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.
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.
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.
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.
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.