called and told Amma. She never seems to have gotten out of the 15 year old phase. She had pretty much the same response, except she was a lot more vociferous. So... amid a great debates over whether I should attend Poly's wedding, I weathered lectures about keeping my things safe and taking life more seriously in general. All instructive monologues were fine. But when I was told (it wasn't suggested) to get this over with and maybe skip the wedding. I put my foot down. I needed a break and whole point of moving this trip by a year was to meet ze whole famiglia. 

But fun times pass like a breeze and so did Poly's wedding in Bangalore. I went to a travel agent in Hyderabad the day after the wedding. They refused to touch the case. So did a second, more recommended travel agent. Without ID and proof of residence, they didn't want to touch the case. I didn't have any of those because I've been away from home for so long. You'd think that replacing a damaged passport would not require these things. Afterall, it has all the information you need and been approved by a government agency already. But red tape, as I later learnt is a universal evil. You can run from it, but you can't hide.
So I filled a normal form, not knowing how long it would take me to replace the damaged passport. It took three months in one case and a year in another that I know of. I was at the point of $#!tting bricks. The application was done online and the website gave me an appointment at the Passport office. When I turned up at the office at the "appointed" time, the guard at the gate asked me to get in line with the others. The "appointment" had practically no meaning. I saw the mile long line outside the passport office. And the bricks plopped out. It would take days just to get to the point of submitting an application. Abandon strategy!

The only way to arrange for a passport within a week was to get one under the Tatkaal scheme. We needed an officer from the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), who could vouch for me through a Verification certificate. Thanks to to help from resourceful acquaintences, I managed one, feeling all special that I could get in touch with "important" people. I was a week away from the decision on my Visa. So something had to happen... and happen fast.

In memory, that weekend was the most tumultuous at A-21 Faculty Qtrs. Tempers were running high and everything I did was fair game for rebuke. And when we went to the Tatkaal section Monday morning, the notion of being special, shattered. I saw a crowd, about as dense as the Majestic Bus stand in Bangalore, running around with similar or better recommendations than I had. The que was not of a few hundred people, just tens of scores.

After about five and a half hours of waiting to submit my application, the guy accepted my application. He asked for documents that were no where on the online checklist. Finally, towards the end of the day application got submitted. But those five and a half hours were interesting.

This sharp looking lady was sitting quite confidently in the center of the office. She must have been about forty. I somehow remembered seeing her on DD1 many years ago, but couldn't really place her. There was this bald and bearded well dressed gentleman who was confidently shaking hands with the Regional Passport officer's personal assistant, the Assistant passport officer, the guy collecting Tatkaal applications, the security staff at the office and virtually everyone of importance in that office. He later stepped in to chat with the Regional passport officer himself. This is very unusual. It's only the higher ups in the IAS that walk in on the Regional Passport officer. They usually don't chat with the "small fry". This man was doing it all. I figured he must be a VERY influential tout. Most others don't have that kind of a reach. I didn't see this man on the subsequent days. Then there was this other lady with two teens. Their passport had to be converted from a minor's passport to a "major's" passport, as opposed to an adult's. hehe. It struck me that I also should know another Public Relations Officer at this office. He was the one granted my request at the Thane office. I always wanted to thank him for his help back then, but I never got a chance. I didn't know If I would.

The day ended. I was happy with the progress. The application was submitted and wheels were in motion. Or so I thought. I met someone else in line the next day, who hadn't received his Tatkaal passport for a year! DAMN! These were supposed to be quicker. There was this other guy who received a passport with his first name and parents' names but someone else's last name and address on it. What was the printer thinking of when he made that passport... Salad?

I was there to see if this quick process could be further expedited. I needed an audience with the RPO. One has to go through the Assistant Passport Officer for this. Once he is convinced that your need is genuine, he takes you to see the RPO, who decrees whether thine passport shall be bestowed sooner than thou had thought.

The Assistant passport officer, let's call him Krishna, came across as exceptionally rude. He was unnescessarily mean to Papa. The first time we spoke, he pretty much brushed me aside. I let it go. While I waited in line outside the office, this lady was in tears and telling her story to anyone who would listen, or wouldn't. She had submitted all her documents in time. Krishna needed a new, essential but missing document everyday, for the past 15 days. She was telling this story to some IT guy whose nephew's passport wouldn't be renewed for some reason. That ten year old wouldn't seem a security threat if you saw him, though some of them might :) The kid couldn't meet his parents for months because his "Tatkaal" passport application was stalled. A stylish man touching middle age in a goatie needed a renewed passport for a business trip. There was this one guy, about my age who seemed to be roaming about the office all the time. Didn't know his story. It was quite a crowd and everyone had their own little story. Mine seemed the least significant of them all.

Around lunch time, I saw the Public relations officer from Thane in the corridor. Let's call him Mr Subhash. He had been the deputing deputy passport officer in his absence. I approached him and he politely motioned to me it was lunchtime. I persisted and opened in Marathi " You might not recognize me but you helped me get my passport in Thane. I really need it for my GRE and you helped when I needed it most." and so on. He seemed delighted to hear Marathi. Papa said to him that I talked about him often, in Hindi. He continued talking to me in Marathi. I understand why he spoke Marathi. It's like me wanting to speak Hindi in Dallas :) And then I showed him my damaged passport that US consulate wanted replaced. He looked at it and said "Can't you glue it back on?" "Not if the US consulate has asked you to replace it." I replied. And then he said something I'll tell you if you ask me in person.

Lunch was over. Because of the agitation being staged for a new state: Telangana, the crowd had thinned out in the office, quite a bit. Krishna called people by name and lined them up for the "audience". He had each individual's file in hand. It was vaguely reminiscent of Schindler's list. The guy with the goatie was behind me. The loafer was next and the 'Salad' guy was somewhere in the mix. The girl ahead of me had to give the GRE in the following week. She had no idea what was wrong with her application. It appeared she didn't even attempt to find out. So when "He" spoke to her he was terse and asked her to find out where the problem is. When it was my turn, with mild histrionics, he said I could collect the passport the day after. The elation was hard to describe. As I walked out, Salad guy smiled and gave me a thumbs up. And I walked out of the office feeling great. But as I'm conditioned to do these days, I wanted to make sure of the passport collection process. I hung around till the end of the day when previous passports got handed out. All I saw was a proper que outside Krishna's office. In terms of graphs, it was a scatter plot of people earlier and now it resembled a curve. The guard asked me to leave soon after because I wasn't collecting that day. Hopeful my stars were well aligned I went home to share the good news. It was striking how efficiently everything worked that day, when there were just fewer people.

It turns out that Sharp lady I talked about was on some cable channel for a couple of years recently. I haven't watched TV in years so, that's not where I remembered her from. The bald bearded guy... never saw him again.

And it also turned out that my passport didn't turn up in the printed section the day after, or the day after that. Goatie man's passport didn't either. Salad man's friend, who as I discovered was a journalist with ToI, launched a complaint against the gross inefficiency of this office. I'm surprised others didn't. Salad man had still not received a corrected passport. The loafer: Razzaq was a great guy who wanted to some training from his company abroad, but couldn't because of passport troubles. He still hadn't received the passport. In short, everyone in that lineup with me, who left that day full of hopes, was playing the waiting game. But luckily, Weeping Lady did receive her passport. \\m//

The last day was a Friday and I was supposed to get it on Monday anyway. I tried to make sure my file was in place at least for that day. For that I spoke to Krishna again. Before I could swim across the scatter plot of people, I had an opportunity to ponder everyone's role in that office. His Highness was in meetings all day. He was constantly receiving important people and their phone calls. He seemed like an upper level Public Relations Officer. Krishna on the other hand was mobbed by people ALL day. Putting oneself in his shoes isn't difficult. Being followed all day long by people who need a favour will drive me nuts within a day. Everyone else was apathetic or just very irritable. Krishna was doing His Highness' work singlehandedly. No wonder he was a little abrasive.We probably need ten of him and fifty more counters to accept and process applications. I had decided to thank him when I'd receive the passport in spite of him. He took me in another lineup to Mr Subhash, who was very nice again and said affectionately "Looks like you won't leave me alone". He was signing the files for passports to be handed out on Monday. I mean this in the best way possible, but I hope I never need his help :)

The Foreign consulate was supposed to reach a decision on my Visa that day. Nothing had changed on the website. I thought I'd wait till Monday. Afterall, it's only Indian Beaurocrats who are a pain. Everyone else is Oh So Efficient. Monday, I received my passport. Krishna was rude again. I changed my mind about thanking him.The Visa status hadn't changed. I was surprised then. In fact, so many days after I have my passport with the Visa Stamp in hand, the website still hasn't updated the status :) In fact I sent them an email regarding this very issue and they asked me to keep checking the status change on the website.   ?????   Oh well.

So, this particular passport office is a mess. The system is designed and equipped to handle far smaller numbers with more flexible deadlines. The sheer number of applications everyday, is crushing. It is a miracle how anything gets through that office at all. It is fair to complain about the state of affairs, but it is essential to do something about it. I did what was in my power: put in suggestions. I just hope someone reads them. Someone just might execute them too. When the Tata's take over in April, things might change. For better or worse, it's hard to say.

The day I received my passport, I bid adieu to Goatie man, Salad man, Razzak, IT guy, the Guard, in fact even the guy at the tea stall outside the passport office. Funny how you can connect with people in the same distress boat over a few days of seeing each other everyday. What is funnier is that in the academic environment of a lab, where a lot of people are in the same distress boat, they occasionally manage NOT to connect with people. This will make an interesting question in human interaction and addressing it using game theory will informative. But never mind nerdy me. All in all, my strength from the previous passport experience was reinforced :D

* Names have been changed and omitted to avoid any possible embarrassment to anyone.