Like many Indians, I try to have as little personal contact with our bureaucracy. Keeping them at digital arm’s length works best for me. They’re disembodied, like my tax man or woman, whom I never have to set eyes on or sit across the table. I don’t have the necessary crores to perk up their interest.
Unfortunately, for something legal, I had to break my aversion for personal contacts. I need a piece of paper signed by someone. I visit the authority closest to my address. It’s a neglected building set in an unkempt compound; a few stray dogs wander around, two women sit by the gate, well endowed ones too in lovely sarees. They have a stack of forms for sale and offered me one. The entrance is crowded with many women, clutching papers, the currency to enter. Here is humanity pressing to beseech the inhumanity of our state for a favour. There is no gate keeper. Inside, stacked against the walls are large bales, piled high to ceiling, leaving a narrow passage for suplicants to pass. I ask for directions and as pointed up the stairs. Here too are these bales; they flow into the office of the man I need to see. A narrow gap leads to the chair opposite him. He is immaculate in a safari suit, princely at a vacant desk. I tell him my simple needs; he understands and asks for 5,000 to do the needful. I didn’t have it. I invoke the name of our PM Narender Modi as a mantra but it fails to have the desired affect with the official. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll have the paper ready. I return to same press of humanity milling around, he presenteds me with the paper; I reluctantly pass him the bribe for it. It turns out, he is the wrong man in the wrong office and refuses to return the money. He promises to help me with my quest, however.
I discovered the city is divided into minor kingdoms, and you have to know where the palace of your needs lies. My palace is on a busy main road, not far from home, with three tea kadais lined up outside, taking up the pavement space, as guardians. At one of them, a young man sells single cigarettes, teas and biscuits. More humanity mills here and at least the office looks recently built and maintained. Here too are bales and curiosity breaks through - they are filled with dhotis and sarees as pongal gifts for ration card holders only, I’m informed. There is a minor fortune of freebees along the walls. I wander down a corridor to the left of the entrance. One side, a large space, glassed in, furnished with rows of desks. On each desk, files a foot high, all held together by a grey ribbon. At the last desk, a man is diligently tearing strips off a grey nylon sack and using that to bind the files.So much for red tape; I am in a world of grey ones. On the right are the closed doors with the titles of the many princes who rule this kingdom.
The official I need sits at a desk behind the glass divider. He’s slim, in a bush shirt, trousers, a look of infinite patience. He is the direct connect with those pressing for needs and not protected by the closed doors of his princes. Yes, I am in the right office for what I need. It will take some days; fill in the form, proof of identity and wait. He has to visit me at home to confirm I am who I said I am and live at that address. But, as always, there is a price for his services. The paper I needed was free, gratis of a generous government, but his services need some gratification. There is no point invoking our PM eradicating corruption. There is no fear for the demand, matter-of-fact, well rehearsed. Either or at the end of his sentence. I have a legal right to the paper I want, it makes no difference; he’s a busy man, the files piled high on his desk too, and over flowing from cupboards behind him. Demonetisation be damned, my weekly pocket money from my account for the week is below his demand. He’ll wait for me to accumulate enough. I am now a fellow corrupter; it’s not a role I want. For him, like the majority of our bureaucrats, corruption is genetic. It is his legal right to demand it for performing a legal act. It’s not only him, it’s in all our psyches – politicians, business person, even the poorest farmer, labourer. We conspire together to feed the insatiable appetites of those demanding payments, over and above their safe salaries, lifelong employment while we, outside this privileged circle, have to meet their hunger for black money. But he’ll start the work. Stay at home, I’ll come he says, not saying which day. Tomorrow, maybe.
He comes mid-afternoon, riding pillion on a scooter, driven by the man who sells cigarettes and biscuits. They are an inseparable duo, I discover. Questions asked are answered and noted; identity confirmed, aadhar, but no ration card. That disappoints him; it looks serious from the dour look. He loves ration cards, and not new fangled ones like passports. It will have to do, as he gathers more evidence, meticulous as detective accumulating evidence against me. I may be found guilty of not enough paper to fill the government requires, reams more needed it turns out over the days. The tea kadai is the go-between when my official isn’t to be found. He knows his whereabouts, has his cell number, and reports to me his exact movements, like a good GPS.
Finally, the day comes – the paper I want is ready. I have the money, the official holds the paper. He wants the money first, I want the paper first. We have a Mexican stand of. He is aggrieved – you don’t trust me. I have to smile at his plaintive tone, here he is demanding money, committing a crime, and I am to trust an amoral man. And I am one too, so we’re at stand still. Tea Kadai intervenes, it is his role. He will take the money, and I am given a copy of my paper. Tea man tells my official he has it, the official hands over my paper. It’s what I needed, it has all the stamps, looking as authentic are new 2000 rupee note, I think. He’s richer; I’m poorer as I leave the office. I hope I never have to visit another office again. I just can’t afford it.