The quest to gain the title of “Foreign Researcher” in India is a task required of all Fulbright Scholars, but should not be undertaken by the feint-of-heart, impatient, or quick-to-anger. Rather, one must marshal all one’s courage, perseverance, piety, and a willingness to grovel, fawn, and whimper before the stone faces of a faceless bureaucracy. Spells, incantations, secret rituals, prayers to one’s guru or divine intercessor are recommended prior to setting forth upon one’s steed or noble tuk-tuk.
(Yet let me say before I recount the story of my quest, that the faceless intelligence behind the trials, tribulations, perils, and tricks to trip you up encountered on this quest, has his or her counterpart in my homeland, America, where hordes of immigration lawyers and mercenary tax attorneys often must be hired to engage with the faceless bureaucracy there. At least here I could embark upon this quest on my own.) So,
let us go then, you and I, while the sun scorches the countryside, for our destined door, called the FRO (“Foreign Registration Office”), is open only from 3:00 to 5:00.
But first (and there will be time for more hesitations, recapitulations), you must find the national online FRRO form (“Foreign Researcher Registration Form”), which however, must not be filled out. Instead, the site of the local FRO has a different form, which also must not be filled out, but printed and filled in by hand. When you print the form, it is magically transformed into many different forms. These would perhaps be riches in other circumstances.
I dutifully filled out every form in excruciating detail.
Meanwhile, my allotted time was running out. The registration process must be completed within 14 days of arriving in India. This is VERY IMPORTANT. For various reasons, by this point I had five days left; two of the them were weekend days and one was a holiday.
I had had to go to the university and have a certain form signed, and request a letter stating that I was affiliated with the university, even though I already had such a letter. I needed a second one signed after I arrived in India. Further, the university had to provide me with a “Unique ID Number,” which their computer would generate. Of course this required more than one visit to the university. Ok, I did all that.
Thus, on my chosen day, I put all the forms in a big accordion file with all my other papers, put them in my backpack, and armed with my vorpal sword of optimism, I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me across town to the gate of the FRO.
On the way, I experienced the sights and sounds of the city, the terrors of being crushed as we weaved before trucks, the horrors of nearly crushing motorcycles weaving before us. I had no handkerchief to cover my face, I breathed fumes bravely, and alternated relaxing my muscles to reduce the generation of heat and tensing them to brace for impact.
My dauntless driver dropped me off at the FRO and I approached the door with the excitement of getting a task done quickly and well. At the door, however, I was stopped by a guard, a young female in a brown uniform, who told me that I could not enter with my backpack. Why? Well, of course backpacks are notorious for hiding bombs. India is third on the list of counties most attacked by terrorism, after Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But couldn’t they have mentioned this on the website?
“Can you check the backpack for me?” “No.” “What should I do?” “You can go over there to ______ and check it.” She pointed across the street to a row of restaurants. I couldn’t understand the word she was saying.
This is perhaps the worst of my seven deadly sins. I am still learning Indian pronunciation of English. In modern day India, speaking English for many is a ticket into the middle class. There are numerous schools for learning it. It is a matter of pride among those who know it. I have no trouble among the well-educated people at the ashram or university. But my trouble understanding those in the bureaucracy has been experienced by them as an insult and impertinence. Here’s the worst example. A female officer tells me something, and I say, trying to be modest, “Sorry, I only understand English.” She bristles. She was speaking English. And I, an American, thought she was talking in a different language. Lord, I’m trying my best.
So I crossed the busy street but found no restaurant that would check my backpack. Plus, I was leery of giving up possession of one of my most important items for survival.
So, crest-fallen, I flagged a tuk-tuk and returned home, my head bloodied, but now bowed. Yet.
Next day, despite the heat, I left my flat in a long sleeve button-down shirt and tie. I figured I should dress like I knew what I was doing. I carried only a file of my papers, my passport and my money belt. The sign above the FRO door had said no cameras, as well, so I assumed that meant no iPhones.
I hired a tuk tuk driver and relived the experience of the day before: split-second misses, sudden smashings of the brakes. I concentrated on the women, old and young, in beautiful saris. “The beauty of woman is the glory of God.” I read that somewhere.
At the door of the castle of FRO, I gained entrance. I singed my name in a three-foot tall ledger book. I proceeded on to a reception office. I stood in line. It was crowded and hot. When my turn came, a woman in a brown uniform (almost all of the officers in police stations are women) told me that my “Proof of Residence Form” had not been signed. That was clear. I filled it out. It was their job to sign it. “Not this office. This is the Pune Police Commissioner’s Station. You have to take it to the Shivaji Nagar Police Station, your neighborhood station. After you get it filled out, put inside a sealed envelope, and stamped at that office, bring it back and I will help you.”
You’ve got to be kidding. Couldn’t this have been explained somewhere on the website, maybe beside the note about backpacks?
Now, it did not matter that I already had the “C-Form” filled out, stamped, and registered The C-Form is one your landlord fills out and submits within 24 hours of your arrival to register you as a guest in their house or apartment. The C-Form, already stamped and approved, is official proof of where I’m staying, who my landlord is, how long I’ll be there, etc. But this will not do.
Granting me (or my tie) a small mercy, she whispered , ask for “Mingale Madam.” She wrote down the name.
“Ok, thank you. But, this is my last day to get the papers filed. It’s 3:30. Will I have time?” She said, “We are open until 5:30.”
So, I ran out and flagged another tuk-tuk driver. Luckily tuk-tuks are everywhere. You never have to wait for one. I told the driver “Shivaji Nagar Police Commissioner’s Office!”
He took off. However, before long it was clear he was going a different way. This worried me. I was once seriously cheated by a taxi driver in Barcelona, who took Jennifer, Aidan, and me on a route to the airport that cost twice as much as the taxi from the airport three days before.
My first ride of the day only cost 50 rupees, and I gave the driver 100 (about $1.60). But I only had 290 rupees left, as I had not gone to the bank for more cash. The ride took longer, but the fare was only 70 rupees. I gave him the usual 100.
I crossed the busy road and entered a kind of dirt encampment of one-story buildings like barracks. I asked a group of officers, heavily armed, one with a Uzi-like weapon, where the office might be for getting my Proof of Residency form signed. One smiled and said, “Right here.” But, he said, the officers who could sign it were not there. They’d be back in a half hour or an hour. I asked specifically for Mingale Madam. Is that a woman? They all laughed. You mean, Madam Mingale. “She’s on a body-guarding detail. Half hour to an hour. You can wait.”
So we hung out like guys do, talking about soccer, cricket and other sports I know nothing about. I asked him the name of the giant birds down on the game field. In Hindi: Ghar, for vulture.
Finally, a group of women in brown uniforms came through the gate and walked into the building. The kind guard indicated which one of them could help me.
I went in and spoke to her. She was young, attractive, and as nice as flint. She flipped through my forms and then asked where my Aggddeeeemt was. “What?” “Your Aggddeeeemt.” “Sorry. My what?” She turned away in disgust.
Now what? I didn’t know what she was saying.
The kind officer had come in and sat down and put his feet up on his desk and said “you’re having a pronunciation issue.” How do you say “r” in American English. I demonstrated. Rrrr-pointed to my throat. Then I figured out she must have been saying, “Agreement,” but by rolling the r, it sounded more like the letter “Y” in Spanish”: Igriega.”
Ok, fine. But, what agreement? I’ve agreed to everything required of me. I’ve been following the rules, agreeing to everything! The group in the office helped me understand that what she meant was: “The Lease.”
“There is no lease. I’m a guest.”
Everyone wagged their heads, like, “Well, that’s odd. Too bad, really.”
So, I start in on the fact that the C-Form proves my place of residence, date, address, length of stay, landlord, etc.
No taco. Madam Flint insisted that I must have a copy of the Aggddeeemt.
She said I could wait for Madam Mingale. Well, time was running out. I sat in the hot office among the officers in a plastic chair like a docile whimpering puppy, hoping for a little bone or chunk of gristle. Then the guard with the Uzi comes in and talks to Madam Flint. He stands right in front of me, before her desk, his Uzi dangling from his belt, right between my legs. She writes down my name and address and gives it to him, talking in Marathi. This seems odd. Why does a man with an Uzi need my name and address?
Finally, after fifteen or so more minutes, the kind guard at last says, “Madam is in.” “Where?” “Last door.” I go out and walk down the row of doors. I walk in. As I enter, two bald, obsequious men, start bowing and smiling and welcoming me like they’ve been expecting me for days. They lead me straight to her office. Obviously she has brow-beaten them sufficiently to her liking.
She’s sitting behind her desk. Heavy-set, a full face, reddish-brown dyed hair, in Western waves. She smiles. We take an immediate liking to each other. I get along with women who are older than me. I get along with women in general. Probably because of my close relationship to my mother. Anyway, we exchange pleasant conversation about my profession, where we grew up, etc. She signs and stamps the form, barely looking at any of it.
“Take it back down to officer [Flint]. She’ take care of you.”
I want to kiss her. I want to fall at her feet. I say “thank you” fifty times with my hands together. We have a nice goodbye. In another life, we could have been best friends.
I go back down to Madam Flint’s office and say that Madam Mingale “said it was okay.” Maybe I was a little to happy. M Flint is obviously pissed. She’s been proven wrong. She was following protocol. “Applicant must have copy of lease.” Madam Mingale had the insouciance of long experience. M. Flint is young, a stickler for rules. So, she takes her sweet and lovely time going back carefully over all of my forms, while the clock ticks.
“You need photocopies. And an envelope.”
“Can I get them here? ”
“No.” She points. “Across the street you can get them made.” OMG, I’ve heard this before.
I take the forms out, venture across, and sure enough there’s a little copying place, one of the tiny shops the size of a kiosk. I get the copies. Six rupees. All I have is a 100 rupee bill. The guy wags his head and says, “Next time.” Store keepers say this all the time when you don’t have exact change. It’s so sweet. They won’t let you round up in their favor. They always round down in your favor and say, “Next time.” One of the things I love about India.
So, I go back. Madam Flint slowly and carefully goes through the papers. “Copy of letter from university?”
She had not told me to copy that. Is she F-ing with me? Well, luckily, I have an extra copy. I hand it to her. She very carefully arranges them, and, Praise-Be-To-Jesus, as I wait expectantly, she signs and stamps the GD form. Then she wants a picture of me–and not because she likes me. Based on my research at home, I have brought something like 25 passport photos with me for situations like this. She pulls out one of the giant ledger books and pastes my picture in it and fills out a row of information about me. While the clock ticks, I try to arrange my body in the right way. Not triumphant, not too to obsequious. I don’t know how to sit in the chair.
She puts everything in the envelope, takes out some paste, slowly seals it, then puts three official stamps across the seal.
So, I’m off! I flag down a tuk-tuk. He quotes me a flat rate — 50 rupees. Once more, across town.
I arrive at Castle FRO. I do not wait to be checked in. They know me. I hurry to the office. My friend is not there. A guy checks over my papers. He tears open the sacred envelope and tosses it. Puts the Proof of Residency with the other papers. Tells me to go back to another counter. I go back. Another brown-uniformed woman goes through my papers.
While waiting, I ask a nice young guy who’s also waiting, and sweating (we’re all sweating), where he is from. “Iran.” We smile. Of course Iran thinks the US is the devil, and the US has a like opinion of his country.
“I want to visit Iran someday. I love the poet, Hafiz.”
“Hafiz. He is a very great poet.” This broke the ice. (Who said being a literature major has no practical value?)
The brown-uniformed woman says, “Where’s the “Bona-Fide” and “The Guide.”
I worried about these forms. They are clearly forms for students. They ask for admission date, course of study, major professors, etc. See–the basic set of forms I’m working with are classified as “Research / Student.” These officers usually see foreign students. I protest that I’m a professor, not a student. I have a letter from the United States-India Education Foundation, a letter from the University of Pune attesting to my affiliation, one from before I arrived, one from after I arrived. She was doubtful. I showed her my “Unique ID Number” on the University letter.
“Well. I’ll accept these. But my supervisor may not. Where is the copy of your stamp date?
“Stamp date from your passport.” She shows me the page from my passport that is stamped on the date I arrived in India. “You need a copy of that.”
“Can I copy it here?”
“Across the street.” I know.
I ask some people where to go.
“Behind the petrol station.”
So, I’m off, dodging traffic, to another kiosk-like little shop. Many people lined up for copies. It’s run by an old woman with a roving eye and her beautiful daughters. They make my copies. I check and double-check that I have everything and head back. It’s 5:15.
I go back to the brown-uniformed woman. She says, okay. Now go to computer and scanner.
What? Finally, she tells me that there are officers by a computer who will input everything for me and someone at a scanning counter who will scan everything and take my photo.
The woman at the computer is the one I insult, “Sorry, I only understand English.” She still works with me. At the scanning counter I stand beside two young, beautiful, seven-foot tall African men. We exchange smiles. I wished I was their age. There’s also a guy with a passport written in Arabic. He looks at mine. Figures out that I’m an American. I give him a knowing smile. He smiles, too. It’s like a little secret. We recognize each other’s humanity in spite of the warring politics of our countries.
So my papers are scanned and I’m photographed.
I return to the woman who accepted my papers. She says,
“Come back on the 21st to get your certificate, assuming my supervisor accepts your application.”
It’s done. I can’t believe it. I head out and flag another tuk-tuk.
I’m in my fifth year without alcohol, but I feel like going home to my flat and getting completely wasted. I make it back and settle for these yummy little Ritz-like crackers, some Gouda cheese I found, and apple juice mixed with sparkling water.
Now, I wait for knighthood–or at least to be conferred the august title, “Foreign Researcher in India.”