Saturday, 29 January 2011

Getting into The Fraser's

Like I once said earlier on the St. James's post, if you have read City of Djinns, you are in love with William Fraser. If you are not, go get yourself checked, there is something seriously wrong with you. So, then, somewhere in the middle of the book, Dalrymple talks about visiting Fraser's mansion near Kashmiri Gate. One fine morning, bereft of all other inspiration, I picked up the book again and read over the passage about finding the mansion. Book under my arm, page 121 bookmarked for reference, I got off at the Kashmiri Gate Metro Station and about 15 minutes later, walking over a flyover had seen the elusive dome of the erstwhile mansion of William Fraser, the former deputy resident of Delhi.

It was another 20 minutes before I found the road leading to the building and 25 before I reached the gates. The gates were iron grill and a long driveway led to an imposing building with a large lemon coloured dome. Two RPF (Railway Police Force) sentries seated on chairs behind a wooden table in the open just next to the gate immediately gave me an impression I was not welcome. I had a camera around my neck and innocently, I walked in. 'Can I take some photographs?' I asked.

'Who are you?', one of them retorted. I was stumped. I had thought my innocent, sincere looks could pretty much get me anywhere. I gave them a student story and my interest in history and my keen interest in photographing the place and how I had come from far away to just see this building. It did not cut any ice.

'You can't just come here and photograph. Go get a permit.' was the answer.

'Where from?' I asked.

'Patiala House.' he said and then turned his face away. Clearly, we were not talking any more about it.

Dejected, I walked away, my hopes of seeing Fraser's quarters quashed. I guess that should have been the end of it. I had nothing planned for the rest of the day. Patiala House was on the way though I had no clue what it housed. I took an auto and went there. Standing outside the gates, I called a friend who for some vague reason, I remembered had some contact in the railways. A few calls back and forth with him and I did have a contact and some pointers about what I should do though nothing could be done that day.

There was a ray of hope somewhere that I could get in. If I had an inkling about what the next 3 weeks had in store for me, I would probably have not been as hopeful. So, the next day, full of hope, beaming a smile, I reached Rail Bhawan, the mecca of Indian Railways officialdom, who own and run this building. Outside the building stood the image of Bholu, the Guard, the mascot of Indian Railways. It depicts a middle aged man with a pot belly, holding a lantern but with the face of an elephant, the quintessential railways guard who make the railway go around. Whether the similarity of the mascot to Ganesh is intentional or incidental, I cant comment but the way the building seemed to function seemed to be as lazy as Ganesh. Almost as a god sent message, my contact in the building also shared his name with the pot bellied god. I was asked to wait at the statue while someone came down to fetch me. The statement 'Ganesh Sahab ke guest hain!' (He is a Guest of Ganesh Sir) seemed to whisk me past the metal detector despite a ton of metal being detected on me. My hopes soared, I was already half into Fraser's mansion.

The man who had come to fetch me guided me into an elevator filled with middle and not so middle aged men on their way back from lunch. On the 4th floor, we got off the elevator and walked what almost felt like a mile. After the first 2 turns, I had lost all sense of direction. There were wings of the building and each wing had wings of its own. There were long corridors lined with doors, each with a name plate and a room number.  Everyone in the building seemed to be a director or a secretary.

Executive Director, Marketing, Room No 431
Additional Director, Maintenance, Room No 433
Director, Information and Publicity, Room No 434
Senior Director, Administration, Room No 427

Walking past many directors, I reached Room No 438 where I met Ganesh Sir. He was a clean shaven, 30ish, affable man dressed in a full police officer uniform with 3 stars adoring the eppaulette of his shirt. Soft spoken, gentle and courteous, he inquired the reason for my request. Jumping around questions with the usual difficulty I have in making people understand what I have been doing for the past 19 months, I managed to convince. Rather, I should say he was convinced 'There is no point trying to find out the reason for why this guy is wanting to get into a godforsaken building no one wants to see. So, let me cut this short and tell him how to go about it.' Well, it worked for me and I was not complaining.

Together with my benefactor, I once again undertook the pilgrimage to one floor and many corridors down, to the office of the Director, Information and Publicity. A door led to a large room, housing the many people who served the esteemed director. It was a pile of files and people reclining on chairs. In one corner was the sanctum sanctorum of the director herself. I was successively introduced to two people, for there was confusion about who the competent authority really was. The second one, a bespectacled, old South Indian gentleman was berating a man for printing some stationery on the non standard thickness of paper in Hindi with a pronounced South Indian accent. I watched the poor man saying many sorries while not really being so. Finally, after the session had ended, the gentleman turned to us, lowered his spectacles and peered at me over his nose. After appraising me for what seemed like a full minute, 'Yes?'. Ganesh explained the purpose of our visit. There were the usual questions about why etc. He went into a long monologue about why the permission was needed and why I had to explicitly declare that this was for non-commercial purposes. Apparently, a foreigner had once gotten into a railway building and photographed it and posted the photos online. A few days down the line, the Railways Department had used his picture as a background on their website and the photographer objected to it, suing the department for using his copyrighted work. Ever since, Railways decided that they do not only own the building but also the photos taken by tourists visiting them. So, if your purpose was commercial, not only would you have to pay a fee (which is justified), you would never get the permit, or so I was told.

Having convinced him that my purpose was purely personal, we seemed to be on the way to deciding what really was needed when the issue of my blog and site came up. As he heard it, he said 'Why were you hiding it? You are going to use it on a blog, that is commercial use.' All our good work had been undone with the indiscreet mention of the B word and we had gone into the red territory. It took another 15 minutes of cajoling before he agreed a personal blog is not commercial. Then another bombshell dropped. When I revealed that I wanted to get in with some friends, 2 of whom were foreigners, he went red. 'What will they do inside? This is a security issue. Do you realize how much will this complicate everything?' Sheepishly, I agreed that all foreigners are 'security issues' but pleaded that these were not. After all, not all of them are 'security issues'. Reluctantly, after considering the sincerity in my voice, he agreed. Then he said, 'We only issue permits for foreigners.' For a moment, I thought he was joking. He was not. I was supposed to go to another office for getting a permit for myself. If by this point you are confused, don't worry. 3 weeks after I first went there, I am still confused about what happened there.

Before we parted, we agreed that I would send across a sample application letter seeking permission for entry and photography in the building and the gentleman sitting across the desk would vet it before I sent in a signed, printed copy for final verification. Next day, I had sent a draft and within hours received a reply saying it was fine. Promptly, happily and hopefully, I had it signed by my friend and dropped it at Rail Bhawan. The sky was blue, it was sunny outside, I was optimistic. The same day, I also made the pilgrimage to the office of The Chief Public Relations Officer, Northern Railway, which was interestingly situated at the State Entry Road in a run down building. There, I bumped around a couple of desks with my application before I was granted audience and was immediately told to come back the next day so that 'we could discuss the issue'. However, I was told 'we normally do not grant permissions for getting into this building'.

In 2 days, the fortunes of my and my friends had fluctuated a lot. One day, I had thought it was an easy sail for me but not for my foreigner friends. The next, I had flipped my opinion. I was almost ready to start a betting book on the odds of who got the permission first, if at all. Next day, when I went back, it was much better. Apparently my second consecutive showing had melted the heart of the Public Relations Officer and I was told I could get in. I was asked to wait for a few minutes. I waited and was told the printer was broken. So, I decided to leave and come back in 2 days time. By then, they would have fixed the printer. Meanwhile, there was no news from Rail Bhawan. I had set my date of entry as 28th Jan, so I was not really concerned. It was still 10 days away.

Couple of days later, after waiting for the gentleman who had my letter and was having an extended lunch, I got my letter of permission. It almost seemed a little too easy. Rail Bhawan on the other hand was shut like an oyster's trap. I called but was told, 'The file has been put up for consideration'. 2 days later, it had been sent for security clearance but security had not received it. 'The file was lost and could not be traced' was the new status. Ping pong went on and Republic Day arrived. It was 26th, just 2 days to go. I was losing hope. I had lost hope. 27th morning, I called again. It was being located. Half an hour later, I was told it had been found but....and this was a big but(t). Apparently, it had never been sent to security because her highness the Executive Director of Publicity and Information had an objection. My friend, whose application she was pondering over is researching municipal solid waste management as part of a Fulbright Grant. Apparently, the ex director was concerned that she might get into the building, photograph waste and portray railways in a negative light. And I thought we had given the information about her research to establish she was no David Headley, who she had been compared to in my first conversation with the old gentleman sitting outside the director's cabin. So much for credentials. You dont have them, you are doomed. You have them, you are still doomed.

It was mid morning 27th and there was an objection. So, we were asked to send an undertaking by fax, signed and all, saying that we would not do anything to the waste on the premises and ensure we do not portray railways in a negative light, that we would close our eyes (lest they be gouged out) as soon as our eyes rested on a stray packet of gutkha on the pavement. And we did that. Quite why would they be concerned about a building in Kashmiri Gate when the railway stations are squeaky clean (sic) is still beyon dmy limited intellect. The undertaking was faxed, multiple follow up calls followed. The file had moved off its big bad butt. It had gone for security by the evening. This time, it actually reached. 7 in the evening, I got a call from Ganesh telling me security had cleared it. I still hung on to the hope of getting the letter in the morning and postponed my own visit to the afternoon of 28th. I had all but lost hope though. It had taken them 2 weeks to move the file 2 stages. God only knows how many more hiccups before 'the letter' was issued, before the 'fat lady sang'.

28th morning saw me half hopeful, half forlorn. I called up at quarter to 10, was told to call back in half an hour. And then, lightening struck. Before the clock had struck half an hour, I got a call. The letter was ready. 'THE LETTER' was ready. Can you believe that? I still cant. THE LETTER WAS READY. I jumped onto the metro and collected the letter. It was a real letter, real paper and ink, real flesh and blood. Mixed with elation and relief was the apprehension of what twist would the visit actually throw our way. 3 weeks of running around the offices had made me a cynic. Anything was possible. What if they did not recognize these letters there? What if they did not let us in? What if they only let us photograph from the outside?

That however could wait for another hour. For now, we had 2 people with 2 letters to get into Fraser's bungalow. And we were getting in that afternoon, trying to at any rate!

Copy of Letter 1 (personal details removed)
Copy of Letter 2 (personal details removed)

P.S. - Some of the story above is only indicative, partly fictitious and not necessarily true. I disclaim because I was asked to give a declaration that I would not portray Railways in a negative light and I am keeping my promise. :)

1 comment:

  1. Nice account of a great ordeal.

    What would have happened if you were not a guest of Ganesh sir? What did you find inside the haveli that the Railways keep it under the covers?

    Looking forward to your next post on the actual visit.