“Officially, हे नाही होनार (this cannot happen)!”, the words of the officer speaking in Marathi (regional language of Maharashtra) resonates deep down into my unconscious. It takes a while to come out of the volcanic tremors of the past; but it is so real that I feel a little dizzy sitting on that shaky wooden chair in the office of a government department, affectionately called “Foreigner’s Registration Office (FRO)”. The office is clean with some really old wooden furniture located hidden behind tall trees next to the police commissioner of Bombay’s office. It has no air-conditioning and it is dimly lit as if it was deliberate, to frustrate all the foreigners not only due to the lack of cool air but also to hide the monkey business going on there in the absence of adequate lighting. Foreigners from almost all countries are fried on the top floor of this building who come to register themselves if they wish to stay in the country more then the allowed six months. Not surprisingly, there is a separate floor dedicated to deal with foreigners who claim to be either from Pakistan or Bangladesh, the adorable neighbors. Although, the lighting in this office is dim, most people seem very comfortable in maneuvering themselves from one desk to another. It is only later that I am made aware that these are the “agents” who can get the job done for you in this office without much pain and agony by accepting small gifts from you (only in dollars) as a token of appreciation towards beating the system. There are plenty of people waiting in that decent sized room, foreigners as well as locals, as the cacophonous ringing of the mobile phones echoes all around, adding some fresh dose of annoyance to an already exasperated ambience. People are not very considerate when it comes to speaking softly on their mobile phones, forget about switching them off or putting it on silent mode in public places. It is also apparent that most people talk the loudest when the matter to be discussed is the most trivial. They must be getting a sense of pride by exhibiting their presence, begging to be noticed for their melodious voice and the ability to deal with multiple situations at the same time in a hot and faintly lit room. Why do we endeavor so hard to show the world that we exist? But, having abandoned the desire to understand the psyche of the multitude since the beginning of this year and solely focusing on my personal neurosis, I choose to be indifferent to the sounds and more importantly the mundane affairs of my brethren, surrounding me that fateful day.
Coming back to the present, the infamous words “Officially, हे नाही होनार” rings a bell and I get a little tense. Coming back to my senses, I realize the hidden meaning behind that sorry statement. The haunted memories of the past flash back in my little mind, sending strong messages to my stomach, making it twitch right away. I am suddenly transported back to reality, as I realize the intense need to deal with this uncomfortable situation which has arisen. I try to look directly into the eyes of the officer who boldly claims that registering a foreigner cannot be done in this office, while as I understand it, the sole purpose for the office to exist is to register foreigners as dictated by an unanimous charter signed by the parliament of the Republic of India. The officer pretentiously acts unaware of such a law thus technically rebelling the decision of the whole country since the charter was formulated by the country’s representatives in the parliament. As I should have guessed, he chooses to pretend he is busy with a pile of paperwork in front of his desk, thus avoiding any eye contact, hopefully because of some guilt and partially because he wants to play the game of bribery. Looking at the officer is a grave mistake as I come across an ugly sight, equally ugly, if not more, than the situation I am dealing with. Studying the peripherals of the man in front of me starts giving me a small migraine. He has a huge dark face with potholes all over it. His lips are red in color because of the addictive habit of chewing the beetle-leaf. He has a big nose with strings of hair dropping down from the nostrils, aligning with his nicely trimmed mustache. Being an office, which deals with a lot of foreigners, he is obliged to wear a necktie, which I am guessing is one of the gifts he has received from his client. The shirt and the necktie seem to be the only two things which look appropriate on this holy man who wears an exquisite watch in his right arm, right below the cuff of his elegant looking bush-shirt, displaying his style and penchant for acquiring expensive possessions, perhaps from unclear sources. He also has the latest Nokia mobile phone stuck in his shirt pocket, adding charm to his already smile-less face and a corrupt mind. His stomach shamelessly boasts of an unrestrained appetite which when carefully observed, depicts the stuffing of at least two & a half footballs. I consciously choose to ignore looking down further. The game has begun and there is no looking back now. He has nothing to loose. We don’t have much time, because the wife and I have to leave in the next few days on a trip to our ancestral state of Gujarat. It is important that the job of registering the wife, who although was born in India, is technically a foreigner now, as she has formally abandoned her Indian citizenship to become a naturalized denizen of an affluent country. The officer obviously is not interested in our affairs, as he wants to see some greenery on his side.
I finally roll up my sleeves as I realize I will have to deal with this ugly and unnecessary situation, the tact for which I had forgotten after living in a structured country where everything works in a systematic order for the last ten years. I revive my arsenal for this disgraceful and uncalled mutiny using the memories of my past. I decide at the same time as I see his titillating necktie hiding his Adam’s apple that I am not giving him a single dime or nickel or penny or for that matter a single paisa for getting a job done for which he is already paid a salary by the government. I also decide that if push comes to shove, I am going to walk into his superior’s office and like the people who talk loudly on their mobile phones, expose the officer’s corrupt attempt at extracting unjustified monies from us, making sure to create a scene. This is always the last step in such a conflict – because it can either lead to a quick solution or can put the entire matter in a unrecoverable mess, which takes a long time to clear only after the intervention of “political saints”. The risks are high in this ultimate choice. So, I start my arguments very gently, indicating that this process has been done in the past by many foreigners, indirectly indicating I am unwilling to pay anything. He chooses a different approach and tries various methods to indicate that the Indian visa stamp on the wife’s passport has some restrictions, which even the ministry of home affairs cannot change in India. He boldly claims we will have to go back to States and get a new visa stamp which will be more expensive than paying him for his next Rolex watch. He drops the ball back in our court so as to make the next move. In my mind, I want to pick the ball and smash his face, but being considerate towards the image of a non-violent country as advertised by Mahatma Gandhi; I revert back to the game of words. I fake my emotion and clearly indicate that I have selected my final answer and that he has to “find an option” to get the job done completely aware that the job does not involve sending the space shuttle Columbia back into space, but a mere signing of an incongruent document as required by the bureaucracy of the world’s largest democracy. Both of us keep bouncing words and arguments to support our side to lengthen the game. He continues ignoring my statements as he attempts to educate me that we are asking him for the impossible, giving us a subtle hint that he is our only savior who can lead us to paradise. The game is getting dull as neither of us is ready to submit and it finally seems that we have come to the tie-breaking set, where I carefully allow him to play the decisive final shot. He falls for the trap as he shamelessly declares that we will have to pay him a certain absolute value in cash (in foreign currency) and only then will he get the registration done right away. I had planned for this moment, as I now see some light at the end of the tunnel. I sit back, relax a little, suddenly desire a cigar in my hand to cherish the moment and gently raise the pitch of my voice making sure a few people around us can hear but not enough to create any commotion in the office. I remind him that earlier he had completely denied registering the wife’s name which is a government requirement and now he is falsely demanding money from us which is unfair and we think it is only appropriate to take the “matter to higher authorities”. This move seems to work, as the officer finally realizes the futility of pursuing his greedy strategy with us. I can see the pupil of his eyes becoming equally red as his tongue. In an unabashed act of shame and disgust, he submits and reluctantly finishes his job responsibilities with a crooked face, which unbelievably makes him look human for the first time since our arrival in his kingdom of chaos. Our eyes meet for the first time and I feel sorry for him for his ignorant ways of making a living. Like a defeated king he makes his final declaration: “I am saving you a lot of money as I approve your application, otherwise usually I charge at least sixty-five dollars for every extra day you wish to stay in this country”. He wants to be the dominant opponent even after the game is over and I let him, refraining to explain that I was not here to play the game to begin with – I was forced into this debacle. I am realizing that certain messages are better communicated through the silence of the mind rather than any moral preaching, advocacy or punishments.
We walk away to the brightness of the beautiful warm daylight. Finally, there is some fresh and “uncorrupted” air to breathe – although I cannot say the same about the people around me in this self proclaimed religious country. The whole experience leaves us with a bitter taste – perhaps the taste of the betel-leaf from our friendly officer who wants to exploit the loosely defined rules of a freshly progressive country. In the spirit of optimism, I choose to ignore this taste knowing that sometimes ugly habits take time to change. It is very easy to feel the ugliness of a developing country as it removes the old skin off its back to wear the new one; while missing the finer changes happening in the grand scheme of things. Hope is a good thing, especially when accompanied by its faithful sisters – adequate planning, diligent work and perseverance. I may be naive, but I am hopeful for an ancient country which like any other is only trying to fit wealth, politics, government, religion, sex, greed, education, poverty etc. under the same umbrella of abundance and prosperity. We walk down to the corner of the road and catch the popular red colored public transport bus to go home and have lunch with the family trying to forget the red color and the bitter taste of greed & frustrations for a little while.