THE THING ABOUT INDIA that travel magazines ignore is its fetishistic addiction to bureaucracy. If something takes place in a large building with air-conditioning, rest assured you will be helplessly drowned in endless spools of red tape—yet the streets outside are inevitably a manic free-for-all. The schism is symbiotic and outlandish, and in either case leaves a Westerner standing aside, shaking his head in bafflement.
Tourists should note that very little can be done without your passport handy. The government, apparently, wants to know if you do anything at all in its country: sleep in a hotel, buy a SIM card, book a train ticket. There are obviously ways around this, but they require a bit of extra cash, and none completely circumvent the absurd rules in play; they merely shield you from them. The system is so staunchly and irrevocably in place that to try and fight it ever, in any incarnation, against any flesh-and-blood representative will only lead you to suspect that these are robots you’re dealing with, or at least people who have long since given themselves up to the mire.
Consider the following examples:
- The Indian tourist visa can only be acquired before your arrival, and if there is any error on the application sheet (say you, as we did, changed your hotel reservation) then you need to pay another $6 for a new form and restart the process almost entirely because the forms are typed and heaven forbid you should turn a 6 into an 8 with black pen.
- Some hotels will gently insist that you fill out a form of registration upon checking in, or else sit you down to extract a wealth of tedious information. This is, of course, nothing compared to the boundless piles of paperwork they themselves need to complete just to make sure some government official knows that you are, in fact, staying in this hotel for a night.
- Buying a SIM card directly from a retailer requires a note from your hotel confirming, once again, that you are, in fact, staying at this hotel for a night.
- Booking a train ticket directly demands you scan a copy of your passport and email it to the train company who will then send you one of two passwords you need to create an account to book a train because you cannot simply show up and a buy a ticket on the day because they all fill up three months in advance.
All this makes some amount of sense, given what the world is here. “Overpopulation” means nothing until you have set foot in a country of over a billion people. Without these rules, India would surely collapse under the weight of its own population. Queues disintegrate into huddles of men shouting and holding bills out confidently in front of them; piles of litter surround empty trash bins; the streets have no lanes, while the horns never stop honking until the traffic is so jammed up that everyone simply turns off their motors and sits in defeated silence during rush hour.
Do not let my pessimism fool you, the country has many charming qualities. Cheap clay cups of tea sold on most street corners, an abundance of bustling confectionaries and, in general, shockingly friendly people make India worth experiencing. But the strict hard-on for rules and regulations is depressing at best, and all-consuming at worst.