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Travel Image: Delhi
Photo: Colin Mcauliffe

Delhi, India: This Counter Reserved for Poets
By Robert Patterson


Only India could produce a comedy this dark.

Hundreds of people cluster in vague lines, muttering like angry bees in Delhi’s cavernous railway reservation office. I shuffle through the crowd looking for the correct line to stand in.

I pass a counter reserved for freedom fighters, next to a line of antsy Rajasthani farmers. I pass other specially designated lines, reserved for the disabled, the blind and mute, journalists, officers, pilgrims and spastics.

Bureaucrats in white lab coats grudgingly dole out train tickets from behind bulletproof glass. As time creeps past, many weary travelers wonder what it takes to qualify as pilgrims or spastics.

I find a line and begin waiting. A tense buzz of voices echoes from the distant ceiling.

“Get in line please,” I snarl, shifting to block a thin man wearing a Goodyear cap who had nearly edged past me. His survival instinct overcomes his impatience, and he shuffles back in line.

Bordering on the chaotic capital boulevards of Delhi, the office is a British relic. Its vast open space holds 150 different counters staffed by men and women wearing white lab coats. These officials hold the power to grant or withhold a simple ticket on the world's largest and most complicated train system.

After six months, I am no longer entitled to the special foreigner’s quota office for train bookings. After 6 months, I lost my prestige, paid my taxes, and gained access to the nightmare of the Indian system, where you wait hours for a spot on a waiting list.

No longer can I come an hour early and hop on a train. Now planning is required; freedom is restricted. Certain permits and notarizations are required, certain stamps obligatory. My passport no longer affords me privilege. Foreign residence status opens the door to more taxes and fewer benefits.

I start to pace, my mind racing. I try to meditate and focus on my breathing.

I stand up straight, and try to determine if I am even waiting in the right line.

Counter three seems strangely empty. A lone bureaucrat stands behind sheets of bulletproof glass staffing it. He leisurely peruses the pages of the Times of India

On the glass in big red letters it reads, “Counter reserved for Poets.”

It occurs to me, “Surely I can pass as a poet.”

I confidently approach counter three.

“Namaksar, sir I’d like to book a ticket to Kolkata, I am a poet”

“Guild Card please.” He looks at me over the top of his glasses without moving his head, visibly irritated by my intrusion into his reading time.

I imagine him riding subways as a college student, forging reading clubs memberships and trying to spark some Bengali poet’s society.

“Guild Card sir, Guild Card Please!”

“What exactly is a guild card?” I ask.

“Counter 110-115,” and with a snap his eyes return to his precious lines of text.

Guild card, I think. I wonder what office in Delhi holds the power to grant such authority. I try to picture the application process; the samples required and forms to be filed. I imagine wearing a black turtleneck and a beret, walking in, mixing Hindi with English, speaking of idyllic swans, the summer as a Iamb and the sky as a horse.

I snap back to reality and direct my attention to finding counters 110-115.

I turn left and return to the hordes. The overhead fans grind the air above me.

As I search for counter 110, I pass other counters that offer their services only in Hindi. I wonder where Muslims go. Is there a line for Christians? Punjabis or non-believers? Sons of unkempt mothers? Anglo-Bengalis?

I trudge onward, finally finding the elusive counter 110. Hundreds of people are gathered in a formation that almost resembles a line. I begin to count heads, losing count somewhere in the seventies. I resign myself to the fact that I am going to spend the next few hours of my life waiting here.

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