“An American? Why do you come here?”
“To research, sir, on scholarship from the U.S. government.”
The steadfast Mr. Greese was responsible for registering all foreign nationals in Aligarh. It was an Indian city a sensible traveler would pass through: ramshackle, low-lying buildings; dead puppies rotting by the road.
My staunch ally, Nazmohammud, a lanky fellow student with tanned Persian cheeks, had been stuck here for three years. He led our way upstairs.
The oily Mr. Greese sported a toothy grin and an amused curl that tugged at his lips. A hooked brown nose with one-armed glasses askew. A thinning mustache, for propriety.
The air in his dingy office — crowded with nine other bureaucrats (all comfortably asleep, legs crossed atop disheveled desks, fingers laced under potbellies) — was thick with body musk, yellow turmeric from yesterday’s lunch, and the dust of paper decay. Though humidity kept the endless stacks of logbook pages and photocopies wilting, the second-floor summit room (bolted, customarily, on the outside) of the Foreign Registration Office was a reprieve from August heat.
“India is a great country, yes? How do you find it so far?”
“Oh, Mr. Greese, I just arrived. But it’s beautiful so far. I’m hoping to register with you today, then I need to go to Pune for my research.”
All foreign nationals living in India for more than six weeks need to be stamped and registered — or else, upon trying to exit the country, no exit will be allowed.
“Research of what?”
“Women’s sports, sir.”
“Ha-ha, that is so funny. Women don’t play cricket.”
“Well, not cricket specifically. I’m a photographer, looking at the sport of rugby.”
“I don’t know about this rugby, but no matter. So you, young man: why do you help her? She is American, you are Iranian. She must be Christian and you are obviously a Muslim. You hate each other always.”
“She is a friend. My professor will be her advisor.”
“I see. How very strange. My office is very, very busy at this time of year.”
“Yes, we can see that. Still, she must get to Pune as quickly as possible. So here are the required papers, as stated by the Indian government.”
“Yes…yes, I see…but do you understand, here? These papers? You brought me three colored copies of them all. I need two black-and-white. This will not do.”
“It is the same document, yes?”
“Ah, but you see, they are the wrong color. This will not do.”
“We can photocopy them again, it’s okay.”
“It is not okay. I hope it will be okay. And this letter from Dr. Abdul Matin. Where is his signature?”
“Mr. Greese, the signature is there.”
“No, but we need a new signature. He must sign over this signature in ink, because you are handing me a scanned copy of a letter with his signature. This is a very big problem.”
“This is not a big problem, we can go retrieve it. Will you be here later?”
“It is not possible.”
“It’s only ten a.m. Won’t your office be open later this afternoon?”
“You can come back. Perhaps I will be here.”
“Can you promise that you’ll try?”
“Ah, we will see. I am a very, very busy man.”
“Mr. Greese, sir, when is the earliest you can give me my stamp?”
“That is a very complicated question.”
“What about this evening? Or tomorrow morning? I must get to Pune as soon as possible — please, it’s really important to me.”
“You can see that I am very busy. And there is so very much to be done. In three days’ time the procedure can be under way. Perhaps.”
“But all the required papers are right here. The checklist is here too, as well as these extra copies. It should be okay for you to give me a stamp for my visa. Please, Mr. Greese.”
“But I am telling you once again that the procedure is remaining incomplete. I also require a letterhead from Aligarh Muslim University. And an actual signature of their board. Make sure that it is endorsed by the university president, too. In blue ink only. Come back later. Maybe around five p.m.”
We found Mr. Greese at 4:15 that day behind his office building. Alarmingly, he was sauntering away down the roadside, kicking up dust as he went.
“Mr. Greese, here we are,” said Naz, intercepting the busy man. “We were able to get those copies. Extra ones, too. And Dr. Matin signed those documents for her. It’s all here. Everything you requested.”
“That is nice. How very nice it is. Perhaps I will be free to look at them tomorrow.”
“Sir, we have them with us now. It’s not five yet. We arrived even before the time you told us.”
“You are confused. I am not here now. You can try again tomorrow.”
“What if we look at them for just a moment?”
“You can see that now is not a good time for me.”
“When is a good time?”
“Can you promise us a stamp tomorrow?”
“Ah, you see, I can promise nothing. It is not I, Mr. Greese, making the rules. It is our government. The procedure may require more than three days.”
“But you just said tomorrow you will look at them. Correct?”
“You may arrive as you wish.” Palms clasped behind his back, he whistled as he walked off.
The next morning found us desperately waiting at Mr. Greese’s cluttered desk. After refusing to acknowledge us, then wandering out for two hours, he finally returned, sliding languidly into his wooden chair. Elbows bent, fingers pressed tip-to-tip, he asked obsequiously, “And what can I do for you?”
“We have brought you everything you requested. Look, here. As well as extra copies, if you require them. May we please have a stamp?”
Sliding the manila folder toward him, he plucked out the copies. He thumbed through. He studied them. He crossed one leg.
A belabored sigh.
“Does the Pune FRO know that you are coming?”
“I just need this one stamp, from Aligarh, isn’t that correct?”
“You cannot just appear in Pune. It is not possible. You must inform them of your arrival first. You need to write them a letter.”
“Sir, I was not told yesterday that a letter’s necessary.”
“Oh, but it is. Of course it is. And then you will need my signature.” A lovely smile.
“So my letter needs to say, exactly — what?”
“Here, I believe we can use this.” He rummaged through the stacks on his desk, at last retrieving a rumpled sheet of paper, frayed on all sides. “Get your pen.”
It was the photocopy of a passport, showing the mug of yet another unfortunate visiting student. With approval, he flipped over the weary document.
“Now, follow my instructions perfectly. Write, ‘Dear Pune Foreign Registration Office. It is with the permission of Mr. Greese, supervisor of the Foreign Registration Office in Aligarh, that I, Robin Miniter, request to transfer my registration to Pune’….”