Letter from India: The Permit, Part 3


First Person

The story so far: Clancy and Amie continue to struggle to obtain the elusive permit that will allow them to find accommodation in a remote mountain area.

We stayed one night in McLeod Gange. It might be called the woo-woo capital of the world. Woo-woos everywhere—frustrated, blissed out, on drugs—unwashed woo-woo land, with lots of coffee shops.

In the morning, we passed a black street dog with white paws. He limped on a hind leg.
Clancy said, “Hey, White Socks, how’s it going?”

“All right,” I said, in my “I’m a redneck” accent. “Be a lot better if you took one a them Ibuprofen and crushed it into a chicken liver. Or some mutton. Hell, a raw egg if you’re low on funds. I could understand it, because I am.”

One side of the road was taken up by shops that, for blocks and blocks, only carried four things: hippy clothes, jewelry, imitation Tibetan items—smoked Thankas, bowls aged in urine—and, of course, things to put your weed in. The other side of the road was lined with stalls. The stalls were made of wooden poles and tarps, and they carried prayer beads and inexpensive jewelry.

“Did I ever tell you why they call me White Socks?” Clancy said, in his “I’m a redneck” accent.


“Take a look at my paws.”

Our permit was not ready. We tried the red-herring argument. (The most effective technique I have found in my travels—just talking in a tone of authority seems to kind of wear a person out, no matter what you say. Maybe this would work in the U.S., too. Probably so; it never occurred to me to try.) We tried bribery. We tried joking. The bureaucrats, in turn, used that most-effective kindergarten-control technique: the broken record.

“Come back,” one man would say, contemplatively, “at three.”

So we went for lunch. We ordered cold coffee, and our waiter asked, in a meek, gravely voice, “With ice cream, or without ice cream?”

At three, we were told to come back at four. By this time, our humor was gone. A bureaucrat said, “The district commissioner is going to your country!” It was a joke, and he tried it two more times. Clancy and I gave him faces of stone.

We came back at four. Then we were told to go away until Monday.

“Till Monday?” I said.

“No, no. Just wait,” he said with that old contemplative air. “Till five.”

We sat. The madman of the group—a twenty-eight-year-old who appeared to be only a couple clicks from insanity—came over and asked Clancy, by gesture, if he liked to drink wine. Clancy said no. The man asked again. He made the gesture ten times, and then one of the other men explained it. “Scotch? Whiskey?” The man gestured a few more times, smiling and bobbling his head. He sat on the desk only a few feet away from us, and there was nowhere for us to run.

At five, the English girl from yesterday reappeared. English Girl was growing on me.

“Gi! DC is here!” she shouted.

Shortly, this utterance became clear. It turned out English Girl was the de facto leader a rag-tag band of just the sort of people a New York intellectual would envision in the foothills of the Himalayas. One of the bureaucrats had a piece of particle board. Tied to it by the familiar tennis-shoe lace were twenty permit applications. EG said, “If you are in this pile, you need to come to the SP’s office. The DC has said no, but the SP is going to sign, and then the DC will give permission.”

She was speaking to us in pidgin English, but we took this in stride; by this point we understood that this can happen after a few weeks.

“Come either way, so you can get the form.”

I went out in the hallway and joined the motley crew. Clancy stayed with the bureaucrats. They were encouraging us to stay with them. It might have worked better that way.

I spent a few minutes in the hall and came back inside. The man with the particle board had untied the shoestring. From another pile, a different bureaucrat found our applications. He gave them to Clancy. We stood behind the bureaucrat with the SP pile. It’s difficult to describe our agitation, which was brought to a head by the news of the DC’s arrival and the SP’s signature and the pile. In short: I took the applications from Clancy, reached around the bureaucrat, and dropped them onto the SP pile.

There was a shocked silence. This is not done. To be honest I’m not sure what came over me.

Meticulously, the bureaucrat lifted my application and Clancy’s from the pile. It was clear that what he most wanted in the world was to burn them. Instead, he placed them above the SP pile, kitty-corner, and continued sorting. When the pile was sorted—reshuffled, I should say—he took our applications and put them on the bottom. Then he took them out again. Our photos were held to their upper-right-hand corners by pins. He unpinned them.

Then he replaced the pins. He put them on top. Then he took them off the pile and removed a very small note from each. He placed the small notes on the table. Clancy and I both saw the small notes were recommendations, from our bureaucrat friends. The man, satisfied, put our applications into the SP pile and—ignoring us and the crew—got up and started walking.

We followed. The entire crew was heading to the SP office. One, I noted aloud, had bedbugs. Clancy and I let them get ahead of us, and then we took a shortcut to the SPs. Our shirts were soaked. We had to climb a mud-covered wall and leg-it-up over barbed wire, standing on its edge. Clancy cut his hand. “Oh no,” I said. “Did you get your tetanus?” Then we went around an atrium, into a set of back doors.

A grandmother sat on a cot, surrounded by her grandchildren. Very thin boys were doing construction in the ceilings. A young girl in a dress wore two large Styrofoam rings around her arms, and went skipping down a corridor and to the right. The old woman looked at me, wondering why I was in her house. This was a large government building, still under construction. It was where we were supposed to be, but we’d come in the wrong side. About ten feet away a man was cutting rebar with a diamond saw.

Clancy and I went back outside, around to the front of the building, up a set of stairs, soaked to the skin, to wait half an hour with the others. Three of them, young women, regarded him like sailors lost at sea for months might regard a single cracker. I tried not to think about it. All of us made conversation.

The SP agreed to our terms. We went back to the DC. Another half hour passed, and we were asked for a bribe. Clancy gave five hundred rupees for the group. One woman thanked him; I thanked him. The others sat quiet, as though thanking him might result in a need to pay. Names began to be called: the DC had signed. Our PAPs were granted.

Back at Chokling Guest House the following morning, Clancy saw a familiar face in the dining hall. A friend, someone who’d asked us about our health several times, and in fact, a New Yorker writer, said, “After you left, things really melted down at the camp. Other people got sick, Bishan was apologizing. Let me put it this way: people are people. I’m not going to say anything else.”

They got on the subject of Chokling Guest House, and Clancy said, “Isn’t it nice.”

“Yes,” she said, “it’s too bad you can’t stay.”


“Well, you see,” she raised her head slightly, “there is a thing called the PAP.”

Read part 1 and part 2.