Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Aliens Have Landed

As it turns out, the “Mr” in Mr Francis is a courtesy title. He’s just Francis. Charmed by this notion, I hopefully encourage Roland to call me “Mrs Caroline” (like Mrs Anna, in The King and I, but with less hoops in my skirts). To my regret, but true to his counter-suggestive soul, he won’t play ball. Francis and Monu call me “Madame,” but, having taught French since Marie Antoinette was a shepherdess, this has zero novelty value for me, and no-one says Memsahib any more.
Mr Roland and I go to the Special Branch Building today, to register as aliens. Lack of external scales and dorsal fins can only fool people for so long. Official registration’s just rubber-stamping what generations of grubby schoolboys have privately thought for years. We wouldn’t even find the building, without a sextant, a Geiger counter and a following wind, but we have Monu instead, who has the Mumbai Knowledge. The Special Branch Building, complete with hens clucking in the foyer, is tucked behind St Xavier’s College, on Badruddin Tayabi Lane, should you ever need to know. The office staff wear delightful uniform saris, little black tops and black-beige-and-cream paisley saris. Well, the ladies do, anyway.
Registering proves the most cumbersome piece of administration known to man, or at least, known to this woman. Our aide and secret weapon is Sanjay, who greases wheels and smoothes our path, or we’d be there yet. Several signatures, a pair of tokens and a stamping frenzy down the line, I’m ready for a little cup of tea and a lie-down in a darkened room. This isn’t an option, although, bizarrely, there are crisps on sale next to the photo-copying machine. People are feeding babies and having picnics in the holding-area. We clearly need to have brought sleeping-bags.
Every race apart from Vulcans has representatives in this waiting-room. We roll our eyes, and go “Tch! Bureaucracy!” at fellow Brits, but we only have ourselves to blame. Well, not precisely Mr Roland, or me, or cute little Josh’s father, in front of us in the queue, but the Raj. It’s our corporate responsibility. We weighed in with Queen Elizabeth I, and sloped out again with King George VI, leaving this huge administrative beast as our legacy.
We fill in a form on the computer, confessing everything from whether we eat shellfish, to our mother’s neighbour’s cat’s nationalisation certificate number. Well, not quite. But we do need to remember what our flight number was, and to be honest, we’ve had a sleep since then. Mr Roland’s OCD comes in handy here – 9W117 – so we’re well away.
We have to buy Residential Permits - another queue, more forms. Carbon paper and flimsies, less than two metres from a bank of computers - 1950 snuggles cosily up to the twenty-first century. Also (insult to injury territory) we have to buy our own files, for the archives, somewhere in the fundament of this building. They’re brand new yet already rust-marked, somehow. The official staples our photos to the front page, and I wince. You would, too. At least the permit has the grace to be blue.
We go through six pairs of hands, and emerge reeling, as if we’d spent the morning trapped in a revolving door. Mr Roland and Mrs Caroline, legal aliens, just as Year 11 always suspected.