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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The FRRO part 2

Beer tastes better when you’ve earned it. After a tough but fun sports session, or on a Friday after a long week at work, that first beer is extra sweet because you know you deserve it. On the flip side of that is the sympathy beers. They don’t taste as good, but they dull the pain of loss or failure. Not in the drink-your-sorrows way, more of a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to lean on, even if you shouldn’t really need it. Tough week at work but it’s only Monday? Sorry, that’s a sympathy beer.  Fight with the spouse when you know you’re wrong but too stubborn to admit? Sympathy beer. Let me tell you, the beer I’m drinking now is up there with the most sympathetic I’ve ever tasted.

Gather around friends, for this is not a drinking story, not yet anyway. Lend me your ears, and let me tell you a tale of our favourite government department. The one we love to hate. The FRRO! Boo, hiss. At this risk of being a one-trick pony-blog, here I am again.

My fieldwork has started, it’s going well. I’m on the verge of getting stuck into interviews based on all the observation I’ve been doing. The juicy stuff. But my nemesis, the FRRO had other plans. If you remember, I did suspect I’d have to fight another battle in this war. The warning drums sounded yesterday, “You need to go to town, they want to see you.” Ok, no problem, I’ll head in first thing tomorrow morning. Town is an hour away, plus I need to take all my documents.

“No. They want to see you now. The car’s here.”

Right. Ok. So off we went. Winding up, down, and around steep peaks and valleys blanketed in clouds and tea plantations, the drive was absolutely beautiful. When we reached town, the brightly-coloured houses terraced their way down the hill, smoke puffing from their chimneys. The smell of tea was heavy in the air, it’s roasting season. It really was an idyllic scene. But we accelerated straight through that, following the severe-looking signs that directed us to the “Police Superintendent”.

I idly wondered what an Indian police station was like. It’s not something you ever hope to see here – the inside of a police station, or a hospital, for that matter – but seeing as I was there on, hopefully, non-criminal matters, it would be quite interesting. We were escorted into a plain building with whitewashed walls and an air of superiority. No jail cells, just white tiles and white walls. We entered an office where a man behind a sad-looking desk flicked his wrist in our direction. Our local guides fell over themselves greeting him, “Good afternoon, sir. Thank you, sir.”

My fellow FRRO victim, an American who was completing her exit proceedings, nudged me to sit down. Without looking up, Lord Almighty of the Wonky Desk, called, “Passport.” I blinked, unsure as to who he was talking to but the American and our guides had sprung into action. He flicked through the paperwork and the passport, still not making eye contact.

“The date is wrong. When did you enter India?”

The American tripped over herself to explain but His Excellency held up his index finger.

“It’s a simple question.”

Crestfallen, the American answered with a specific date.

“You should have known better,” he had turned to our guide at this point.

Our guide murmured some apologies and some more “sirs”. The paperwork was thrust back towards him.

“Where is the transfer certificate? She is violating the terms of the visa without it.”

My turn, I guessed. I opened my mouth but our guide gave me a look that was both a warning and a plea not to get us all into trouble. And then we were shown out. It took all of five minutes.

“Wait, what just happened?”

We were suddenly back outside, and I was completely thrown. The American, who’d apparently had a very positive experience, was almost skipping.

“Yeah, he’s just like that. I had to get mine transferred from Delhi, hopefully they can do it without you having to go there.”

Uhh, ok. Then we got back in the car and drove back. For an hour.

Following our guides advice, I dutifully mailed the university who helped me register in Hyderabad in the first place. They came straight back, said they would do their best, but it’s a long weekend so they’d only get to it on Tuesday. Great. No problem!

Not great. Kind of a problem. The next day, I informed our guide of my emailings and he nodded, seemingly satisfied. Went up to work as per usual. But then there was a phone call. I heard my name. That is never good.

We had been summoned.

“Where is your transfer certificate?” the NGO woman-in-charge demanded.

I explained what I had told our guide, also her PA, that morning.

“We need it now.”

She’d just been on the phone to His Imperial Majesty, and Tuesday was Not Good Enough™. Ok, sorry, I can try to call them?

“No, you have to leave. Today.”

And that’s the story of how the FRRO got me kicked out of an entire district of India.

So here I sit, sipping my first beer (ok, technically now I’m up to the second) since I arrived weeks ago. Nothing has driven me to drink, nothing has distracted me from my work, until now. I’m in need of a sympathetic ear beer. At the risk of cliché, I’m sitting at an airport bar, drowning my sorrows and planning my next move. Going to Hyderabad might be a retreat, but I hope it’s going to be a strategically advantageous one. Tomorrow is a new day. The FRRO may have won this battle, but the war ain’t over yet.

First night in the field

20170612_102315Fieldwork has begun and it has been quite a start. There was a pre-pre-dawn departure, a delayed flight, a sweaty, steaming sprint between terminals, and then eventually touching down. But then it was on to the next leg. Two flights and a three-hour drive through windy, hilly roads with nothing but coffee sloshing around in my stomach did not make for a happy camper.

So, when the friend of a friend who had been helping me asked if I wanted to come to his parent’s place for dinner, my first instinct was to say no, thank you. I was tired and confused, and a little homesick already. Feeling completely out of my depth and in need of some decompression time. Fortunately, it struck me how rude it might have been to refuse the invitation so I accepted. Only after this I remembered my India survival technique. You have to say yes. Or at least shrug and go with “why not?”.

Because, much like her auto drivers and tourist touts, India doesn’t take no for an answer. She demands that you say yes. Obviously there are some fairly major caveats to this advice, I may be a solo female traveller in India but I’m not a complete idiot. It’s maybe not the best idea to follow shady dudes down dark alleys because they asked you too. But new experiences, meeting new people, eating new things, they’re kind of the reasons we travel in the first place. While India may be intimidating, so much so that the first instinct is to withdraw and regroup, that’s not why I’m here.

So we piled into our local host’s tiny Tata car and set off along the narrow mountain roads. The area was lush and green and stunning. The front seat were talking about how there had been elephants in the village two days early. The road curled around a tea factory and the air smelt like overbrewed tea.

As we pulled up in the village, there was a bit of a stereotypical moment. The car pulled up and we strangers got out. Two from the city, and me from somewhere else entirely. The men who were loading a truck with bags full of tea leaves stopped and stared. The children who had run up to the car initially hid behind each other and gaped. I pasted on my best goofy “hello” smile and followed our host up the hill.

We met his parents who smiled and welcomed us into their pristine home. It was warm inside, with the low ceilings and doorways trapping the heat in a way that was cosy, not smothering. Introductions were made complete with some broken English and completely butchered Tamil (mine obviously). “Come, we’ll take our tea outside.” It was hard to leave that toasty house that was just starting to smell like an amazing dinner spread. But it was worth it. The air outside was cold and crisp. We sat on plastic chairs and sipped on steaming hot, sweet chai. The village was on a steep slope, and this patio seemed to be on the main thoroughfare. This might not have been accidental, it turns out our host’s father was the village headman. People were constantly stopping by to have a chat and gawp at the foreigner. Two of the braver children stood near enough to headbutt me but were too shy to say hello.

It was pretty magical. Sometimes in the chaos and the filth and the poverty and the frustration, it’s easy to forget that India is indeed a special place. Bitch is manipulative. She makes you wait in ridiculous queues and tries to run you down with a trolley first, then a car, then a cow. She bakes you in steamy humidity then chills you with dry, dusty winds. She taunts you with images of delicious curries and rice, but then serves you a cheese sandwich. Still not sure how that happened.

Anyway, but then India turns in on and all is forgiven. It certainly was that night. After the long day of travel, I somehow ended up in a postcard of what fieldwork in India should look like. On a rooftop in a remote village, eating biscuits and drinking chai. The sun had long disappeared behind the mountains and the air smelt of cooking smoke and cows. “This might be what it’s all about,” I thought, as my host generous pushed the plate of biscuits towards me again. I declined though, gotta save room for that curry.