A hollow victory

There’s been a lengthy break in play since my last post, I do apologise for keeping you in suspense. For those playing at home, the previous state of play was me sinking beers in an airport after being firmly asked to leave the district where I was conducting my research. The local passports officer was unsatisfied that my foreigner registration was from another location, so I needed to transfer. After confirming that the office would be open the next day, I made the two-hour journey to the nearest airport and got an evening flight to Hyderabad.

I landed late and slept badly. Clutching a wad of paperwork, I took an Uber to the FRRO where I had such fond memories. It was closed. Because of course it was.

“Tuesday,” the security guard grunted.

“Not Monday?” I was optimistic, seeing as it was a public holiday, but the security guard had already lurched back to his desk by this stage.

So I sat in a hotel room for the weekend. Having previously exhausted most of Hyderabad’s tourism activities, I watched movies and got food delivered all weekend, bingeing on curries and self-pity.

When Tuesday rolled around, I was bouncing off the wall to get to the FRRO. I was one of the first in line and spoke to the man in the waiting room as soon as I walked in. I remembered from last time that the waiting room’s guardian was key to accessing the second office of the FRRO, which was where all the real stuff happened. I explained my situation as politely as possible and he grunted that I needed a “no objections” letter from my university. Great. So off I went.

The letter from the university took a few days to organised. I was forever grateful when my local friend returned from his trip and took me for a beer. He very patiently listened and ordered multiple rounds of chilli paneer and beers as I ranted about the FRRO and how unfair and frustrating it all was. No-one was responding to emails, my phone calls were being brushed off, and I’d watched way too many episodes of Masterchef Australia by this point.

Finally, the university prevailed and sent me through the documentation. After spending almost an entire week waiting, I was prepared. I had documents of no objection from the university, I had two-sentence email from someone in the FRRO, I had copies of passports, visas, registration forms, letters of invitation, everything. The man at the front desk of my hotel had very politely let me print a few things from his computer that morning, I may have taken advantage of his kindness… Anyway, nothing was going to stop me at this point. I charged through the waiting room and accosted the man at the desk there, waving my stack of papers like a lunatic and pointing at every tick on the checklist. He waved me through to the second room and my second opponent. I took a slightly more deferential approach, sprinkling my explanations with ‘Sirs’. He glanced through my paperwork, “Where’s the invitation letter from your new institution in Chennai?”

What? “I’m not going to Chennai, and there’s no new institution, just a short stay for research.”

“You need a letter from the institution,” and he swivelled his chair away.

Ok. I decided to go into the stairwell where I could discreetly decide if I was going to cry or not. Wait. The email. I raced back to the desk, brandishing my phone.

“But this email says that I only need documents from my university!”

The man gave a most impressive eyeroll. “Speak to my supervisor.”

I was directed to a desk behind a window about two-metres away, but still the man tried to call ahead. The phone didn’t work so he heaved himself up, seemingly with great effort, and walked over to explain to the supervisor why I was there.

Miracle of miracles, the supervisor seemed much more reasonable and, if not polite, at least civil, than any other FRRO person I had ever encountered.

“Miss, in order for us to issue a transfer certificate, we need your letter of acceptance for your new university in Chennai.”

I explained, once again, that I was not transferring universities, just going to do PhD fieldwork.

“Oh,” his brow furrowed, “how long will you be there for?”

“Maximum, another six weeks.”

“Oh well, you only need a transfer certificate if you’re away from more than eight weeks.”

“I know,” I tried not to laugh hysterically, “but the sir in the local office asked me to leave.”

“No, that’s incorrect. Have him call me if there are any problems.”

And that was it. I was dismissed. I was right. I was victorious! Wait. Was I? I’d just wasted a week in Hyderabad, only to be told what I already knew. This fixed nothing!

I called my host NGO to seek some advice.

“I don’t think that would go well,” she said, brusquely, after I suggested that the local FRRO man should call Hyderabad.

I sighed, my initial impressions of the man aligned with that assessment. He didn’t seem like the kind of person who like to be argued with, or proven wrong.

“Let me know what you want to do, bye!”

Great. I conferred with my research assistant. There were two options. Return to the district and do battle, potentially a suicide mission, or cut our losses and return after visiting the second site, after my Hyderabad registration had expired. I considered the options. Going back may serve to further antagonise the FRRO there, plus I only had another week before I was expected at my second site. I sighed, yet another tactical retreat.

So I got on the next flight back to Singapore, tail between my legs. I was right, I had every right to be there, but still, it was a hollow victory.

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