Turtles All The Way Down
William James (father of American psychology and brother of Henry James) is supposed to have had a conversation with an elderly lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle.
“But, my dear lady”, James asked, “what holds up the turtle?”
“Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.”
“But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?”
“It’s no use, Professor”, said the lady, avoiding the logical trap. “It’s turtles, turtles, turtles, all the way down.” — Apocryphal
Many years ago, while in Delhi, India, I decided to visit the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan. At the time, Bhutan was wary of outsiders and allowed very few people to enter the country, bar a few ruthlessly organised and stringently controlled tour groups. Obviously, joining a ‘tour group’ was unacceptable; Mishari The Rebel, Mishari The Outsider, (Mishari The Fatuous Twit) joining the blue-rinse brigade to be chivvied and herded around the country with carefully planned stops for gawking and trinket-buying? I thought not.
So I visited the Indian Foreign Ministry (India, the regional super-power, handled Bhutan’s external affairs at the time and may well still do) to apply for a visa.
I was sent from office to office, in the usual Indian fashion of bureaucracy-gone-mad, until, after perhaps 4 fruitless hours, I ended up in the office of Mr. Reddy. Well-fleshed, dressed in immaculate white kurta and salwar, Mr. Reddy blinked owlishly behind his powerful spectacles as he scanned my various documents and the God-alone-knows-how-many forms I’d already filled in.
“My dear sir, you are wanting to go to Bhutan, isn’t it?”
It was, I confirmed.
“You are having return ticket?”
I was not having return ticket.
“Ah…is problem: you see, my dear sir, is not possible to be issuing visa without return ticket. When you are possessing return ticket, we will be issuing visa.”
So it was across town to Connaught Circus, to the offices of Indian Airlines (at the time, India’s internal carrier). After the usual hurry-up-and-wait rigmarole that accompanies a visit to any Indian office, I was seen by a ticket-agent.
“Gentleman, you are wanting to travel to Bhutan, isn’t it?”
I agreed that it was.
“Gentleman is having visa?”
Gentleman was not having visa.
He smiled triumphantly: “But you see, gentleman, ticket is impossible without visa–having visa, no problem; not having visa, big problem.”
I already knew enough about India to realise that protestations would be futile; I went in search of a drink instead. The next day found me wending my way from office wallah to office wallah in the direction of Mr. Reddy. Finally washing-up on his foreshore, I explained my predicament.
He tut-tutted like a man who’d had a lot of practice: “My dear sir, travel-clerk gentleman is mistaken: first, must be having ticket, then issuing visa…regulations, la…”. He nodded with satisfaction: the word ‘regulations’ acts as a powerful narcotic on Indian bureaucrats.
“Would it be possible to get a letter to that effect, Mr. Reddy?”
“Is not necessary, my dear sir. If travel-agent gentleman is requiring confirmation, telephone is there.”
And so, damp with sweat and irritation, I scooter-rickshawed my way back to Indian Airlines, where the same travel-agent gave me the same song-and-dance: no visa, no ticket. I pleaded with him to phone Mr. Reddy but Indian telephones being what they were (early 1970s) and Indian Ministries being what they were, he would have had more luck phoning Lord Krishna.
At this point, I got in touch with my embassy. The ambassador, a family friend, laughed at my predicament. “This is India, my boy. It’s how things are–better get used to it.” He did, however, get everything sorted out for me with a couple of phone calls.
When it’s turtles all the way down, it’s always best to go straight to the top turtles if you want to get anything done.
Verse on bureaucracy and bureaucrats, please.