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.

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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?

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.