I am not sure why it is that sometimes those things that one had assumed to be straightforward become complicated in India. Whatever the reason, it is certainly true to say that there are occasions when this beautiful and welcoming country develops a carapace of such complexity that one is driven to the brink of insanity. Fortunately I have experienced far more good days here than bad, but yesterday was certainly one that I am pleased to put behind me.
My journey from England to Bangalore, though long and at times tedious passed by without incident. Both flights were on time, the cabin crew worked hard to ensure our comfort within the confines of economy class travel, my luggage appeared on the carousel and having completed the several forms necessary to escape the boundaries of the airport, an awaiting friendly taxi driver commenced the customary negotiation of the chaos that constitutes the Bangalore streets without difficulty. On arrival at my destination I was greeted by the familiar welcoming smiles and embraces of friends, and all was well. Things remained thus for the next hour, and I was soon settling well into customary routines; but this situation of calm was not destined to last. The several hours that followed can best be summed us as Kafkaesque in nature, (though even Kafka had limits to his imagination),and will be lodged firmly within my memory for the rest of my days. I am sure that in years to come I will awaken in the night, drenched in cold sweat as I recall the events of the last several hours.
One might be excused for believing that things should have been simple. But please, have some patience as I try to explain. I write this with an addled brain and a body that is uncomfortably fatigued, so the story may deteriorate as it progresses. The situation is thus. In two days time a group of deservedly proud and highly accomplished students are due to graduate with their masters degrees in special and inclusive education following two years of concentrated labours and focused study. This is a keenly anticipated event for all concerned; students and tutors alike. Graduations are immersed in an element of pomp and ceremony heightened by the colour and grandeur of the academic gowns, hoods and formal head gear that has characterised such events for many centuries. Representatives of the university’s chancellor and the Dean of Education, arriving today will officiate at the ceremony. On arrival at a hotel here in the city yesterday, I had anticipated that two large parcels containing academic gowns couriered from the UK would be awaiting me in readiness for this important event. Here began a chain of events that eventually left me frustrated and sleepless for more than thirty hours.
The good news was that the academic costumes had indeed arrived at Bangalore airport. Less than assuring was the message awaiting me that they had then been duly impounded by customs and excise and were not being allowed to progress beyond the confines of airport storage. In effect two parcels were being held hostage by officialdom and a large ransom demanded before they could be released.
One of the worst impositions of the long defunct British empire in India was the creation of dense layers of bureaucracy, undoubtedly intended to increase the efficiency of administration. However, it could never have been anticipated that Indian officials could take this burgeoning bureaucracy and turn it into a surreal art form. This kind of officialdom has been likened to an onion, which has layer upon layer of paperwork and obfuscation. The illusion is a false one, because at least with an onion it is possible to penetrate the final layer.
The release from incarceration of a collection of academic gowns it would appear, could not be negotiated over the telephone, but would necessitate a series of face to face meetings with men (they were noticeably all men), armed with sheaves of paperwork, official memos and rubber stamps. There was no choice but to make a return journey of an hour to Bangalore airport to begin a new and frustrating role as hostage negotiator.
I really do not wish to bore you with the complexities of the next five hours of this story. Or perhaps it is rather the case that the painful memories of unfolding events leaves me anxious and considerably aged! Suffice to say that having sat in several offices in different locations around the airport periphery; having completed endless forms, written official letters, made a dozen or so telephone calls to the UK and worn out my fingers with texts and emails, by late evening only minimal progress had been made. The gowns remain beyond bars, not even permitted a visitor and for all I know mocked and intimidated by jailers.
After four hours of seemingly fruitless negotiations and ransom demands, along with my colleagues I descended into hysteria. Much of the time the conversations and urgent phone calls made by my fellow negotiators veered from English to Kannada, leaving me totally in darkness and with a growing sense of dystopia. In desperation I found myself hatching a cunning, and completely bizarre Gandhian plan. This involved calling upon all of my many dear friends here in India to dust off their spinning wheels and work through the night to produce thread. Tomorrow, I thought, I will find others who can weave a set of perfectly formed khadi gowns. Thus attired our deserving students will make a fine statement of their independence. It will be a triumph for the emancipation of Indian academia and will announce the launching of a national “quit the customs” campaign. Such was the state of desperation experienced that we resorted to this kind of humour to address our frustrations.
Leaving the airport, minus gowns, but having acquired a new range of Indian friends and accomplices, was far from easy. Certain assurances had been given, but the outcome remains far from certain. I had not previously understood that the role of hostage negotiator would demand such sleepless nights, but now, as the first tentacles of light creep into the dawn, I sit and anticipate a further chapter in this desperate saga.
Somehow, amidst a full schedule of previously planned events for today the bargaining must continue. My pen is well charged for a further day of form filling, the bank alerted that a heavy ransom may soon be required. Expecting yet more complications, a team of friendly commandos have commenced digging a tunnel under the wires of Indian customs and excise in anticipation of the possible need for a more dramatic (non-violent) intervention. A colleague has baked a cake containing a file to be smuggled through prison bars, and my own personal nightmares continue.
I remain hopeful of a happy ending, but realistic about the paper driven monster that governs Indian procedure. Armed only with a pen and an unnatural level of optimism, I will sally forth into this brave new world. Now then, where was that phone number for amnesty international?