Travel Trolls

It is fashionable to be critical of government agencies and departments. But there are occasions when we have to be thankful to them for the kind of services they render. For instance, this week’s column couldn’t have been written but for the help of the local passport office, which employs officers who can, in comparison, make the police team that shot dead dreaded brigand Veerappan look total softies.

But some backstory: Recently I was at the office for renewing my passport that had become invalid a few months ago. I had opted for Tatkal renewal, which I would recommend to anyone looking for a quick and efficient way to spike up their BP levels.

The online process to fix the appointment time at the passport office though was simple and efficient, and the biggest surprise for a government-run website was that it did not insist on the use of Internet Explorer. But it is a fact that even if Microsoft winds up, 100 years later some Indian government agency will still be on IE version 3.

Anyway, I was asked to show up between 11 and 11.15 a.m., and I was there 10 minutes before the scheduled hour, which you veterans would know is a huge mistake. It turns out that ‘appointed time’ is something that crossword-setters can use as a synonymous clue for ‘practical joke’. For, the Tatkal counter at the passport office is operated on a first-come-first-serve basis and there is no sanctity for the time you had fixed for appointment. The passport website may have moved on, but the actual office is still stuck in the metaphorical Internet Explorer era.

And as it always happens with me, those who had booked slots for the day had all managed to show up much before I did. This meant I had to wait for long on a hot summer morning. Luckily, the office had centralised AC. But unluckily, it wasn’t working that day. I could see five counters in front of me. I could also see that only one had a human manning it. And he turned out to be a person who needed emergency treatment for terminal attention disorder. He would look at the paper presented to him for the good part of a whole second before he would be overcome by all the effort and feel the need to take a deserved break to attend to the WhatsApp messages on his phone. Then he vamoosed totally from the counter for several minutes and come back with a thoroughly disgruntled face as it was us who had kept him waiting all the time.

They have compartmentalised the Tatkal system at the passport office, wherein first there is a counter, and then you have to move to another room to meet three other officers, each sitting a table apart. Here I am producing a clear and full list of what to do at the counter and then at the room with the 3 different officers:

To the counter person: Show your ‘address proof’ and other documents.

To officer 1: Show your ‘address proof’ and other documents.

To officer 2: Show your ‘address proof’ and other documents.

To officer 3: Show your ‘address proof’ and other documents.

Each one will stamp your papers one over the other and make them a garbled mess and no one can say what the papers actually contain.

Since the Tatkal system does not have any police verification, they have come up with this alternate approach, wherein four persons sitting besides each other go about their jobs with unthinking severity. Also, you would feel like a total idiot proferring the same set of papers to people who, going by their facial expressions, are basically doing a big service by even deigning to be in the same room as that of you. All through, their disinterest and coldness was that of one who had been just told that the only in-flight video entertainment available was vayalum vazhvum.

For Tatkal renewal, by rules, I had to show two proofs for the address of my residence. I presented to them ny Aadhaar card (in which I look like Robert Mugabe) and bank passbook. One look at the passbook, the lady officer did something that I didn’t believe she was capable of: She smiled a bit. Probably that was out of pity at my bank balance.

Then she looked at me, and said, “we can’t accept this, your last passbook ‘entry’ is three months old.”

But you have to look at the address only, no, I asked feebly.  Also, the passbook isn’t updated because I get my bank work done online, I added. But the officer would have nothing of it, she brushed aside my papers with the firmness of Donald Trump rejecting the Paris ‘climate agreement’. But I had a backup: Out of my file, I produced copies of gas cylinder bill, which is also one of the documents accepted as address proof.

But the officer wanted three different bills, each one, as per government regulations, photostated and self-attested. Luckily, I had them. But the last bill was dated  April 2017, and we were in June. “Why so much gap? Don’t you people cook at home or you just eat at hotels?”she asked casually with the insensitivity that government servants come up with ever so naturally.  Her next question was, why do you look like Mugabe in your Aadhaar card.

Okay, not really. She was done with me and sent me to the other officer, who looked at me as if I was an IS recruit looking to somehow get hold of a passport. But despite them trying their best, my papers were in order, and they eventually had to okay them.

The next day the passport duly arrived. Just as well. Because I needed it urgently for, well, as an address proof to renew my driver’s licence.