In the un-outsourced days of yore, Shastri Bhavan was the Chennai local office of Hell. Additionally, the elusive tatkal passport application was the modern day version of the deal with the Devil. The most I was told about the battle ahead was, “Ey, you’ll have to take lots of printouts, okay.”

The first thing to know about a bureaucracy is that it loves and the important look of five million files on the desk. The Form is an innocuous-looking sheet of paper with a monstrous capacity to inflict trauma.

The average tatkal passport application required one to first fill out an online form, which was to be then attached to a donkeyload of other forms, all of them duly attested by gazetted officers and a suspicious humanoid called the notary public. I realized how important it was for a citizen to preserve little paper trails of existing as so-and-so in such-and-such place at such-and-such time. I found myself reduced to receipts, outdated ID cards and letters signed and stamped over and over by officious characters.

Annexure monsters

Specifically, there were two forms with particular malevolent force – they were called Annexure I and Annexure F.

Annexure I required the applicant to spend a day at Saidapet’s district court, trying not to get ambushed by questionable characters who offered, among other things, signatures of district judges and magistrates, various IAS officers and notary publics, all at very-very-good-price-madam-only-300-rupees.

Annexure F was a certificate that verified the good moral conduct of the applicant. Mind you, good moral conduct can be authenticated only by a gazetted officer, a breed specially developed to divine any criminal tendency or political tomfoolery in the applicant.

After wrangling with all those forms, the grand finale was to take place at Shastri Bhavan. I was advised to appear early for the appointment, so with visions of glory, I walked briskly towards the wrought iron gates of Empire. I had arrived, I was going to have that bally passport in my hand soon.

The passport applicant queue snaked down three floors of the building and out through the entrance, around a cluster of flowerpots, through a row of parked cars, stopping just a few feet away from me.

Missing ears

Within Shastri Bhavan are resident officials who uniformly cultivate a filthy temper as well as the obstinate refusal to speak English words apart from “You just come tomorrow” and “Murali, first you bring the file, ya!”

I respectfully offered up my passport dossier to one such descendant who went through it cursorily.

“Ears enge ?” he asked suddenly. I thought I had misheard the question. Then he repeated in English, “Where are your ears, ma?”

Fearing they might have fallen off somewhere amidst the jostling queues, my hand shot up to my head to indicate where the ears usually were. The officer impatiently shook his head and pointed at my photograph. “Where your ears are? I can’t see them.”

As if to spite me, my ears had purposefully gone to the back of my head when the photo was taken, making me look like I had completed the job Van Gogh had left half done. The officer commanded, “Now you take another photo and come tomorrow. Next person come please!” I flattened my nose against the glass barrier and looked imploringly at him. “Sir, please…” I choked feebly. He looked up and waved at the person behind me, muttering “Kadavale! Muruga! Saaami!”

Bleak victory

The crusade ended slowly and gracelessly. When I finally collected my passport from the post office, I was conscious of some victory too wretched to celebrate. Never has citizenship weighed more heavily upon me.

These days, when I meet fellow students about to take off to some foreign land, I defer compliments till I ask them, “I take it you have a passport then?”

(Rihan is a student of the Humanities Department, IIT. This article first appeared in IIT’s student paper, The Fifth Estate .)