Chaotic Beginings

The girl next to me had obviously been at this process for a few days, or had done it before.  I could tell by the way she took a wide stance with her elbows out, leaning forward in front of the mustachioed clerk, forcefully but politely eliminating any doubt that she was before me.  I was surprised I didn’t recognize her given the fact that I had made the registration process a full time job for the better part of a week.  I was more familiar with the paper pushers at the FRRO (Foreign Regional Registration Office) than I was with the staff at Ashoka Youth Venture, my new workplace.  So much for getting right to work.  After four days of being told to go here, go there, wait for hours in that queue, talk to this or that person, bring this document, get that stamp, have the consulate fax this number, do backflips, dance monkey dance, I had finally realized what this process was about; make it as hard as possible so you give up and pay a bribe.  Although I had been offered very little help or encouragement from any of the clerks, I had turned down several offers to “go for coffee” and had declined paying small 50 rupee “fees” for tid-bits of information like the right names and places to sort this out.  It’s a little funny I guess, until you realize the impact all this bureaucratic corruption has on India’s ability to develop.  In that light, it’s just sad and frustrating.  I think many Indians understand this, and are just as disappointed in the operation as are the foreigners who are subject to the process.  Although we are the ones that have to pay the bribes and go through the FRRO gauntlet, the citizens of India are the real victims of this criminal process.  I watched as one American businessman lost it.  He yelled at a woman behind counter number 4, “What is taking so long!  Don’t you people want foreign investment?  You’re not doing us a favor by having us here!  We’re doing you a favor!”  The woman behind the desk didn’t flinch.  I’m sure she sees people lose it all the time.  The American was an ethnocentric jerk, but there was some uncomfortable truth in his outburst.

Back to the girl next to me at the counter, the one who had obviously been at this process before.  I think she was from Singapore.  The clerk thumbed through her documents, having a thickness rivaling a phonebook, and he proceeded to throw out all the duplicate documents she had included in the pile.  He then went through the pile again, asking her for copies of everything, even for the ones he had just placed in the waste basket.  This girl must have either reeked of bribe-potential or had done something to really tick-off the FRRO office in Bangalore.  The dance that proceeded was amazing.  As quickly as the clerk could ask for a copy, the girl could reach into her folder and pull out the requested document.  In a matter of ten seconds, the clerk had tried to stump her with at least ten requests for documents, and she had amazingly responded with the requested document each time.  I couldn’t believe her preparedness, nor his his shamelessness.  I thought there was no way this guy was going to find even a remotely seemingly legitimate way to reject her application.  She had covered every angle.  But I had underestimated the clerk’s willingness to be blatant in his corruption.  After exhausting every possible reason for rejection based on document presence and quantity, he managed to find one single page missing an official stamp from the girl’s university.  The girl was sent away, having been told to return with a stamp.  She left with surprisingly little argument.  It gave the impression that she knew arguing wouldn’t work.  Maybe she had succumbed to process, walked outside, found an agent, and went out for “coffee.”

“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
– Hunter S. Thompson

I think the late Mr. Thompson may have been referring to a one Mr. “Vini Bonds” of Bangalore, India, with whom my introduction went something like this:

“You can bring your stuff over tomorrow and stay until you find a place, meet my roommate, and see if you guys can feel each other out, and see if you wanna be roommates after I leave.”

To which I replied “Thanks Nandan.  Sounds good.  But can I just ask you, between you and me, do you recommend this guy?  I mean, do you think he will be a good roommate?”

“Yeah, I mean, you’ll get to meet him.  He’s a pretty cool guy.  And you can just see what you think.”

That’s how Nandan, the exiting AIF Fellow in Bangalore, first referred to “Vini Bonds.” As a “pretty cool guy.”  Little did I know how far from the truth that statement was.  That was almost two weeks before I found myself in a graveyard in the middle of the night, following this “pretty cool guy”  as he swaggered through hedge stones.  Why had I followed a madman into an Indian cemetery?  He was trying to prove that there are no such things as ghosts.  In my opinion, he did not succeed.  By then I had realized that Vini Bonds is not a pretty cool guy.  Such a mild statement should never be used to describe such complexity.  Vini Bonds is masala, not chiapati.  He is, in fact, a very cool guy.  And he will be my roommate for the next year.

Whereas week one of my fellowship was wasted in the FRRO office, most of week two was spent on the back of Vini’s motorcycle, flying around the city, helmetless and reckless, running red lights to meet real-estate brokers on time, making high-speed escapes from police looking for bribes from those not wearing helmets, and ultimately trying to find the place that we would be moving into together.  It was the most stressful fun I had experienced in ages.  I found a new home, and made a new friend in the process.

Honestly, I have been finding myself a little guilty about what has been accomplished in the first few weeks of my fellowship.  Although the intellectual thought process necessary to create my project has started, the only groundwork I have done has been devoted to registering with the FRRO and finding a place to stay.  Yesterday, I spent the day negotiating with realtors and never set foot in the office.  I had been warned that Tuesday was an auspicious day in India, told that nobody should attempt to move into a new place on Tuesday.  And so it was that the power of Tuesday made the whole process of moving a complete disaster, sending me all over the city to meet with different people, write checks for exorbitant amounts from not so exorbitant accounts, turning a half day of moving into an entire day of missed work.  And in the end, I am ashamed to say, I’ve completely enjoyed every moment of it.  That’s where the guilt comes in, not from the fact that I’ve missed work (that’s out of my hands), but from the fact that I’ve actually had so much fun navigating the disastrous yet necessary process of settling in to Bangalore.

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7 thoughts on “Chaotic Beginings

  1. Laughing out loud! Just read this aloud to Kim and Charlotte. Hopefully you will get down to work next week? Afterall, you are not retired like we are!

    Grandma says, “Stay cool.”

  2. Eli,
    I’m you’re Mom’s best friend from Kindergarten. Just spend some wonderful time with your mom and dad up here in Nor. Cal.
    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. It surely captures the multi-layered craziness of India and the feeling of your experience in meeting this culture and it’s people. Hilariously sad and wonderful. Made me laugh out loud. So impressed by your “guilty” enjoyment of the experiences. I look forward to reading more.

  3. I love the Mr. Toads wild ride through the Indian streets. Very colorful writing. Your words are so discriptive , I can imagine everything you’ve said. Keep up the blog with picts. It’s fun for us back home.


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