I hadn't expected my second visit to India to start a month before I flew there, but it did, and in true Indian style. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Indian High Commission in London.
Getting a tourist visa can be one of the great hurdles of modern travelling, as anyone who has tried to travel through Africa will tell you. Some countries insist on reams of paperwork, backed up with an entire album of photographs, before they'll even consider letting you darken their door, where some don't even bother to look up from their newspapers as you wander through the 'Nothing to Declare' channel, but so far on my travels I can't remember actively enjoying the visa process before. For my first trip to India, I didn't get the six-month visa myself, as the Thai travel agent from whom I bought my flight to Calcutta offered a visa service at a very reasonable fee; perhaps, if I had, I'd have wondered just what I was letting myself in for.
They say that the ground on which an embassy stands is considered to be a part of that embassy's country, and while this might legally be the case, it's still only conceptual. The Indian High Commission in Aldwych is surely the exception, because from the moment you step through the door to the moment you emerge, three hours later, clutching your passport and your aching sides, you feel not only have you just been transported directly into the madness of India, but also that you nearly didn't get back. It's a hoot, and I highly recommend the Indian visa process as a thoroughly realistic introduction to the insanity that makes India such a great destination.
It starts off with the queue, which snakes out of the High Commission's visa application door, across India Place, onto the curve of Aldwych, past the front door of India House, past the front door of the BBC World Service, and if you're lucky enough to witness a really healthy queue, all the way to the back doors of Australia House. Luckily this part of the visa process is most definitely on British soil, so the queue is orderly, tidy and almost smug in the knowledge that, despite the sight of people stretching out as far as the eye can see, everyone is perfectly happy to stand in line, waiting for things to move along. Sure, there's the odd person who joins the end and can't quite believe that this really is the queue for tourist visas, but any frustrations are short-lived, because even out here, the helpless resignation one feels when confronted with Indian bureaucracy starts to creep in. Happily, it's also where the fun starts.
At 8.35am I joined the queue outside the main entrance to the BBC's Bush House – where, incidentally, I worked for two years before escaping to West Africa – and instantly made some friends. Behind me was a charming Sikh gentleman from Gravesend whose eyes smiled whenever he spoke of Amritsar, and behind him was a delightful Indian man from Harrow, who turned out to be an expert on the Indian visa process, having stood in this very queue more times than he could accurately remember. They had both moved to England at different times in the 1960s but had gone back to their homeland on many occasions since, and we idled away the time talking about India and how much we loved the place, despite – or, perhaps, because of – the kind of madness that we were about to jump into.
It might have been the entertaining conversation, but despite the immense length of the queue, we made swift progress, and by 9.20am we'd shuffled back past the BBC, past the entrance to India House, past a smaller queue that my new friend from Harrow told me was for enquiries about Indian passports rather than tourist visas, into India Place and up to a small window by the back door of the High Commission. This was where the first cracks started to appear in the neat queuing system that everyone had, by this time, grown rather accustomed to.
'Yes,' said the man on the other side of the tiny window that separates Indian territory from the logic of London. It sounded more like a statement than a question.
'Um, yes,' I replied. 'I'm here to get two tourist visas for India. Hopefully, anyway.'
The man picked up two yellow tickets from a pile, spun them through the small well under the window, and flicked his hand sideways towards the entrance. And with that, I had my tickets for one of the most amazing thrill rides you can find on diplomatic soil, so I took a deep breath and jumped in feet first.
The tickets the man had given me – one for each passport – contained two numbers, D6 and D7, and said that my applications would be processed between 10.30am and 11.00am. They didn't say quite how this process would occur, but my friends and I followed the queue upstairs and into a doorway, where the madness of what would be our home for the next few hours revealed itself. For on the other side of this doorway was what can only be described as bedlam.
'Please move forward!' came a shout from the bottom of the stairs, but the queue was stuck, and nobody quite knew what to do. The security guard from the back door stomped up the stairs, looked at me standing in the doorway and pointed inside. 'Go that way, inside,' he said, and the slight semblance of order onto which we'd been clinging fell apart as the queue disintegrated and we shuffled bang into a group of people who were crowding round a small window, right next to the entrance.
'35, 56, 57, 68!' yelled a woman's voice through a crackling loudspeaker above the window, in the kind of tone that sounds like the back of a hand thwacking you out of a childhood reverie. '45, 46, 55!' it continued, while crowds buffeted us about like driftwood on the Ganges.
'This way,' said my Sikh friend, and pointed into the corner, where our neighbour from Harrow was trying to squeeze away from the chaos. We climbed behind a row of seats that was full of people but kept the pressure of the growing crowd off us, and once on the other side of this barrier we managed to get a little breathing space as well as a good view of the room.
It was absolute madness. There were rows of plastic seats, all full, with people standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisles and in big clumps in front of the row of six counters along the side of the room. At the other end of the room, another four counters seemed to be even more crowded, and all the while the crush by the entrance teemed with people arriving from the outside, only to be met with the kind of crowd you associate more with last orders on a Friday night.
'We have to wait for the number over there,' said the man from Harrow, pointing to a decrepit indicator in the far corner of the room. Along the top were five letters, A to E, with the letter B lit up, and underneath was the number 60. It buzzed, and the number flipped over to 61.
'What number are you?' I asked the Sikh.
'D3, D4 and D5,' he replied. 'Some time to go, then.'
'Yeah,' I thought, calculating that with 99 numbers per letter, we had just over 140 people in front of us in the queue. I glanced up at the clock on the wall, which said five past four, and idly wondering why they'd set the clocks to show Indian time, I asked the man from Harrow how long he normally had to wait.
'It varies,' he said. 'An hour, maybe?'
And so we waited while the numbers ticked slowly by, the crowds got thicker and the bemusement on people's faces slowly turned to amazement that this bizarre place was, indeed, the queue for Indian tourist visas.
To the Counter
On the way in, I'd noticed a dull ache in my stomach that I vaguely recognised, but it wasn't until I was being buffeted around by the crowd that I realised I was trying hard not to laugh. The sides of my mouth involuntarily twitched upwards, and a familiar feeling from my last visit to India crept up on me. There's a wonderful release that occurs when you realise the path of least resistance is the only sane option, and once you decide to float along the river instead of trying to swim upstream, life suddenly makes much more sense.
'It's a game,' pointed out my friend from Harrow, and I couldn't help agreeing as the counter clicked round from B99 to C01 and we let out a little cheer. Time goes so much faster when you're having fun, and at times the counter seemed to be racing along; partly this was because each number represents one application form – so if someone has five passports, one for each member of a family, then the counter jumps forward five places once they've been processed – but mainly it was because I'd moved on from thinking about deadlines and processes, and now viewed the whole system as an entertaining whole, much like a Heath Robinson contraption or an Escher painting. As the numbers climbed towards D6, we got more and more excited, like children in the queue for the biggest ride at Disneyland.
When the counter reached C90, we starting edging forward towards the chaos of the counters, and as soon as it flipped over to D01 – again, accompanied by a little cheer – we headed for the front line. I glanced at the clock, which still stubbornly insisted that it was five past four, and then at my watch, which said 10.45am. We'd been waiting for our numbers to come up for nearly an hour and a half, and suddenly the pressure was on.
It turned out that the crowds milling around the counters were mainly people still engulfed in their own private stakeout of the number counter, people who had tried to queue up at the counters only to be told in no uncertain terms that they had to wait for their number to come up, and that they should 'take a seat' (this said with no hint of irony). The lady who was manning the counter nearest the entrance had obviously been chosen for her ability to take no shit off anyone, because people kept asking her what on earth they were supposed to do, and she was clearly growing tired of having to tell them to wait their turn. She'd even put up a sign on her counter saying 'No Enquiries', but this didn't stop people asking her what was going on, and it didn't stop her staring at them with a look that would wither limbs, before shouting at them to 'take a seat and wait for your number to come up.' I figured I'd take my chances with the next-door booth, whose proprietor seemed a lot cooler.
Unfortunately he also turned out to be a lot slower than his manic neighbour, and it didn't help that the queuing system at the counters involved the traditional Indian method of pushing in from all directions and completely failing to observe any kind of order. Luckily the individuals concerned managed to cling on to some sense of decorum, and a very kind man let me go in front of him because my queue number was before his, and the official behind the counter took my forms, photographs, passports and money, and started tapping into a computer.
A couple of minutes later he handed me two printed receipts and said, 'One hour,' and left it at that. Luckily I knew what he was talking about; he meant than in about an hour, my number would be called out by the woman whose loudspeaker had greeted us on the way in, and in theory I'd then get my passports back, custom-fitted with Indian tourist visas. I smiled my thanks, took a last breath and dived back into the melee, heading back to the corner where we'd watched the numbers flipping past.
The minutes continued to tick by, even though the clock on the wall still insisted that it was five past four. The crowds grew and shrank, and the parade of confused and bewildered visa-seekers continued to pour into the room, all of them going through exactly the same process that I'd gone through an hour-and-a-half before. People scribbled on visa forms – I was very glad I'd downloaded my forms from the High Commission's website and filled them in at home – and others joined the small queue at the first counter, only to get yelled at to 'take a seat.' It appeared to be mayhem, but underlying the mayhem, there was clearly a method at work, even if the method felt more like madness.
Of course, this is a fantastic idea. What better way to prepare potential visitors for the daily fascination that is India than to subject them to the Indian visa process? I can't think of anything more effective than to take a bunch of people off the streets of London, crowd them into a dusty and slightly weather-beaten room with a broken clock on the wall, expose them to a mysteriously bureaucratic system that ticks along in its own way but is never explained to anyone trying to follow it, and all the while bombard them with cryptic number counters, loudspeakers shouting out random digits, and counter staff whose advice is to take a seat in a room where seats are as rare as hen's teeth. The staff must be very proud, because in one fell swoop they've managed to crystallise everything about India that makes it what it is – it's bonkers and brilliant at the same time, much like the mother country.
I was so happy in my little daze, watching the Indian visa machine at work, that I almost missed the loudspeaker shouting out my numbers. I glanced at the clock – it was still five past four – and tried to push my way through the crowd of people blocking the counter where the loudspeaker yelled, 'D6, D7!' The crowd parted, I handed my receipts to the lady, she checked through three piles of passports before finding mine, and a few seconds later she handed over my passports, complete with the tourist visas I needed (which I was careful to check before leaving the building). I waved at the man from Harrow and headed down the stairs, pushing my way through the crowd of people who were just starting their own personal visa vigil. My watch said 11.35am, exactly three hours since I'd joined the queue outside the BBC, and with that I slipped outside and back into London.
Outside I bumped into my Sikh friend, who was also checking his passports, and as we shook hands, we smiled with the camaraderie of those who have just survived a major onslaught. Somehow, as I walked to the tube station, the world didn't seem quite as bright as it had inside the dingy High Commission, but deep in my stomach I could feel the ache of India waiting to burst out, and I realised that even though I still had a month to go, my trip to the subcontinent had already started.