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.

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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?

Confirmation

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I’m a runner and when you’ve been running for a while, no matter how slow or begrudgingly you go, you figure out what works for you. I can’t eat before I run. I need at least a good hour between eat and street otherwise I get that hot, kind of queasy sick feeling. Not quite verge-of-vomit but definitely uncomfortable.  Turns out thinking about my confirmation of candidature presentation has the same effect. Logically, it’s ridiculous. I do not have a problem with public speaking, I have had positive feedback from my supervisors on my most recent draft, I’ve still got 10 weeks to prepare. Nonetheless, there’s that itch of insecurity. I refer extensively to the work of one of my panellists and I have the (completely irrational) feeling he’s going to stand up halfway through and say something like, “No. No, you’ve got that all wrong, how could you possibly misunderstand that? You’ve insulted me and my life’s work. Get out.” Then I will leave and walk home, it will inevitably start to rain, and I will think about the years I’ve wasted as a bus drives past and predictably splashes mud all over me.

I was explaining all this to a friend over drinks the other day, musing that all this work could have been for nothing, that I may have wasted years of my life, that my clothes will get all muddy from the imaginary bus-puddle incident etc, etc. My friend wisely cut me off and summarised my rambling: “So what you’ve been doing for twelve months could be completely wrong?”. Oh god. It was said as a joke, this particular friend does not have a molecule of spite or malice in her entire being, she spent most of the conversation reassuring me with saintly patience. Yet that line has circled around my brain like a vulture eyeing off a particularly tasty zebra carcass.

It’s ridiculous that a throwaway comment has stayed with me, and that these irritating insecurities are lingering. The purpose of confirmations is not to make PhD students cry or break out in a rash, it’s to make sure we’re on the right track and to provide a bit of a sounding board. It’s an opportunity to get feedback from outside of your supervisory team, a different perspective that may pick up on something you’ve missed. The majority of students pass and continue with their candidature with no issues. My brain knows all of this, yet I still can’t think about it for too long with that hot, sick feeling rolling into my stomach like I’m up to kilometre 3.5 straight after lunch.

I tried a different approach to assuage some of my paranoia and asked some fellow PhD friends about their confirmation experiences. They were, if possible, less comforting. “It’s no big deal,” they said. “Don’t even worry about it.” It’s all well and good for them, they’re almost finished PhDs! They’re geniuses… Genii? I don’t even know the plural of genius! How am I supposed to get through my confirmation??

I think I’ve figured it out though. The problem is not that I have an over-active imagination or watch too much TV. It’s not that I have to make a 30-minute presentation of my work in front of some of the best minds in the field I’m trying to get into. It’s not even that my work might not be good enough. It’s my friends. I need new friends.

 

 

Becoming an expert

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Sometimes I wish my PhD course was a little more flexible. Just a minor thing. Like the option to weasel out of doing a literature review. I’d do terrible things to get out of it. Bad things. Not that sort of bad, you perv. Like I’ll take out the rubbish when the bag has split and then clean up the trail of garbage juice. I’ll go to the dentist. I’ll babysit the shrieking hellspawn kids next door. I’ll watch that James Franco movie about North Korea. Just don’t make me review the literature. Don’t make me talk about situating my research. Don’t make me present myself as someone with the authority to make a critical assessment of the relevant literature in my field. Do you know how crazy that is? I’ve only just found my field and cleared away some of the rocks so I can set up camp! I can’t review it yet, I’ve only just started looking around!

I’ve read more this year than I have in my entire life accumulatively. Far from feeling enriched and learn-ed (said with two syllables, while swirling a glass of cognac), I feel a looming sense of panic about everything I don’t know. Every reference suggests ten more that I probably should have read already. They say you should stop reading when you stop learning something new. What if that doesn’t happen? What if, at my completion seminar, I stand up and tell them I can’t present my data because I’m still reading? It’s a real possibility, or it seems like it at this point.

As a kind-of-external student, my isolation is a blessing and a curse. I can smash out 1000 words before breakfast but by lunchtime I may be still in my pyjamas and telling my cat that she’ll get a doctorate before I will. The cathartic, self-deprecating exchanges with fellow students over coffee are something I really miss about the studying experience. Sure, at the library I’ll share a mildly hysterical look with someone else who has a stack of books and an aura of drowning, but it’s just not the same. For now I’ll have to settle for online rants and the biannual trip home.

My last trip back did reassure me somewhat. I know this won’t last forever. I’m the post-grad equivalent of an undergrad who is fresh out of high school. The panic will pass and I’ll find my feet. By the end of my PhD, I’ll be completely self-assured, an expert in my field. Grad students and UN reps will ask me if I’ve read this insightful new book that has pretty much come up with a flawless new development paradigm. I’ll sigh indulgently, “Oh darling, I wrote the book”, and point a meticulously-filed finger at my byline on the cover. Because future me has a book and a manicure.  I suppose she doesn’t chew the sides of her fingernails so they aren’t torn and ragged and I bet she doesn’t worry about getting hepatitis from taking her open wounds to a nail salon. I bet she can write concluding sentences for paragraphs too. Sigh.

For now though, this novice will make a coffee and shamefully get the packet of cooking chocolate out of the fridge. Times are tough when you turn to cooking chocolate. I’ll make a coffee and go back to the last sentence of that paragraph. Ok, the last sentences of those three paragraphs.

Research questions

So this week I’ve been grappling with research questions. Not my usual ones of ‘What am I doing with my life’ and ‘Have I made a terrible mistake’, the questions underpinning and guiding my PhD research.

When I submitted a research proposal, I knew it was a fluid document. By that I mean the subject matter has similar properties to a liquid: messy and difficult to grasp. Changing and refining your topic is a massive part of doing a PhD, I just had no idea I would struggle this much with it.

The warning signs were there. Whenever people ask me what my topic is, I have a rehearsed pitch that I recite. It’s in writing somewhere too. I had to write something because when I improvised, I ended up using the words “development” and “community” four or five times in one sentence. I am powerfully reminded of the newsroom interns I once terrorised: “If you can’t tell me what your story is in one sentence, you either don’t know enough about it or it’s not a story.” Dammit past-me, show a little compassion, I’m working on it!

I did have a vague research question in mind and casually inserted it into my class group’s Google Doc for feedback. Feedback is good. Feedback is helpful. Even if I don’t get any hugely helpful research question feedback, at least I’ll be connecting with my fellow researchers who are no doubt struggling with the same things I am! Bless your cotton socks, past-me, you are a heartless tyrant who is as naïve as a new-born babe. When I checked the doc a day or so later, it was full of my peers’ submissions: multiple research questions, all carefully thought-out and meticulously worded. I was in trouble.

The spreadsheet looked like this:

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You can guess which was mine.

The problem is not that I’m a lost 7 year-old (though that would explain a lot), it’s more that everything is just too damn interesting. Especially for those with as short an attention span as mine. Each research question I’ve come up with so far has the shelf life of milk in the sun. Either Google Scholar slaps them down, they don’t stand up to the standard research questions tests or I find something that interests me more.

I had yet another lightning bolt of inspiration last night (my third or fourth of the week) and swore that this was it! This is the question! This is the one! But. In the cold light of day, things look different. Who have I woken up with? The honeymoon period is over and I don’t know anything about this question. Initial research is promising but we’ve got to cover the big issues: is it robust enough? Does it share my view on qualitative research? What are its theoretical constructs? Will it still love me when I’m old and grey and wrinkled, which is how I’ll look at the end of this PhD?

We’ve got some things to work through, research question #12 and I.

“You’ll understand when you’re older.”

If I have a spirit animal, it’s this dog:

Somehow, I was under the impression that legally being an adult meant you suddenly were in possession of a wealth of knowledge and experience. Yet here I am, verging on my quarter-century birthday, thinking of this dog on daily basis. “What did you do next, science dog?” I ponder. “And how did you get your protective goggles on?”

Like many an amateur psychologist, I’ll blame my upbringing. There seems to be an evil underground culture of parents lying to their children about life.

“Hey kids! On December 25th a fat, bearded man from the North Pole will break into our house and bring your presents!”

A timely, classic tale of betrayal. A global conspiracy between parents and shopping malls. But do you know what the biggest lie is? It’s not the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. It’s far more sinister. It’s the endlessly repeated catch-cry of:

“You’ll understand when you’re older!”

When? I’m older, much older. When exactly will this understanding be taking place? A precise time and date if you could.

Nothing yet. Just older, no wiser.

One could argue, if absolutely necessary, that perhaps I put myself in situations like the one science dog has found herself in. A challenging career, moving overseas, enrolling for a PhD.

Oh, that’s what this post was about. I’ve been accepted to study for a PhD.

It’s just you and me, science dog. For the next four years.