I’m sitting in a police station watching as the police officer in charge slams an elderly woman to the ground. He holds her down as they scream at each other in Hindi. For a moment the station freezes, everyone is transfixed by the scene—abuses echoing into every dusty corner and out the smashed waiting room window.
Why am I here? Because, as per the rules in India’s convoluted bureaucracy, I need to get an official police letter stating that I lost a document. A document urgently needed by a different flailing arm on the bureaucratic beast.
During my time in India I’ve had countless confusing dances with bureaucracy: getting visas, extending visas, renting houses, getting mobile phone SIM cards, internet connections and a gazillion other things I’ve avoided doing to escape looking at any more forms.
All these interactions have required forms, and stamps, and signatures, and online submissions, and offline queries, and photocopied documents and countless passport photos.
If the Modi government keeps its promise to cut a little fat from the obscenely morbidly obese—like Jabba the Hutt-obese—bureaucracy here, the passport photo industry could collapse. And that would be a travesty. I like those guys—they even airbrush you, getting rid of stray hairs and monsoon-pimples. Although they can’t do much about the stinking glare, brought on by having to get yet another set of passport photos. Please, just print me 10,000 to last this month.
Sometimes I don’t know if the private sector is really that much more efficient, as it always claims to be, so smug and superior. Mobile phone contracts are nightmares from the depths of Hell no matter what country you’re signing them in—and they’re dreamt up by the gargoyles who run private companies, lurking as they do atop sky-rise office towers.
I had to extend my pre-paid phone SIM the other day because it’s timed to self-destruct when my visa runs out. The zombie-eyed Airtel customer support officer ‘ummed’ and ‘aahed’ before telling me I needed to fill more forms, photocopy more documents, and visit my beloved passport photo taking shop once again to get a new contract. And there would be a three-day wait before my SIM would be activated.
Why? “Because it’s the procedure,” he tells me. “But the procedure is a gargoyle’s cruel fantasy come to life, likely with an official stamp and signature in some manual somewhere,” I whine. “It’s the procedure,” he repeats, zombie-eyes widening, as if fearing I might be one of those types, who’ll come at him over the desk and try to cram a mobile phone down his throat, or beat him with their crumpled forms in frustration.
In all my bureaucratic dealings I’ve never had to visit a police station until the day I “misplaced” some document somewhere and suddenly needed it.
The police officer eventually gets off the old woman, who fixes her sari and retreats to a bench in the waiting room opposite me with her gaggle of elderly friends.
I feel compromised—wanting to stand up for her rights but knowing I need the police officer who tackled her to sign this stupid crucial letter. I throw the women a sympathetic glance. They promptly stop chattering and shouting and zero in on me.
There is something a little off about the way they stare. I’m thinking about this when they begin clicking their tongues to get my attention. I pretend to look at something ‘deeply interesting’ on my phone.
“Helloooo baby,” the old woman who fought the police officer coos in a voice that the creepiest man couldn’t pull off. Oh no. It dawns on me that they must think I’m some Russian prostitute who’s been pulled in by the cops, and they’re probably about to try and recruit me into some kind of sex ring. Nobody outside of the sex industry says “helloooo baby” and makes faces like that. Nobody.
I flee the waiting room and position myself directly opposite the police officers that are quarantined from the chaos of the station by their glass-walled office. They sit in a row—all signing and stamping official letters for various different documents that countless people have lost. It only takes 45 minutes for them to type, print, sign and stamp mine. And then I’m off, on to the next stop to drop off more documents and get the next set of stamps and signatures.
Under The India Sun– Column By Alys Francis