Lately Kafka has been on my mind. The posthumous literary hero of twentieth century has accompanied me as I have traversed the relatively short distance from my home to the Consulado de Espana en Hong Kong. The consulate office is located in what was once Hong Kong’s tallest building (now third), and a convenient overhead-walkway amble of ten minutes from my apartment complex brings me to its glass doors.
The door swings open with practiced ease and I find myself in a narrow, well-lit room, one wall of which has a bank-teller frontispiece. There are no people, and all is quiet except for the hum of airconditioning. I approach the glassed frontispiece and a sign informs me to ring the bell, only once, and wait. I follow the instruction. A woman materializes and I hand her my family’s tourist visa application with its supporting docket of documents. She proceeds to peruse the papers with pursed lips, finally looks up at one point and tap-taps my daughter’s birth certificate. She is not happy with it.
Why, I ask? It is written in English, issued by a recognized legal authority in India, and recognized by other EU countries – France, Italy – to have enabled prior Shengen visas to my daughter. I proceed to show her those. She purses her lips further and proceeds to xerox those earlier visas. She attaches those photocopies to the docket and resumes her perusal. At the end, she tells me that I still need a new birth certificate for my daughter issued by the Consulate General of India in Hong Kong.
Huh? And what should it say, I ask. Mention the names of the parents and the child’s date of birth. Well, that information is already available in my daughter’s passport, see, I point out to her. My daughter’s passport is issued in Hong Kong, by the same Consulate General, and carries the name of her parents, as all Indian passports do. So, I say brightly, the information she needs is already there.
No, the Sphinx parts her pursed lips to say, we still need a new birth certificate.
I attempt to illustrate to her the circularity of her logic: she wants the Indian Consulate to verify the information that they have already previously verified in order to issue a passport to my daughter.
The Sphinx’s lips stay pursed.
All right! So off I go to the Indian Consulate where they listen to me with an air of resignation – they bear the plague of bilious Indians daily – and suggest an affidavit as the solution. Two days later, armed with the affidavit, I am facing the Sphinx again. She, however, is still unhappy. She wants a new birth certificate. But this is what the consulate will provide, I counter. No, she insists slyly, other Indian families have provided such documentation before. So, there I am, being stumped by my own countrymen. Obviously I am not doing enough, the Sphinx’s knowing eyes convey.
Once again at the Indian consulate where the Consular Officer insists that the rules state that in order to procure a new birth certificate I need an order form the Ministry of External Affairs. I gulp. The MEA and I are antipodes, one never having felt the need to approach the other. Now I need to collapse this sea for a Spanish visa? Si.
I have begun to feel like the protagonist in Kafka’s parable ‘Before the Law’. In case you’re unaware, it goes thus:
A man from the country seeks the law and wishes to gain entry to the law through a doorway. The doorkeeper tells the man that he cannot go through at the present time. The man asks if he can ever go through, and the doorkeeper says that is possible. The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man that he accepts them "so that you do not think you have failed to do anything." The man waits at the door until he is about to die. Right before his death, he asks the doorkeeper why even though everyone seeks the law, no one else has come in all the years. The doorkeeper answers "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."
If I am not to end up as a hapless Kafkaesque character, I’ve to call upon my innate Indian sense of Jugaad. For those of you unfamiliar with this Indian concept, a brief backstory. Many years ago, innovative Punjabis mounted a diesel irrigation pump on a steel frame with wheels, creating a vehicle they called jugaad. It was ultra-cheap but did not conform to vehicular regulations. Over time, jugaad has come to mean grassroots innovation to overcome any constraint.
Jugaad is the call of the hour. My hands are tied, the officer says. I am an Indian citizen and you have to help me, Sir, I plead. Let me see what I can do, he says and retreats for a confabulation with his colleagues. He surfaces with a solution: he can provide a document that states that based on the information on my daughter’s passport her DOB is …
Okay. I press upon them the urgency of the matter, procure the document by end of day and I place myself before the Sphinx the next morning. Today I have company: a trio of Indian-origin nuns with Macau IDs who are proceeding to Spain for a Catholic convention. Briefly I toy with the idea of sharing with the Sphinx my partial-Catholic inclinations – I always make the sign of the Cross during prayer – because of my education in a Catholic Convent. I can see my mother glowering at me but Mama, this is Espana, and I need the visa if I am to get to Barca.
I needn’t have bothered. The Sphinx takes one look at the ‘birth’ certificate and shakes an imperious head. Once again she issues the staccato: we need a document that states… But something within me is unraveling. Heck, I am not seeking a Papal one-on-one, I am offering Spain a chance to gain my hard-earned money as I seek to spend some time enjoying Barca as a well-intentioned tourist. I have provided all the supporting documents that proclaim me a widely-travelled person (heck, I’ve the gold standard: a ten-year multiple entry US visa) with the means to support a visit to the country – a measure that would go some way in digging Espana out of the PIGS rut they are stuck in now.
So I take a deep breath, ask Kafka to step aside and take my fate in my hands. I am, after all acquainted with ‘Before the Law’ to know that “since the gate was made for me” I darn well take a hammer to it when patient hanging around is not working. I verbalize what was hitherto my internal rant.
The Sphinx listens. I see the jaw hardening. Take a seat, she intones.
I look around. The two chairs in the corner are besieged with my erstwhile countrywomen, of the same sorority as the robed nuns of my childhood. They smile at me briefly. I know that smile – folks who believe in the Lord leave everything to the Lord. I hang there desultorily, the sisters watching me like goats, Kafka curious now that I’ve broken the norm – no one knows how it’s going to end. Meanwhile, my frontal cortex is making me sorely aware that I let my amygdala do the speaking and perhaps Barca is lost to me. The hell with it, amygdala counters hotly, all roads lead to Rome. Like the great conqueror Hannibal (after whose father the city of Barcelona is named) I shall ditch Barca and make my way to Italy. Hoo-ha!
Meanwhile, the Sphinx has disappeared inside for consultation with a superior. She returns, accepts the application, takes my hard-earned cash, make some dark noises about our medical insurance and how she may call up later for more supporting documents and hands me the receipt.
It is not all over. The call might come any time that’ll send me scrambling down another rabbit hole ferreting another set of papers in another Kafkaesque ordeal. So for the nonce, it’s Kafka in my Barca (plans). IF I do get to experience the seductive city of Spain, I shall be sure to blog about my sojourn in the Catalan, brightly limned by Picasso colours and Gaudi contours.
Meanwhile, tell me about your Kafkaesque experience. Or, if you’ve a Dickensian tale or a Byronic legend to share, the merrier!