Letter from India: The Permit, Part 2


First Person

The story so far: Amie and Clancy find themselves stranded in a remote area, in need of a permit before they will be allowed to stay anywhere.

The next day, as we were heading out to get a car, Tenzin, the proprietor of the guesthouse, stopped us and explained that it might take us two or three days to get the permit. He suggested we pack our room, offering to sell it while we stayed in Dharamsala. He said, also, that we could stay until August 6—we could stay as long as we liked.

“I can shuffle rooms around,” he said once, and then later, “We have had a cancellation.” Still later he added, “You will have to change rooms, but your new room will be just as nice.” We shrugged our shoulders. So long as we had a room.

In Dharamsala, we were directed to “District Commissioner” office 111. We poked our heads into a medium-size room shared by four men. Their desks were piled high with manila folders tied together with tennis-shoe laces. We said, “Protected area pass?” in a tone that suggested we might be arrested for asking the question.

The administrators reacted as any American in her office might, should an Indian couple poke its head in and say three words in Hindi.

Awkward silence. Confusion. Some of the obligatory half-shouting at one another. Then one man pointed at his ceiling, “Two twelve.”

“We were told one eleven,” I said. I was ready to argue the point.

Clancy was already out the door.

In 212, up the stairs, we said, “Protected Area Permit.”

Four new men ignored us. After a while, the fifth, a man with a mustache and very little English, turned and answered: “Application.”

“Protected Area Permit.”



Stalemate. We stared at each other in mutual confusion. He picked up a manila folder from one desk, carried it to another, sat, and became absorbed by its string.

“Protected … Area Permit?” Clancy tried.

The other men in the room were preoccupied. One with the wall, one with the ceiling. Another sat in front of Google and spoke on the phone. A lanky, shy boy, he spoke in Hindi, peppered with the English phrase, “Not possible.”

A chubby English girl in a teal chiffon Punjabi suit, until this moment a semiconscious subject of my irrational contempt, turned from a conversation and said to us, “You need a Protected Area Permit?”

She wore the veil of her Punjabi suit not as a scarf but as a cowl, concealing her hairless head.

She said, “You need to go to an Internet café and print an application. If you type ‘Protected Area Permit, Tibet’ into a search engine, it will come up as the third result. Then you need photocopies of your passport and visa, and a passport picture, which you can take just down there.” She gestured toward the market and added, “I’ve been here all day.”

It took us ten minutes, with her instructions. We came back, turned in our forms, and the men told us to return the next day at noon. We asked if we could possibly have our applications processed more quickly. The men thought for several minutes, and then one spoke, “You come back tomorrow, at noon.”

We had sat while they thought, in chairs against the wall of their office, and so Clancy began to speak. He charmed all of the bureaucrats but one, by talking loudly and in warmhearted, complaining tones about children, wives, and family. He talked to the men for a long time—twenty minutes—and by the end, he had the room rolling. Only the one bureaucrat, who was larger, older, and more stern than the others—the Boss—sat impassive. When a particularly big laugh died, the Boss spoke.

“You have three children,” he said.

Clancy waited for him to say more. The boss sat. Clancy realized no more was coming, and so he nodded.

“You have three children,” now the Boss was happy. He showed the pleasure of a man who is about to trounce another at debate. “You have three children, but you say you have only known her [he meant me] a year.”

The room was quiet.

Clancy swallowed, then he brightened and said, “Ah, but I have many wives!”

The Boss cracked a four-toothed smile. He held up his hand, and Clancy slapped him five.

After some consideration, the Boss told us we should come back tomorrow at noon.

Read part 1 here.