A Passage to Bangalore

(First part online – other parts being written)

A Passage to India has always been one of my most hated books. Perhaps it’s because we were forced to read it in school. Perhaps it was the way in which our class had to take turns read out aloud the entire damn thing. Or perhaps it’s just because it was incredibly boring. The only moment of relief we had was at the beginning of the book when one character smokes a ‘hookah’, which we all thought was the funniest thing we’d ever heard.

In between reading that book when I was around 13 or 14 and now, I’ve learned rather more about India through judicious study of newspapers, magazines, books and documentary movies such as Lagaan. Furthermore, I’ve acquired several Indian friends at Oxford and Cambridge, one of whom I visited in late November 2004 while she was in Bangalore. This is a diary of that visit.

Tuesday 23rd November

For reasons of economy, my flight to India involves London Heathrow, Zurich, Mumbai (Bombay) and Bangalore. The Heathrow-Zurich-Mumbai section is by Swiss Air, and the internal flight is handled by Jet Airways. This all ends up as being around 20 hours including the interminable transfers, and for some inexplicable reason, I decided to book a flight that leaves Heathrow at 6:10am today. That meant I have to get to Heathrow for about 3am, and that meant I didn’t get any sleep.

I ended up getting to Heathrow at 3:30am and joined the queue at the Swiss Air check-in desk. Approximately 100 minutes later, and 60 minutes before the plane is supposed to leave, the check-in desk finally opens. To say that this irritated me is to say that I have a passing interest in Mars. Firstly, it turned out that they don’t open their check-in desks until 5am. Fine, I can see why they might want to do this, and how it might even make sense, providing that they told passengers beforehand, and that they actually open properly at 5am and start processing passengers. Naturally, neither such thing is true. In fact, I witnessed what I wrote at the time was a ‘magnificently incompetent’ bunch of check-in staff performing the most wondrous farce of losing keys, running back and forth, dropping stuff and generally slowing things down to the extent that the plane left the best part of an hour late. It’s almost worth laughing at apart from the fact that this sort of thing costs airlines enormous amounts of money.

The flight to Zurich was gratifyingly free of stress and I slept the entire way. Transferring to my India-bound flight at Zurich was scarily efficient. I don’t think I waited in a queue for longer than a minute there as we were quietly herded through the impossibly clean and functional vastness of the airport by the impossibly clean and functional Swiss.

It took 8 hours to fly from Zurich to Mumbai, and I filled the time by marvelling at how I had four seats to myself and watching I, Robot a second time (a pretty decent movie) and the Indian movie Main Hoon Na. I think Main Hoon Na represents the final product of the evolution of movies over the decades – the omega point, if you will – and is best described as a maddening mix of Ten Things I Hate About You, Kindergarten Cop, Die Hard, a romantic drama, a musical, and of course, a Bollywood movie. You may wonder how it is possible to fit such things into a 179 minute movie. Watch it, and learn. I was later informed by a friend of Shakti’s that as far as these things go, it out-Bollywooded Bollywood.

Before landing in Mumbai, I had to fill in an Indian immigration form. Invariably, when I visit another country, I stay with friends. Said friends will meet me at the airport and so about half of the time, I have no idea where I’m supposed to be staying in said country. This poses a problem filling in immigration forms. I recall this first happened was when I travelled to the US on my own for the first time. I was basically scared shitless when I realised I couldn’t fill in the form properly but then hit upon the idea of writing down a fictional address (it was ‘Best Western Hotel, Denver, Colorado’) which of course worked fine since the immigration staff never check that sort of thing out. I had to do the same thing for Mumbai except I was pretty sure that Bangalore didn’t have a Best Western Hotel. In fact, my knowledge of the city’s hotels was so limited that I had to claim I was staying at the ‘Bangalore Hilton’.

I’ve since discovered that there is no Hilton in Bangalore, and even if there was, I’m not sure whether they’d have believed I was staying there. Happily, I didn’t experience any problems with this.

Anyway, soon enough, it was time for me to leave the safe cocoon of the plane to land in Mumbai. I did a bit of research on the airport before my trip and discovered that a good number of travellers describe it as the worst airport in the world, and in one case, a ‘chaotic hellhole’. Now, the reality could hardly match up to a claim like that; sure, it wasn’t very clean and had useless signage, but in its defense, they had very quick baggage handlers and the immigration queue was much faster than what I’ve seen in the US. Perhaps I just caught it at a good time though.

The airport lounge was entirely devoid of interest and had rather more mosquitoes than I would have liked (i.e. it had more than zero). One of the first things I noticed was the smell – not unpleasant but very tangible. Maybe something to do with the nearby ocean. Maybe not.

Actually, when I think about it, Mumbai airport really is quite horrible when compared to places like Singapore or Hong Kong. I imagine the new airport in Shanghai will blow it away as well. To be honest, if India really wants people to take it seriously, it needs to go down the Hong Kong/Singapore/China route and make a kickass airport that travellers like. It may seem like a terrible waste of money but airports really shape lasting impressions of a country and, I don’t know, could help additional outside investment.

The internal flight down to Bangalore was quick enough and I landed early shortly after 5am on Wednesday 24th November (India is 5.5 hours ahead of GMT).

Bangalore World University

In about six hours I’ll be hopping on board a taxi that will begin a magical journey to Bangalore (in south India), taking in Heathrow, Zurich and Mumbai. Oh, when I say ‘magical’, what I mean is ‘excessively long, unexciting and very likely stressful and unclean’. Once I get to Bangalore and meet my friend there things should get better pretty quickly.

I’m only visiting for a week, which is a rather short amount of time to ‘do India’ and in any case I’m only staying around the Bangalore area, so I’m under no illusions of actually seeing the whole country. Still, I’m sure there’ll be plenty for me to see, and more importantly, eat.

The friend I’m visiting informed me that it’d be pretty cold in Bangalore this time of year so I’d better pack warm clothes and a coat. I naively thought this was true, and so only checked a weather report this morning. Unsurprisingly it totally contradicted my friend by saying the temperature right now hovers around the mid to high 20s; in other words, a warm summer’s day. Certainly cuts down on the amount of clothes I’ll have to take, to be sure.

How to obtain a visa for India in London

Update: Much of the information below is now wrong! Visas take much longer to get – the queues are longer, and if you don’t arrive really early, you’ll be given a ticket to come back at a later date. The best way to learn more is to look through the comments that other people have helpfully supplied – check the most recent ones.

If you ever decide to visit India, you’ll discover at the travel agent that you have to get a visa. At this point you’ll go through several well-defined stages; shock, anger, fear, irritation and acceptance. Then you’ll find out that you have to make the trip to an Indian Consulate (in my case, India House on Aldwych in London), and you’ll go through them all over again. This is a brief guide on how to get a visa for India and what’s involved. This was all applicable in November 2004 – things may have changed by the time you read this and I advise you not to just rely on this guide, just in case.

Quick Facts

1) Don’t worry, it’s not actually that difficult
2) You can be in and out within two hours
3) If you make sure you clearly and fully complete your application form, then things will go much quicker
4) Bring a magazine or a book

Before you go

I’m going to assume that you have already visited the High Commission of India’s website, downloaded the visa form and decided on when to go to the commission. The website also has a list of official holidays at the commission when they’ll be closed – check this because they have a number of holidays and you’ll feel really stupid if you turn up and no-one’s home.

Fill in your form, check it and double-check it. Get two passport-sized photos and make sure you have the correct amount of money for the application fee in cash – they don’t take cheques or credit cards.

When you decide on when you’re going to go get your visa, you might want to consider if there are any holidays around when you go. For example, I visited the commission after two days of holiday (Diwali). As a result, I suspect the queues were longer.

How can I find the commission at Aldwych?

It’s the thing with a huge queue of people snaking out from it (unless you get there absurdly early). It’s hard to miss. The really long queue is the one for visas, the short one is for people with Indian passport enquiries (i.e. not you).

The start of the first queue, disappearing into the distance.

The end of the first queue (you can see the window at the end of the curve)

What time should I turn up?

The commission in London opens at 8:30am. I arrived at 8:35am and there were already over 150 people in the queue in front of me. I think people start queueing up as early as 7:30am, and I talked to a girl who’d been queueing since 7:45am and she got out at 9:45am (i.e. two hours all told). The problem with turning up that early is that while there are fewer people in front of you, you still have to wait for the place to open.

As a result, I think that if you turn up at any time before, say, 9am, it’ll probably take you around two hours altogether. If you leave it any later, you’ll have to wait longer. I really don’t recommend turning up any later than 9:30am since there’s a good chance you won’t be able to pick up your visa that day, or at least you’ll have to wait for much longer than two hours.

What’s the process when I get there?

I heard many people in the queue criticising the commission for an illogical system. That’s not true – it’s perfectly logical and it even is vaguely organised. The only problem is that they seem to have no desire to inform anyone of how it works. Luckily, I do.

The process has three steps; queueing to get a queue number, queueing to hand in your visa application, and waiting to get your completed visa. You’ll notice there’s a lot of queueing involved.

The First Queue: Getting a Queue Number

This is the one outside of India House. I arrived at 8:35am and spent a little under an hour in this queue. It moves along quite regularly. The point of this queue is to show a guy in a window that you have a passport and then to collect a piece of paper with a queue number (or numbers, depending on how many passports and visa applications you’re making). The queue number you collect here (e.g. B69) is for the second queue, inside.

The Second Queue: Handing in your visa appplication

After you collect your queue number, you’ll be allowed inside and walk upstairs to a room with a bunch of commission staff behind windows. There are a lot of seats here and in a side room that also has vending machines.

Once you get upstairs, do not loiter around in front of window 1, which will be directly in front of you when you go through the door at the top of the stairs. Window 1 is for people collecting their completed visas and right now, that’s not you. Instead, go and wait in the main room and get a seat if you can. There’s a display in the corner of the room with the current queue number. Notice that a letter from A to E is also highlighted below the number. The queue number cycles through the letters and goes from A1 to E99, so do not make the all-too-typical mistake of going to a window when it’s your number but not your letter; the staff won’t be impressed.

Since many people there are submitting multiple visa applications (e.g. for friends or family) the queue number tends to go in bursts. I got inside at around 9:30am and the queue number was A77. My number, B69, took about 40 minutes to come up. When it’s your number, go straight to the next free window; don’t worry if they seem to have skipped past your number.

Once you’re at the window, hand over your application, passport, passport photos and money. Do not waste everyone’s time by searching through bags and wallets for the necessary stuff; you just spent at least an hour queueing before this so you don’t have an excuse. This bit only took me a couple of minutes because I’d filled in my form properly and hadn’t been denied a visa in the past. After she’s taken all your stuff, she’ll give you a receipt with your queue number (the same one as before) written on it. She will keep your passport – they need it to process your visa.

Waiting to get your completed visa

They hand out visas at window 1. For some inexplicable reason, there are always loads of people rammed up against this window despite the fact that there can be an hour long wait and also they always call out your number multiple times when they have your visa ready. Who knows why people do this – it certainly doesn’t speed things up.

The staff member who gave you your receipt will tell you how long you can expect to wait if you ask her. I was told it’d be 45 minutes; instead it was only 20 minutes. I put this down to my charming personality, or more likely, the fact that there weren’t any issues with my passport or application. You might as well sit down again at this point and wait for your number to be called out. Don’t fall asleep or listen to music, even if it seems it’ll take ages based on what numbers they’re calling out at the moment; they tend to skip around numbers a lot so they might be calling out B1 in one minute and B60 in the next.

When they call out your number, fight your way through the silly huddle of people around the window and get your passport with your visa inside. They’ll tell you to check it – do it! You are checking to make sure that they’ve gotten your passport number correct, and that the valid dates are correct for when you want to visit (they’ll actually be valid for ages longer than you’ll typically need it).

And then you can leave, all done! Like I said, it took me two hours altogether and I suspect it would be even quicker if I hadn’t gone through after two days of holiday.

Other Questions

Is there a toilet?

While I have not seen it myself I’m told there is one downstairs.

You’re wrong about x

Perhaps I am, I only went there once and things may have changed. Please do not rely on this guide for anything really urgent.

I can’t be bothered queueing up, is there some way I can mail my application in?

You can mail it directly to the commission, or you can use a visa service. The visa services are often much quicker and more expensive. Whether or not you want to use them depends on how much you value your time. I don’t know anything more about them so don’t ask me to recommend one.

Why did you bother writing this?

I estimate that at least 400 people go to the commission every day. That’s up to 100,000 per year. I was not been able to find anything decent online about the actual process of getting a visa before I visited, and for many of the people there, it’s quite a stressful and anxious procedure. I decided that a guide explaining all of the steps involved would make it a little clearer and more understandable for all concerned. Perhaps it might even speed things up!

Will you update this guide?

I sorely doubt it, unless there happens to be a good reason.

I would like to reprint this guide

Email me. There’s a link at the top of this page.