Taxes at work
……or a well-spent afternoon.
In a far corner within the compounds of Bhavani Bhaban – the headquarters of the West Bengal police and well known to to us pre-cable, single -channel Doordarshan viewers as the place where you wrote in information (if you had any) about the missing person whose faded, outdated photo had just been displayed – lies a building rather ambitiously called, the ‘New Building’.
The building houses various government departments, but our target is the 7th floor. To get there you first climb a short flight of stairs to a landing area that smells of piss. Then you chance your luck with the solely functional (among three) rickety, open grilled elevator whose LED display continually performs a vigorous apoplectic display of all floor-numbers in a random manner. So as the various numbers flit by, the only way to know you are at the desired level is by counting, guesswork or familiarity from a previous visit.
We are of course familiar enough with the place, that particular floor having become a veritable pilgrimage within the last few days: A tea/snack/lunch stall boasting a few rickety chairs to the right, and the DIB division of South 24-Parganas district police on the left.
As we move towards the offices, the walls are stained with post-spit beetle juice stains and hastily glued posters that range from wishing everyone ‘Shubho Bijoya’ (leftover from last October no doubt, but soon to be regain chronological context), to exhorting them to donate blood during a special Independence Day function, while a few others warn the innocent people of West Bengal about the imperialistic designs of the evil American butchers (the butcher bit not to be taken literally I suppose).
The offices themselves are a line of thin steel desks, some boasting typewriters that might fetch a pretty amount as antiques at Sothebey’s; adorning the area behind the desks, is the member of the human species that the British so lovingly bequeathed to us – the typical Bengali clerk. And as expected, while clerks are abundant, only one or two are actually doing some work e.g a gentleman religiously drawing tables with a scale and a pencil and filling up the squares in neat handwriting (must be a statement against the evil Microsoft – not using the Table feature on Words). Most others share a dim view of industriousness. One gentleman, I noted, spent an entire hour flicking his pencil towards a goal formed by a Stapler and an imaginary post. Yet another seemed to have been entrusted with the job of finding interesting tidbits from the vernacular daily, Bartaman.
(Images: Sarnath Banerjee)
Then there was the other typical feature of such offices: The humongous number of physical files – and you could be forgiven for suspecting some of them date back to the Raj days – that abound everywhere; heaped from the floor to the ceiling, or on old almirahs reeling and creaking under the pressure, falling upon each other for support. Who knows, what mysteries of governmental functioning could be deduced from those tree-murdering mess mass buried under a few decades of dust and cobwebs ?
Anyhow, we reach this all-important for us office and wait for three and half odd hours. Much like the quest for the ring, we seek a letter – a letter reassuring any inquisitive authorities that my dear wife has been the model citizen in India and had not been charmed by the dark forces, yet – a letter that was supposed to have been done by 12noon.
“Go home sir, I will personally make sure this gets done tonite” a clerk, looking like the one in authority, had assured us the evening before. Turns out, an introduction letter from the former District Magistrate had done the trick, as well as a village connection with my father in law, both originally hailing from Joynagar, famous for its eponymous wintry sweet delicacy. Our file would be pushed faster.
But, fast is a relative term.
And reverence for former higher-ups and geographical ties don’t seem to be enough, as we discover that the dude had taken off early on that previous evening without completing the paperwork and was absent for this day ! Another clerk, harried by the additional workload, would take more time to get everything prepared for the next stage in the journey of our file.
Finally at 330pm, the said file is ready, and we accompany it to another building, five minutes away, one that actually house the SP of South 24-Parganas, and where the final document will be needed to be typed and signed (yes, in triplicate). Once there, we find a major a clerical error – rush back to the seventh floor – the head clerk, to his credit, is extremely understanding and corrects the error. Back to the SP building, they will now type our letter on a ‘computer’ (particular emphasis is laid on that last fact). But first, a young lad, who seems to serve in the capacity of assistant and errand boy for the head clerk, has to write out what is to be typed. This is done on a piece of cyclostyled form (if you can believe that such technology still exists).
Then comes the clanger. A harried blue-shirt comes in saying he cannot seem to work the computer: the template file for our letter is on a CD and the CD isn’t starting and the ‘computer-guy’ has gone home! We are heartbrken – four hours of wait for this ? My wife volunteers to help Turns out that the guy did not even know how to put in the CD correctly !!!! Anyhow, my wife opens up the file for him, volunteers further help, not out of sheer altruism, but out of the selfish knowledge that the work would get done faster. But the guy declines, and as expected we wait 45 minutes for a job that a 5-year old could do in a minute.
However, by this time we have learned the hard lesson of patience being a virtue, especially while dealing with the venerable gorbhmint. The printout eventually comes – we are asked to review the letter: the English is far from Shakespearean but thankfully a step short of legalese, the fingers itch to set right a few grammatical errors, but are too scared to tempt fate. So the letter, imperfections and all, is taken to the SP for signing, along with the all-important ledger that conscientiously keeps records of such activities. Comes back in about 20 minutes – but still, we cant lay our hands on the letter. It has to make its way to the dispatch section. Around 5.30pm, resigned and dejected that we would not be able to go through with our planned next stage for the day – a cold, calculated attack on the Regional Passport Office to convince them to part with yet a different piece of paper certifying we aren’t vile criminals – we are finally rewarded a shiny signed, dispatched and duly recorded letter.
After some profuse thanking, both in action and deeds, we depart into the gory mess that is Kolkata traffic.
All this would have been one of my all-so-frequent rants, or even comic, if it were not for the sad fact that I believe we were rather lucky to have got the job done in the short time we did. I saw other people, people who had come long distances, from villages, with far less means and not knowing anyone who can ‘influence’ the process, trying to get their work done in a timely fashion, but held up on minor bureaucratic trivialities. Such, as it is, is life on the fast-lanes of Kolkata bureaucracy.
(Tomorrow: showdown at passport office)
(And I have left out all the juicy bits about the absolutely unnecessary clutter of paperwork that had accompanied the file everywhere)