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.

 

The FRRO

Gather round, children. Let me tell you an epic tale. A tale of defeat and despair, and darkness and damp, and a daring venture through a seething, steaming, bureaucratic swamp. Let me tell you about the FRRO.

So it turns out that foreigners on long-term visas in India are required to register within 14 days of arrival. As I was informed after being in India for a week. Woops.

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With only the vaguest idea of what registering actually meant and a fistful of forms given to me by the university admin guy, I entered the FRRO office in downtown Hyderabad, an hour’s drive away from the campus. Children ran around squealing, groups of people were huddled around their guides, listening intently to instructions, there were a few people sleeping. It was fairly relaxed for an Indian government department, I imagine. I was ushered to the first waiting room where an official-looking man glared at everyone from behind a desk. On the desk was a sign that directed all enquiries to the other room. I’m still not exactly sure what his job was, but I sat down, number in hand, and started dutifully filling out yet another form I’d been given.

This attracted some attention. An Iraqi guy handed me his forms and passport. “Oh, I’m not…” I tried, but he shrugged and mumbled something about no English. Realising it would take more energy to explain than to just fill out the form, I resigned myself to my new secretarial role. He had a friend with a form too. By the time my number was called, I’d filled out five forms, including my own.

I made it to the first window.

“No, need original, not copy.”

“But the university has it.”

The man at the first window had called the next person by that stage and I was shunted to the side.

Right.

tenor

A five-hour excursion that resulted in nothing. Not altogether surprising, but annoying. It wasn’t my first time playing the intricate game of chess that is Indian bureaucracy though. Tomorrow, I’d take the king. I knew their strategy now. Tomorrow, I’d be ready.

The next day, I spent the long cab ride there getting pumped. I was going to do it! I was going to get registered! I am going to checkmate them! I am going to think of a better metaphor!

So I arrived. My game face (politely bewildered is my go-to) was ready, my paperwork was in order, my friend who was fluent in four local languages was a phone call away. I was not leaving without… well.. whatever it was I needed.

I got a ticket and only waited a few minutes in waiting room one until I was summoned to the first window. The hurdle I stumbled at yesterday. My nemesis barely flipped through my paperwork and waved me on.

I made it to the second waiting room, the inner sanctum. It was much nicer than the first oneI barely sat down in the second waiting room before my number was called. The smiley young man flicked through my paperwork and asked a few questions about my research, more polite and interested than probing. The inevitable discussion of cricket arose and was fortunately interrupted early. Fortunately, because it only took about three minutes for me to exhaust my knowledge of cricket. The man turned back to me, took my passport, and said my letter would be ready in 40 minutes.

Turns out, I was there to get a letter.

One hour and one surprisingly delicious chai later, I was summoned again. This time into the boss’s office. The boss didn’t look up from signing forms as I walked in. I recognised the pictures of some people from the waiting room on the forms he was signing. Lucky bastards.

“Community radio, huh? What is this?”

I launched into my spiel about what it is and how it’s different to other types of broadcasting, he interrupted with a wave of his pen.

“But nobody listens to that. There’s none of that in Hyderabad, why are you here?”

“Well, there is community radio in Hyderabad, and people do listen. I’m here to learn more about those people, and how community radio helps with development.”

“How does it help? How can it help poor people?”

“Uhh, well, there are a lot of really good examples here in India about how it has helped, but uhh, I guess that’s what I’m trying to find out…”

The man behind the desk got frustrated. “You are telling me what you think I want to hear, I’m really very interested, I will sign this regardless of what you say!”

I wished he would just sign it then and there, before I had the chance to say the wrong thing again. The boss flipped back to the first page of my forms.

“The form says you have no religion. How can you understand the religious people here if you have no religion of your own?”

Great. A less divisive topic. I mumbled a non-committal answer about the cultural diversity of India, which was promptly ignored.

“Where does your husband work? Why isn’t he here with you?”

“He’s back in Singapore working, but he’ll come and visit.”

“Good, bring him here, I would like to meet him. We can have tea.”

He then scribbled his signature on my form and handed it to me.

“Thank you for the chat, your research is very interesting. I wish you all the best.”

I would have been less surprised if he slapped me across the face. Another man appeared and ushered me back out to the waiting room. “I make a copy then I’ll bring.”

I sat in the first waiting room, slightly stunned. What just happened?

And that’s when the ceiling caved in. Not the metaphoric ceiling of my patience, but the actual ceiling. Water dripped and then poured from the roof above the grumpy man’s desk. He glared at the ceiling then turned back to the TV. I looked around to see if anyone else was amused by this latest turn of events but I got nothing. People stared blankly at their phones or the TV, no one seemed to care that it was now raining inside despite weeks of not raining outside.

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Water starting to pour from the ceiling…

The man returned with my letter and my passport, barely glancing at the indoor monsoon taking place a meter to his left.

“Ok?” I asked, uncertainly.

“Yes, ok.”

Right. I grabbed my stuff and scampered out before anyone could take the hard-fought letter away from me.

Unfortunately, due to my semester-based affiliation with an India institution, I have to repeat the whole process again in a few months. Next time, I’ll take an umbrella.

Sir-tainly

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 Hyderabad sunset

I’ve been in India planning and getting organised, as much as possible, for my fieldwork. To say it’s been a learning curve would be an understatement. While I’ve visited as a tourist, immersing myself in another academic culture when I’m not really that familiar with my own has been quite an experience.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long until my first, inevitable, cultural faux pas revealed itself.

Now, as a disclaimer, I wouldn’t say I’m excessively anti-authority, just the garden-variety, convict-descendent, Australian kind where everyone is called by their first name or “mate”.

I realised on my first trip here that I’d made a grave error. In all my emails prior to the trip, it was my usual approach of first name usage. Perfectly normal in Australia. I call my supervisor by her first name, I call faculty members at my uni by their first names, I called my former boss, a dean, by her first name, and, in turn, they all called me Bridget.

When I arrived in India and was greeted by a PhD student, it was all Professor So-and-so, First Name Sir, First Name Ma’am. I had an awful sinking feeling that I’d been ignorantly rude to the people who were kind enough to host me and assist in facilitating my research. Woops. Not that any of them called me on my cultural ignorance, but still, I’ve made sure that my speech and emails are liberally punctuated with sirs and ma’ams and professors and doctors ever since.

The phenomenon is not just associated with professional courtesy. At a conference, even older peers, fellow PhD students, got the sir or ma’am treatment. If I pulled that in the PhD student offices back home, I would either be laughed at, or people would think I was taking the piss, and they’d beat me up.

Speckling my emails with “sirs” and “ma’ams” is easy, but saying the words out loud is more difficult. They feel awkward and insincere. Not that I don’t have the utmost respect for the people I’m working with, it’s just surprisingly difficult to adjust to a culture that is so serious about putting that respect into words. Singapore is similar but more colloquial in terms of the use of Aunty and Uncle. Aunty and Uncle though seem much friendlier and more accessible ways of respecting those older than you, which is almost a cultural difference in itself. Even bhaiya feels a more natural, as much as is possible for a non-native Hindi speaker anyway…

For the mean time though, I’ll get used to “sirs” and “ma’ams”. At the end of the day, it’s probably one of the more minor cultural differences I’ve encountered since arriving in India! Plus, getting into the habit of being polite and respectful, albeit more formal than I’m used to, could never be a bad thing, right mate?