Friday, November 09, 2007

The Passport: Doosra

So I’m STILL at the Indian High Commission, on a freezing cold morning, here to get the document that defines my patriotic feeling within its blue covers.

I want to step back and talk about the building itself. India House sits snugly in the half moon roundabout at the centre of Aldwych, right next to the BBC’s Bush House. It is an imposing building in many ways, its oversized proportions and faded grey fa├žade hiding some nice detail that you would not notice unless you were looking. But make no mistake - this is very much prime central London real estate. My nana worked here for a few years in the 1950’s and in some strange way that makes me feel a little nostalgic. Every time I pass it I think of him and how his life in London must have been and how different mine is in comparison. And it makes me miss him and all the wonderful grandfatherly things he did to enrich my childhood.

So standing there this crystal clear morning I am thinking about him and how bleeding cold it is. I’ve been here since 7.15 or so. After the inane conversation about Jawaharalal Nehru being Gand-I, I have gone back to my book.

At about 9am the main door opens and the line of visa-seekers enters in an orderly fashion, collecting tokens as they file in. The Indians are left to languish in the cold for a further half hour. We get to 9.30am and the closed windows in front of which we are lined up finally open. We are rushed forward by a bouncer like characters and no questions asked, randomly handed out blue or pink numbered tokens by two people sitting on the arm side of the windows. Token and documents in hand it’s the usual push through the doors, an impatience that marks our Indian-ness as we stumble down the stairs trying to be FIRST. I have a blue token.

Downstairs it somehow reminds me of being in Nirula’s¹ sans the food. A hall lined with rows of chairs, nearly all taken by the visa-seeking firangs, and token numbers flashing on boards to beckon people to the correct neatly glassed in counter. The desi brigade has descended into this orderly world and within seconds is swarming past the lines of shocked firangs to the desk-turned-counter in the corner, ugly and long enough to comfortably seat 2 people behind it, protected from these masses with only a flimsy glass panel in front of it. Two hand written signs, one over each window, proclaim ‘Consular services’ and ‘Passports’. Of course no one is manning either window, the 3 chairs behind the counter waiting patiently for the babu’s to finish breakfast. There are only about 4 chairs in the general seating left for any of us to sit on and in the mad scramble of having been left behind the collected herd at the windows I find myself in fortunate possession of one of these.

I often think I am chosen for strange encounters. I find myself seated between a young lady Indian doctor (come to get an extension booklet) and a hulking man who informs me he is from the Jodhpur royal family (there to get a passport for his wife). Young lady doctor and I are about the same age. We get talking and she tells me how she is completing her specialization at the Royal Free in Hampstead and how she misses India. I concur and we swap stories about where we are from, where we grew up, what we miss most. Hulk is determined to talk to us so he begins a long dissertation on how he has come down from near Manchester where is a big man in construction and how he has played polo with Prince Charles and how he has produced a Indian English film and how he has a pad in Belgravia where he stayed last night and how it is really useful to keep the apartment with a butler for whenever he is down in London. We try to ignore him and continue our conversation but he insists on showing us the 4 passport sized pictures of his wife and asking us if we don’t think she is the most beautiful woman we have ever seen. Then he tells us how she is a Princess and how they had an arranged marriage and she came to be a housewife after a lifetime of being waited upon and how beautiful a son she has produced as an heir to his empire and how wonderful and in love a couple they are. I’ll admit she is quite lovely. But this early in the morning I feel a bit ill and suffocated from all this information being stuffed down my throat. Mental note to self to Google him to see if any of it is true.

The visa lot are fast diminishing, a process helped by the efficient looking people at the nice formal counters. The lit up numbers are charging ahead in swift succession, giving the impression of efficiency and decorum and neat-as-a-pin machinery. It’s well past 10am but there is no sign of anyone coming near the counter for Indian people. The lone security guard manning the door behind the counter keeps telling us to maintain order and be seated (on what? the floor?) as “sahib is just coming”. The desi crew is now sweltering in the overheated space and bunched up-ness of having to stand next to each other, working themselves into a frenzy of high pitched voices and some abuse towards the incompetence of the system.

As for my blue token and I, we remain calm in this sea of madness. How much longer?

Nana: Maternal grandfather
Firang: Foreigner

¹Nirula’s (if memory stands the test of time) is the first fast food joint I remember from my childhood in Delhi. A Delhi institution in its day, it was (and is) famous for its Hot Chocolate Fudge (commonly called an HCF), a sundae par none. I recall that at the time it was a revolutionary idea: you had to go and order your food at a till from menu’s displayed above the food counters, pay up and sit at your table to wait for your number to appear on an electronic board. No waiters, no printed paper menu’s and a board full of fun things such as ‘cheeseburgers’, ‘double cheeseburgers’, ‘triple cheeseburgers’ and 31 flavours of ice cream. So popular was Nirula’s that you always went in a group, most people grabbed a table, one person went to the till to order while the others protected their seat. Yet more groups came and watched you eat while looming over your heads trying to make you feel guilty for taking SO LONG to eat. I loved it all, the pressure of saving a seat, eating quickly or not, the ‘cool’ food, the semi-afordable prices and especially that HCF.

9 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:39 AM

    My question exactly!!! How much longer? till we get to the next post...40in2006

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  2. So did you Google him? Or are you saving that for post #29 in the series

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  3. Patience Ladies.....whats the rush?

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  4. Oh, my father worked at India House in the late fifties and early sixties. He remembers a firang coming to the canteen everyday and dousing his food with red chilli powder and then eating it with tears streming down his cheeks.
    Oh to be in Saaddi Dilli and eat HCF at Nirulas!
    Patiently awaiting next instalment:)

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  5. So...didja google him? Was his story surprisingly true?

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  6. Things never change.
    Here's my post on the topic.

    http://mumbaiwallah.blogspot.com/2005/09/remedy-for-nostalgia.html

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  7. rosa not so rose4:44 PM

    lol, everyone seems to be asking the same thing: didja google him??

    and yeah, saddi dilli's undergoing so many changes. come, i'll give thee a tour :)

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  8. Dipali: It's quirky memories like your dad's that make my day! And I love sadda dilli...

    Shakester: Deep sigh my friend deep sigh!

    Nee: As I said above - patience. And where is your promised post?

    MW: I had already read your post previously. Sadly there was more hideousness to come for me....

    Rosa: I shall take you up on that Dilli tour offer! Metro and Parathewali galli maybe? Or karims?

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