Staying on the dramatic vein from the flurry of Chatroom posts, something from the theatre of life and the unexpected.
I started writing this post in early in the year. Due to various (classified) reasons this post stayed in draft mode till now – far longer than any other posts on this blog. So time to clear out the drafts.
I had to get a new Sri Lanka Passport and for the first time was obliged to get it in person without waiting nervously for the mail from a distant embassy. Off to the Sri Lanka Immigration Department office in Borralla – (Department’s map) not too early to be stuck in a queue but early enough for 1 day service. Wore my best humble supplicant attire – white shirt and green grey pants. I went with dire prophecies about the place ringing in my ears. The place is chaotic they all said (without specifics of course). There were fuzzy references to confusion, crowds, heat and delays. Knowing that the process will eat up the day, I take a day off from work.
Borralla at 10am on a week day (confusion, crowds, heat – not so sure about the delays). What’d you expect? A deserted street serenaded by song birds? Park the chariot in the napkin of dust next to the junction by the Immigration department and go in.
A rather competent looking security check at the door. Metal detector, body pats. The works. I’m carrying nothing but my application form, old passport, PDA , mobile and wallet. They don’t seem to find the PDA.
The ground floor is quite clean – even by Sri Lanka standards. Some entrepreneurial types have a book sale going. Quite a few food/snack counters. It could be one of those small malls you find in the outskirts of the city.
Upstairs, the sacred precinct (where only applicants may enter) is impressively well cooled. Enough to wear a tie without sweating. 90% of the florescent are working. There are occasional announcements over the PA which like most PA systems world wide, are unintelligible. I am correctly directed to the one day service counter.
The process itself is impressively streamlined.
- You hand over your completed application form, photos, passport, National Identity Card, etc. over the counter – there’s no need to wait in line.
- These are tabulated/ordered/compiled into a cardboard folder with dizzying speed by a youngish nonchalant chap.
- Then to your bowel movement inducing horror, the loose folder with your precious documents is put into a stack that is moved to one of the many desks behind the counter.
My fellow supplicants are convinced that their documents will get lost. Your NIC with all other supporting documents gone over the counter and not a piece of paper to say you gave it in. If they were lost you’d be doomed if you get stopped at the next checkpoint on the way home. The people with the Tamil names seem to be particularly spooked by this and crowd the counter trying to watch their documents moving among desks like hawks. Their panic is infectious.
Something like a Turn-O-Matic system would most likely help – by linking a ticket number as a receipt of documents submitted. Disclaimer: I have no relationship with Take A Number, Inc or whoever else that is behind this product. The fact that I’m using it as an example isn’t an endorsement of this particular product – just the concept. But of course you are not that gullible but I got an ass to cover. Anyway maybe one is in place as you read this. Maybe its just a matter of bribing the right people. I will not speculate (since I already have).
A lady – of the type you don’t want to start an argument with- in a maroon sari voice is trying to clear the throng at the counters. She is firmly & politely asking people to sit. Everyone ignores her. Her patience, persistence, politeness and stamina are monuments. Rivalling Persepolis or the Pyramids. (Yes yes I AM prone to grandiose word gestures but its close to what I feel and if you don’t like it click elsewhere).
None of the personages behind the counter lose their cool. It was always “karuna kerlala” & Mahaththaya – even to the most stubbornly nervous types hovering around the counter. The “behind the counter people” have powerful vocal cords which they bravely injure as part of their jobs. In this case to call out the names of people whose precious papers have been collected earlier.
Wo hoo! My name was called! (about an hour or too later) Onwards to Scene 2 of Act 1 (0r is this scene/act notation the other way around?).
- The papers I had handed in had been stapled together and dumped on the desk behind the counters.
- There are two people at each desk. One checks the data in the form with records on a computer. The other person (wearing a tie) seems to have a higher authority to check/ok the paper work. The name calling at this stage is for a visual check.
- The applicant has to identity him/herself
- The tie wearing person at the desks compares the face of the person at the counter with the photo attached to the form. At a distance of 2m. The time taken is about an average glance.
- If there’s a problem the applicant is summoned to the desk for a further sniff. One or two people were summoned in that manner but I didn’t see anyone getting rejected.
- This check takes a few seconds (the tie wearer ticks off items with dizzying speed).
- Then your documents disappear again till your name is shouted over the rising din (about an hour later).
- At this point your application has been accepted and you are expected to pay up. Much to your orgasmic relief you get your NIC and the old passport back.
- There is a despairing sign of exasperation from behind the counter as I fumble for the cash. And of course I didn’t bring a pen – so one is patiently provided. I sign off on things and pay.
- I’m given a receipt with a number that I’m to present to pick up my passport (later in the afternoon).
With the sublime joy of a pilgrim touched by gods I float out of the building and into the afternoon madness. The chariot has been ovened by the sun and ready to cook me. I resort to air-conditioning and weave my way to lunch.
Back in the afternoon. The chariot has more parking options. None of them in the shade which makes the choice a joke. There is a smaller crowd in the passport section. Security ignores me as I strut in. My receipt proudly folded in my pocket like a proclamation of knighthood. Entry into the air-coned chambers is also unchallenged
A discovery: the maroon sari is a receptionist uniform. I ask a younger more delicate lady to direct me to the pickup counter. Have to interrupt the supposedly studly guy who is chatting her up.
This time I come equipped with an Analogue Input Device (which some people call a pen). I find the counter where the passports are picked up. The lone person there is unable to tell me if my name had already been called. I’m invited to sit and wait.
He is a brave guy fending off other passport collectees. How he keeps his cool amazes me. His vocal cords are grimly holding on like Leningrad before the November of 1941. It falters a few times but recover just in time. Receipt numbers are yelled. First in Sinhala then in English. If there’s still no response the name is yelled as well. It is gruelling work even if it sounds simple.
He is interrupted by frequent charges of applicants to the counter who demand he go through the stack of unclaimed files for their passports. Again that incredible patience and politeness.
It is inhuman not to be moved by watching such a feat of patience and professionalism. Alone, unacknowledged, and practised in the course of the daily grind without a hope of reward. He could have been rude, or nasty but he wasn’t. He melts my credentials as a hard nosed cynic. All those people who moaned to me about horrors of government offices (or you reading this) will never believe me. That’s ok. I saw what I saw. Its with me 3 months later.
During both acts I had front row seat to a rare gathering of a cross section of Sri Lankan society. The prospective middle eastern crowd is at the other end of the room (where “limited” country passports are handled).
In my “all countries + 1 day service” section the crowd is much more diverse. The young guys & gals in jeans (speaking English) are on the path to overseas universities. The delicate bare armed young woman in a tight stylish top has the vibe of an overseas ex-pat who still hasn’t switched her Sri Lankan citizenship for a easier one. A few hefty Pettah business types do deals (loudly) on their mobiles despite the “no cellphone” sign. I’m sitting next to a bewildered elderly couple who can’t properly hear the names being called. I help them identify the flurry of numbers and Tamil names being yelled out till the person taking care of them comes over.
Perhaps the most poignant image I have of is the sight of a bone thin woman in a white and green print dress holding a baby. Possibly in here early 20s. She is deep brown from the sun with long black neglected hair trailing down her back in a lose plat. Her features pulled tight across her face with unhidden anxiety as she leans in the direction of the counters. In another life she could been a model being given a make over on a morning TV show for house wives. Or featured in one of Dominic’s Uddupuwa images.
Hers is a face that’s on a long hard journey and knows the road of obstacles still stretches far. I’ve seem a similar look in many transit lounges and on the face of woman whose landing card I helped fill on the decent into Bangkok. The look of having abandoned an uncertain past for an unknown future. Of placing your life in the hands of people behind seemingly uncaring counters. Eyes wide and rarely blinking.
Yes yes I tend to read too much into things I suppose. Still I can’t help wishing that she and (presumably) her child will walk out of that building with some prospect of happiness if not a peace of mind.
Finally my moment! I scurry over to pick up the precious burgundy booklet. Then sign under various dotted lines to assure the department that I have picked up my new passport. I’m politely reminded to check the photo on the passport and the details. I’d been so thrilled at being able to provide my own pen that I almost over looked this task.
Few seconds later I’m out of there. The new passport securely zip-locked in my buttoned down travel pocket. Outside there are new type of vendors selling passport covers. I glide past them and make for my baking chariot.
“The Government of Sri Lanka” or GOSL as its often referred to in the Sri Lankan Blogosphere is viewed as a monolith entity. In reality it is a varied mass of humans and their interwoven gobs of complex circumstance (like all other human groupings). We only see it for its inaptitude, cruelty and corruption. Yet amidst all this it miraculously chugs on. At the lower rungs there are the silent, the unacknowledged (dare I say heroes?) who endure the nightmare of the daily commute to toil for a pittance. Most people who read this will tell me that not much toiling happens which I suppose is true in quite a few cases. Though lately I have heard stories of quiet hopeless courage in the face of corrupt superiors and politicos which makes me think that what I saw was not isolated. But that will be another post. To be written quite a while from now. If ever.
To paraphrase the words of a famous cannibal: thank you for bothering to read this far :)