There’s a brief prelude to V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a wonderful account of the author’s travels through India in the early 1960s, in which he deftly illustrates over nine pages flush with aggravation the country’s perplexing processes and absurdly baroque bureaucracy. A customs official has seized two opened bottles of liquor from him upon arrival in Bombay, but he’s been advised that they could be reclaimed once he has obtained a liquor permit.
“Permit” in hand, here’s what happens upon reaching the front of a long line at the New Customs House, the second stop of what snowballs into a wild booze chase:
‘You don’t want me. You want that officer in the white pants. Over there. He is a nice fellow.’
I went to him.
‘You have your liquor permit?’
I showed him the stamped and signed foolscap sheaf.
‘You have your transport permit?’
It was the first time I had heard of this permit.
‘You must have a transport permit.’
I was exhausted, sweating, and when I opened my mouth to speak I found I was on the verge of tears. ‘But they told me.’
He was sympathetic. ‘We have told them many times.’
I thrust all my papers I had at him: my liquor permit, my customs receipt, my passport, my receipt for wharfage charges, my Tourist Introduction Card. Dutifully he looked through what I offered. ‘No. I would have known at once whether you had a transport permit. By the color of the paper. A sort of buff.’
‘But what is a transport permit? Why didn’t they give it to me? Why do I need one?’
‘I must have it before I can surrender anything.’
‘I am going to write to the papers about this.’
‘I wish you would. I keep telling them they must tell people about this transport permit. Not only for you. We had an American here yesterday who said he was going to break the bottle as soon as he got it.’
‘Help me. Where can I get this transport permit?’
‘The people who gave you the receipt should also give you the transport permit.’
‘But I’ve just come from them.’
‘I don’t know. We keep on telling them.’
More than 50 years later, it seems the messenger still hasn’t told them.
How to Buy a Southern Railway Ticket in Trivandrum
The stairwell labeled “Advance Reservations” was located just inside the Thiruvananthapuram Central railway station entrance. It was nine o’clock in the morning and my t-shirt was already soaked, a not-so-subtle nod towards searing two-in-the-afternoon heat that was to come. Newly arrived passengers poured out of the train station; men in pressed button-up shirts and slacks or wraparound lungis, women draped in mostly colorful saris, kids scuffling behind them, all kicking up dust in Kerala’s dusty, rough-and-tumble capital city. It was our first day in India, and we needed tickets for a late-morning train stopping in Varkala.
The “Advance Reservations” office was lit by aging flourescent lights and cooled by fans coated in ropes of dust, like stringy bunches of ash-grey cotton candy. It was crowded — all chairs in a small waiting area were taken, there were lines at each ticketing window — but it was orderly and organized, and it was strangely quiet.
We waited our turn, and after a short time were faced with a heavyset middle-aged woman in a crimson-and-gold sari. She had a large computer screen mounted next to the plastic-guard window; her desk was a kindergarten play area of papers. I glanced at her exposed stack of jelly rolls; she looked at us with doubt and disinterest.
‘Hi, we’re just wondering when the trains to Varkala are leaving?’
‘When will you be going to Varkala?’
‘Today, maybe around noon?’
‘There are no trains to Varkala at noon. Trains to Varkala will be leaving in 30 minutes and one o’clock.’
‘Okay, one o’clock would work. Can we have two tickets please?’
‘Do you have your ticket form? You will be needing a ticket form.’
‘No, we don’t. Where do you get those?’
She hands us two “Reservation/Cancellation Requisition” forms; a sign taped onto the window next to ours says “Please do not waste forms.”
‘You can fill out this form and buy tickets here, or you can go to the ticket counter to buy your tickets.’
‘Where is the ticket counter?’
She wobbled her head in such a way that indicated the conversation has ended, so we went back downstairs in search of the other ticket counter. We couldn’t find it. I asked a wiry old man with betel nut-stained teeth where the ticket counter was; he said it was down the platform and to the left (back the way we came), gesturing with a bony, betel nut-stained finger.
We still couldn’t find it and decided to fill out the forms, but didn’t have a pen.
A security guide sat at a bare wooden desk in an open-air, shaded room near train platforms one and two. He was just sitting there. I asked him if he had a pen. He gazed across his empty desk, as if surveying expanses of the Mojave Desert, pulled out two empty drawers — no pen — then like Rip Van Winkle idly waking from slumber he rose from his desk and shuffled to another one further inside the room. He found a pen and handed it to me.
I set down my form and began filling it out: name (not more than 15 letters), gender, age, full address, telephone number, “concession travel authority number.” Before I got through my name, however, without speaking he indicated that he wanted me to stop writing on his desk, and gestured towards another one. I finished filling out my name at that desk, but before I could fill in my destination he indicated that I should not be writing on that desk and handed me a magazine. I should place my form on top of the magazine on top of the other desk.
Back in the Advance Reservations office, we queued in the same line to speak with the same woman. We handed her our forms.
‘You will only be needing one form for two people.’
‘Oh. Do you have another form?’
‘You will not be needing another form. Add a name here and sign there.’
‘Okay. Do you have a pen?’
She wobbled her head in such a way that indicated she did not. My wife asked a group of nearby men if they had a pen she could borrow; one of them produced it while the others gawked as if the Virgin Mary stood before them.
‘Okay, here you go. Are there any trains earlier than 1 o’clock?’
She eyed the form, leaned back in her chair, looked left, looked right, looked left again.
‘You must be taking this form to window seven.’
She wobbled her head in such a way that indicated we were to present the form at window seven. At window seven, we handed our form to a thin, bespectacled man wearing a crisply pressed button-up.
‘You are going to Varkala?’
‘Yes. She told us to bring our form to window seven.’
‘When will you be going to Varkala?’
‘Today. She said there was a 1 o’clock train. Are there any earlier trains?’
‘You cannot buy your ticket for this train here. You must go to the ticket counter downstairs.’
‘But she told us we could get our tickets here with this form? We couldn’t find any ticket counter.’
‘You cannot get your tickets in this office, only at the ticket counter downstairs… and you will not be needing a form.’
We doubled back down the stairs, this time taking a left before entering the platform area — there was the ticket counter. We queued underneath a black sign with white lettering that said “Passengers Can Avail Unreserved Tickets For Classes and Renew Season Tickets From The Following JTBS Counters Functioning In City.” Just before our turn a man cut in front of us, smiling and wobbling his head in such a way that indicated it was nothing personal, he just had a train to catch.
‘Hi, we need two tickets for the train to Varkala at one o’clock.’
‘There is no train to Varkala at one o’clock. The train for Varkala is 11:15.’
I handed him 100 rupees. He gave me 40 rupees in change and two paper tickets, neither of which clearly indicated in which class we would be seated. I didn’t ask.