The weekend before I was due to fly to Mumbai, I was starting to feel quite excited. A whole new continent and a whole new experience – having heard various things (positive and negative) about the place, I was keen to know in which camp I would find myself. And of course, travelling to any new place is always going to be a thrill.
On the Sunday night, twenty-four hours before I was due to fly, I went through some last-minute checks. “I know,” I thought, “I’ll take a look at the Indian Embassy web site to see if there’s anything I need to take.” Sure enough, there was something: a visa. I checked the Embassy opening times – visas were issues 11am to 2pm – not a problem, I decided, I could get the later train and arrive about ten minutes to eleven. Plenty of time.
The next day, well-rested, I caught the expected train and headed into central London, arriving at The Strand at precisely 10.50. The Indian Embassy was at one end of a D-shaped block, about 200 yards in diameter. As I approached, I started to focus on, then tried to suppress an emerging feeling of panic as I realised the queue stretching all the way round the ‘D’ was probably the queue for visas.
For a few minutes I stood near the head of the queue in a state somewhat resembling shock. An exhaled string of semi-expletives drew me to the attention of a tall Rastafarian who was leaning against a litter bin next to me. “What’s up mate?” he asked, and I explained my predicament. “Not a problem,” he said. “See that bloke there, near the head of the queue? That’s my mate, he’s got all our passports, he can take yours as well if you like.” A few seconds was all it took to realise this was the only option I had, so I handed over my passport nervously (he was a total stranger, after all) but with equal relief.
Tens of minutes passed; progress was glacial. After a while, the people at the head of the queue started to disperse. I wondered whether they had just got fed up… but my new companion they were just getting tokens. “They’re closing for lunch,” he said. “Only those with tokens can come back after.” My gorge rose, then quickly subsided as I saw his friend walking towards us, beaming and clutching a handful of tokens. Giving one to me, the pair wished me luck and went on their way.
Suppressing a desire to raise my arms to the heavens and shout “Alleluia!” I decided to check I was absolutely prepared – I’d made one mistake and I didn’t’ want to mess up again. I headed across the road to a branch of Prontaprint, which had wifi (and, as it happened, print services), and logged back onto the Embassy web site. Ah. “Don’t forget to bring a letter of introduction,” it said. No problem I thought, printing off the invitation email I had been sent. I was all set.
An hour later I queued, clutching my token like a schoolboy with a shilling, and before long I was granted entry to the dimply lit, teak-lined room that was the visa issue bureau. It looked like a cross between an old bank branch and a visiting room at a prison. No matter, I was in – I sat on the hard bench and waited my turn. Suddenly, so it seemed, my number was called and I stepped forward to the counter, all forms and paperwork complete.
So I thought. “I’d like a business visa, please,” I said, handing everything over. The man on the other side of the plexiglass had clearly been to international clerical bureaucracy school, that’s the only place I can imagine to learn the nuanced slowness that is the same the world over. Eventually, he paused. “Where is your letter of introduction?” he asked, so I pointed him to the email. “But this isn’t…” he spluttered. I was in trouble. I could feel the muscles in his back starting to knot in unison with mine. “You can’t… there is no way…” I was completely helpless. “What am I to do?” I pleaded, my face a picture of desperation.
He exhaled deeply and his shoulders slumped, then he rose again in his chair (“Here it comes,” I thought…). “I am very sorry, I have no choice,” he said, authoritatively now. “I’m going to have to… (exhale) …I’m going to have to give you a tourist visa.” Bang BANG went his stamp in my passport, which he slid back towards me. “Thank you. Good bye. NEXT!”
I nearly ran out of the place. The sun may have been shining, but if it wasn’t I probably would have displayed an unearthly glow. By now it was about 3pm, ample time to head to Heathrow, check in and make my flight. What about Mumbai? Suffice to say, I loved it – the people, the sounds, the smells. Brilliant.
A few months later, I happened to be talking to someone else who was heading to India. “Not going for a few months yet,” they said. “Off to the doctor’s next week, to get my jabs.”
“Jabs?” I said. “What jabs?”