Disclaimer: The story in this post has nothing to with any real persons, places, procedures and events and any resemblance thereto is purely coincidental.
It all started one fine day, precisely about 3 months ago, when I got information about my name making rounds for a possible foreign trip. So far I have been totally a domestic Ghumakkar who has not had any visions of a ‘foreign’ trip. So having a passport was never felt a necessity and my various identity cards, with a wide variety of addresses, ages and looks have been able to get me green at all the domestic check points so far.
Even after a few of my peers made official foreign trips, I never saw any possibility of myself doing that and shrugged off any suggestions for getting my passport ready with flair. Contrary to popular notions, most genuinely profitable government set ups are stingy about expenses on foreign travel, meaning these are not at all common. That is why, one of my peers had to go out of his way to get his US visa in time for a meeting. Things people do, just for a company sponsored foreign trip! I, would never do that. I believed official trip had to come with a Visa, Ticket and hotel booking.
Anyway, finally on 12th December 2009, I officially got that I was going to be part of a team visiting UK for a three day meeting to be held one month later at Newcastle upon Tyne. Now I had to scramble! It was happening. I had to get a passport ready in no time to get visa in time, what with the intervening Christmas and New Year holidays. I needed following documents to get my passport under Tatkal:
1. All my educational certificates in original
2. NOC from my employer (which also doubles up as an identity certificate)
3. A verification Certificate from a GM of any Public Sector Undertaking (my office usually has about five)
4. 3 photos, (though, only one was used on the form, and one was needed at the time of police verification)
5. Photocopies of all the sundry identity cards and my telephone bill for address proof.
I was told that getting a Tatkal passport is easy these days, but did not know much of the Ghaziabad Passport office under whose jurisdiction my case falls.
All other things were to be arranged locally, except for those at number 1 above. I had kept all my originals in safety of my Home in Lucknow. Fortunately parents were scheduled to visit on 16th December. I immediately cabled them requesting to pre-pone their visit and come charging ASAP. Poor souls were here on 14th . On 15th, I made a sort of record, by getting the big bunch of documents along with the filled up passport form ready, for which my colleagues at HR are to be thanked. I even got my photographs for UK visa (minding the 4.5×3.5 size, light background and locations and proportions) done.
As per the garnered intelligence, me and my brother reached the Ghaziabad Passport office at quarter to 7 on 16th, even before sweeping was over. Many others, who looked potential candidates for foreign travel, were there and their chit chat was scary – “I am coming from Agra for third time just to deposit the form, as every time the clerk asks for some document that I am not carrying. This time I even brought my neighbours’ documents, why take chance…?”
At Eight, the guard, who had acquired a potent aura by then, brought the register in which we were to enter our names and then we would be called for depositing the forms in that sequence. It looked quite systematic and civilized. So far so good, I said. My number came and Bingo I was through in the first go – my documents were Okay-ed and put in the binder. Then I deposited the fee which was Rs.2500 for Tatkal and also paid a courtesy visit to the Dy passport officer, who informed that he had made it a point that all the Tatkal passports get dispatched by the third day even if the stipulated period is 1-7 days. I was on cloud nine. At this rate I would get my passport by 21st December!
In the office the accompanying colleagues were ready and waiting for the call for visa. All of us had to send our passport numbers for the invitation letter from the host office. I told them to go ahead and proceed with their formalities and that my passport number will be forwarded after I get the number from the passport office.
I must thank the passport office, that contrary to the prevailing perception, my passport was delivered well ahead of the Christmas holidays on 23rd and I could get passport number on 22nd after making a few of visits to the office. As Christmas holidays had started from 24th, my appointment for visa at the VFS office was fixed for 29th Dec, just after the Christmas. Even though I was a bit unsure, everybody including my official travel agent assured me that I would get my Visa well in time to depart on the noon of 12th Jan.
I went to the VFS office at Nehru place, again with a big bunch of supporting documents like my salary slips for last six months, IT returns for past three years, bank statement, invitation letter and of course the sponsorship letter from my employer. Despite having a time slot allotted, everyone was made to stand in a queue, what with the escalated security situations. It was colder than anticipated and the highrise building of the Trade Tower was breezy. Nonetheless, the deposition of form went off smoothly.
Here they do not conduct any interview but only take thumb impressions and photographs and the application form with documents is collected and forwarded to the UK High commission for further processing. A UK mobile brand was promoting its connection, but the lady behind me in queue, familiar with UK, informed me that those were costly and one can purchase local Sim cards from the London airport itself. Some Sane advice that (wait for part two). The lady at counter told me and also it was written at many places that it takes minimum 15 days to issue a visa if the passport does not have any prior endorsements. Was it always true?
New Year came, fist week passed by fast. I did some itsy-bitsy shopping too. Reports from UK had that it was very cold and good winter-wear would be a must. The leather jackets at the otherwise cheap Sreeleathers were at 4500. I tried a leather jacket and was looking like Rajni. Was tempted to, but eventually bought three heavy synthetic jackets (one turned out to be the uniform of some Korean shipping company, with fur hood and all) from the footpath at Plaza for 900 bucks, against the advice of SPV. That none was used, is another story. In the meantime, kept on preparations for the pilgrimage in the offing after this short UK trip.
Also kept checking the on-line visa tracking and always got the response “Your application has been forwarded to the embassy”. On Monday, the 4th of Jan, I rang the number of embassy help line, to which I could get through only after 50 tries. They informed that my file is under normal process and I should enquire on Wednesday the 6th. I thought this to be a signal that the visa will be approved by then! Daydreams!
I requested my inviters to correspond with the embassy to let me in, in time. They asked me the address and e-mail addresses of embassy. Eventually they sent an e-mail to the BHC, requesting for an expeditious issue of visa for Mr. Rajeev Tivari. On Friday I decided that without my own lordship visiting the BHC, nothing will happen. So off I drove to the BHC, where a group of people, apparently from Punjab were camping outside. The office was fortified and guards were also doubling up as the reception desk.
In response to all the queries they offer a slip which has the helpline numbers (which had I already tried) of the BHC and an e-mail address. I sent an e-mail to that address telling them that my visit is very important, and also that I did not want to lose this chance to see Her Majesty, I mean Her Majesty’s land. I got a three page auto reply in which, there was also a line which went like, “If this is regarding priority for a case within the stipulated period (15 working days from date of receipt of application), it will not be entertained”. So kind.
But एडी चोटी का जोर लगाना था. Sometimes, rather most of time, one starts a fight and fights till the end despite knowing from the beginning that there is no bounty at the end. On Saturday, I went to my office, drafted a cool letter on behalf of my Unit head and got it faxed, along with all previous correspondence from the inviters to embassy, to a couple of numbers of BHC.
Monday morning, i.e. 11th Jan, came. The status was still the same that my application had been forwarded to the Embassy. I was directed to hand over the letter personally at the BHC. Just in case. Now it had become a personal challenge. Went to the CEO office, spoke to some very senior officials, who assured that they will take up the matter officially and directed me to some specific offices by India Gate.
I had also been in touch with a friend Gunjan in London, who was guiding me about some possibilities of taking help from some specialized travel agents. I did not want to complicate the official matters, even if it meant losing the tour. Incidentally, it was not a very good time to visit UK. Flight schedules had been haywire due to extreme cold conditions. I even hinted to my colleagues about postponing the meeting for a couple of days.
Dejected and tired after the rounds I made during the day, I was coming back to my office, when, at about 7:30pm, I got a call from my travel agent that my visa was ready for collection. I had not checked the status after 5:00pm. I was expecting this somehow, somewhere, though. Was yet to book the tickets, get for-ex from office and medical and travel insurance done. Moreover, passport was to be delivered only after 12 noon the next day. So there was no way I could have caught my original flight at 12:30 hrs the next day. Discussed in office and it was decided that I will catch a night flight of Tuesday (Morning of Wednesday the 13th). It was momentous BA 142 scheduled to depart at 3:30 of 13th Jan.
On my way to home I purchased a heavy Woodland jacket. The time I was supposed to do some necessary shopping was spent in chasing (necessarily/unnecessarily ,can’t really say) my visa. Next day in the office, collected all the documents, including passport, tickets, insurance certificate, directions and by 11:00pm of 12th Jan, had two suitcases ready. One, bigger, was packed with lot of eatables (sweets, gazak, chikkis of haldiram, nuts), suit, undergarments, clothes, thermal wear, and the other smaller one for cabin had sweaters, toiletries including deodorant, Cameras and accessories and documents. Raring to go on my first foreign trip. Was going to be leaving alone on a jet plane with little leg and elbow room, thankfully, though, had managed an aisle seat by web chek-in.