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Posts Tagged ‘frustration’

Break Time

I finally got what everyone said I was in for. After four months of defending and deflecting and rolling my eyes assuming that others were just weak, I got my comeuppance.

Yes, I have finally had my India breakdown.

I had heard from everyone that within a few weeks of living in India, I would have a nervous breakdown of some kind. I would get sick, and then things would take too long, and then people would cheat me, and then everything would break and suddenly I would just be consumed with a hatred for my new home. But it didn’t happen. I loved living in India and I found it rather humorous that other people had succumbed to their frustrations. It just takes a bit of patience, I always thought to myself.

I admit that we have had it pretty easy compared to most people who move here. Delayed shipments and apartment move-in dates can cause panic – ours were only delayed a week. Unsavory drivers or housekeepers can lead to multiple firings before finding someone reliable – we had no such experience. And every little thing (furniture, household items, internet, plumbing, electric work) takes longer and is harder than you ever imagined; but somehow we were able to get everything with always only a little headache.

So I guess in a country of Hindus, I was bound to get hit by karma eventually. After spending so much time assuming that I was just really good at handling everything India threw my way and keeping calm, I was in for it.

And it was the perfect storm.

Our internet, newly installed after months of agony, once again stopped working. The clutch on our car inexplicably broke, so we couldn’t drive anywhere. One last monsoon shower decided to grace us with its presence after weeks of retreat, and all the cushions on our outdoor furniture got soaked to the bone. A transcription service I was using for one of my video projects informed me that they just don’t do time codes (trust me, I know most of you won’t understand why, but this is incredibly frustrating). Five of our newly installed light bulbs decided to burst.

And now, this morning, there is some unannounced construction on our building and the pounding sounds are inescapable.

So, I broke down. I admit it. I curled up into a ball and just gave up for a little bit. And once you give up, everything you miss suddenly comes pouring out. I want milk that does not come from a box. I want people to not stare at me when I walk down the street just because I’m white. I want to drink a Starbucks chai (I know that one is ironic). I want easy public transportation. I want to not have to haggle over the smallest items. I want the time difference to not impede my relationships with friends and family.

I just let myself break down until I felt good and sorry for myself. It was a bit pathetic, but I needed it. I needed to just allow myself to be frustrated with India.

And after a little while, I got out of my ball. I stood up and made myself stop whining and I went back to attempting to be strong and patient and calm.

But I felt better. I guess I needed to admit to myself that its ok to sometimes be that Western person who gets frustrated being that fish out of water.

I am not from here. It’s a difficult place to live if you’re not accustomed to it. But I moved to India 115 days ago and for almost every one of those days I have loved being here.

So it’s ok to have not loved it today.

(*Note – I had 7 hours from when I wrote this until my internet started working again. And by now I’m ready to love India all over again – until I allow myself to be frustrated the next time)

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The Cheaters

Before I moved to India, I used to take for granted that internet was an ever-present being in my life. I could sit anywhere in my apartment and be enveloped with the wireless joy of reading or watching anything at any time. I just had to look up to the corner of my screen and make sure the bars were high enough to stay connected – and they always were.

Since I moved to India, I’ve had a new relationship with the internet. It has been one of bewilderment and frustration. It was as though I’d been broken up with silently, but I still held onto hope because he called occasionally. Yes, despite hours at a time of no connectivity and workmen who said they would come but never did, I clung on, hoping I could salvage my relationship with my internet company.

But earlier this week, I finally experienced the straw that broke the camel’s back. My router, once again, turned from its friendly shade of green into a menacing orange – the internet was off. So I called my internet company contact.

“It’s not working again,” I said.
“Ma’am, did you turn the router on and off?”
“Yes, I always do.”
“Did you restart your computer?”
“Yes, I always do.”
“Are you really sure it’s not working?”
“Why would I be calling you if it was working?”
“I think it is working.”
“It isn’t”
“Are you sure?”

This conversation went on for some time. Finally he agreed to come and look at it. This was at 10:30am.

At 5pm he showed up. He didn’t apologize for the lateness. He tinkered and fiddled before finally declaring that the problem was our router.

“Our router?” I said
“Yes ma’am, it is not us. It is your router. It does not work properly.”

I didn’t really believe him. But what could I say? Maybe it was the router? So, like any woman attempting a last-ditch effort to make the relationship work, I tried to be agreeable. I hesitantly bought a new router.

And, as I had sadly suspected, it changed nothing. The router was just another ploy to string me along. I was fed up – so I decided to cheat on my internet company.

I couldn’t exactly tell them I wanted to change services before I’d found a new one, so I kept my mouth shut about the router and starting asking around. Who would be a better fit for me? I finally settled on a new company – they came to discuss the terms and I agreed to the fastest plan I could find. No more slow and unreliable! Blogs could be posted! Skype calls could be had! Time could be wasted on Facebook! I was ready to start over.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The guy came to install it and my doorman wouldn’t let him up on the roof without permission from the building owner. Then once we solved that problem they couldn’t get into the building across the street where they needed to run the cable from. I was foiled again. But I was assured that it could all be solved the next morning.

Finally the installation began. I sat in my apartment, using the last of my old internet connection while my new one sneakily began moving in upstairs. I was really looking forward to calling the old company and breaking up with them. But then, they gave me the final blow.

“Madam, you have to see this–” I was getting called outside by the man installing the new internet — “Look at this wire.” I looked. It was split in two. I didn’t really understand where he was going with this.

“What’s special about the wire?”
“Oh Madam, it is really terrible. They have been using your wire here to send your electricity to the next building.”
“What do you mean?”
“They cheat you! They been cheating you! They take your electricity for some bribe probably and give to someone else.”

Now I was angry. I picked up the phone and let it rip. They didn’t have to know that I was cheating and getting a new company behind their back – but I was sure as heck going to let them know I’d figured out that they were cheating me. I think the call ended with something along the lines of “Don’t ever contact me again.”

I hung up and felt vindicated. I was starting a new relationship with the internet and this time, it would be different.

It did take five more hours to make the new internet start working. And it may not be quite as fast as it was promised. But hey, they’re not siphoning off my electricity to the highest bidder. And for now, that’s a good start.

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The Choices We Make

When I was in high school we took a class called ‘life issues’, which was essentially meant to be a sex-ed class coupled with self-esteem and health issues. Everyone joked about it and laughed off the content (what teenager isn’t uncomfortable in a glorified sexual health class?) but the school made it very clear that these were important issues that we needed to understand.

I mention this now because I was thinking about ‘life issues’ quite a lot as I sat in a small room with no windows in Dharavi, sweating through my long sleeved cotton kurta and long linen pants, watching a field worker explain sexual education and health to a group of Muslim teenagers – most of whom were married and many of whom already had children.

At this particular meeting (I’ve now been to so many I’m starting to get the hang of it), the field worker was fearless. Here was a Hindu woman in a sari trying to explain female anatomy to a group of women whose only visible anatomy was their face and hands. She had started on the topic of periods. Did anyone in the room want to open the discussion by relaying when they got their first period?

Silence.

My translator piped up, telling her story to try and break the ice. It seemed to make the girls less uncomfortable as they laughed and giggled at her trials and tribulations. They started sharing more about themselves.

But then the conversation took a more somber tone: “How many of you feel that your periods make you dirty?” they were all asked. Everyone raised their hands. I was really surprised – how can you have given birth to a child and still feel ashamed about your body’s natural reproductive cycles?

But the field worker was not at all surprised by this response. She began a very stern tirade – she explained that this was a beautiful and natural part of our humanity. She was adamant that they not let their religious views lead to unsanitary practices.

Apparently, in their religion (or their practice of their religion within their particular culture), when a woman has her period she is considered unclean. Anything that she touches becomes impure and she cannot go near her mosque. I had seen similar signs relating to Hindu temples in Indonesia, instructing menstruating women to stay away, but it was amazing to me that this practice is so widespread across varying religions.

Most of these women could not afford sanitary pads (and tampons don’t even exist here for anyone) so they used rags. And when the rags were dirty they would often clean them and then hide them away for drying. This apparently can lead to infections when the rag is used the next time, because without sufficient space to dry, the wet rag can become a hotbed for bacteria.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to acknowledge that this is a very uncomfortable and graphic blog post. But it is astounding the things we take for granted – I rarely consider my period because the modern marvel of tampons makes it as insignificant as possible. These women are getting infections in large numbers because they do not have access to something as simple and cheap as sanitary pads, and their shame about having their period stops them from drying their rags in the sun or out above a flame or even on a drying rack. It’s just astounding to me the number of hardships these women face every day.

I watched as the field worker continued to encourage and explain sanitary habits. The women listened, uncomfortably but attentively. Some of the women began to open up and ask questions.

One woman, who is 15 and has been married for 6 months, had not yet gotten her period. She had not met her husband because apparently in her tradition you don’t meet for one full year. She was worried that if she didn’t get her period soon that she wouldn’t be able to continue being married.

The field worker kindly explained that if she never got her period it would not mean she couldn’t stay married, but it would unfortunately mean that she could not have children. The woman looked stricken – apparently she wasn’t confident that she could stay married without the ability to have children.

Again, as with most of the other meetings I have been to with this particular group, the discussion had nothing to do with it’s stated goal of reducing domestic violence – it was just another way to bring people into the organization. Little by little, person by person, they just try to help in the many many places where help is needed.

As the discussion came to a close and most of the women (girls? How do your characterize young teenagers with such adult responsibilities?) said goodbye, we were left with the girl who had hosted us in her home. She was 15 and her mother had ‘chaperoned’ the discussion.

She had stayed behind to ask the field worker about computer classes- she wanted learn but she only could read and write in Urdu, and all of the classes were in Hindi or English.

I asked why she had chosen to go to an Urdu-only school.

She laughed and started talking. My translator said she was explaining that it wasn’t a choice. The only school she could go to was a madrassa, and the only thing they learned was the Koran.

“You mean that’s what you learn most of the time?” I asked.
“No,” my translator translated. “It’s the only thing we ever study.”
“Can’t you go to another school?”
“There is no other school available. And the men in my family wouldn’t let me go to another school anyway.”

This is the point at which I started to get angry. She and her mother and I then began a thirty-minute discussion where I kept asking why and they kept laughing at me and answering that, “This is just the way it is.”

She couldn’t go to a different school because there wasn’t one that would take her.
She couldn’t take lessons in English because she wouldn’t have time for that and the men in the family wouldn’t allow it.
She couldn’t wait to get married because that would bring shame to her family.
Her school couldn’t teach anything other than Urdu because they could only spend time reading the Koran.
She couldn’t get a job because the men wouldn’t allow it.

I just kept sitting there stunned, trying to find some alternative. Could these women really just allow themselves to be subjugated in this way when they understood what was happening? I asked what kept them from just leaving.

“This is our home. This is our life. Would you want to start completely over and never be allowed to see your family or anyone in your community again?”

I answered that no, I would not want that. That seemed to settle it for them. I was starting to wonder if I had overstepped, so I apologized for asking so many questions. They, again, just laughed at me.

“It’s ok. We understand that you live your life differently.”

I nodded, thinking we were having a moment. But then the mother started saying something that my translator wasn’t translating. I asked her what they were saying.

“You don’t want me to tell you – now they’re asking if you can help them in any way. They want you to maybe help the men in their family find better jobs or for you to give them some money.”

I guess our moment was over. I tried to respond that I was going to be helping by making the film about the organization. They didn’t seem moved.

I walked out still feeling angry. It’s one thing to not understand that there was another world out there. It was another to know that other people are free and to just calculate that it’s not worth it for you.

The meeting and my conversation swam in my mind as I walked out. These women can’t even stand up for themselves by demanding that their rags dry out in the open, let alone demand for education or the ability to work. It was the first time I had left a meeting where I didn’t feel inspired or empowered. So now they knew about their reproductive systems and proper menstrual hygiene – so what? Would they even use the information they would be given? Or would they just continue to be under-educated child brides with no ability to break their own cycle?

I said this to the field worker. I asked her how she keeps going every single day when there are so many battles to fight and change comes in such small incremental steps?

“Because it needs to be done,” she replied. Yes it most certainly does.

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One of the most interesting effects of the monsoon is how it can stop anything in an instant. And in a city as vibrant and full of life as Bombay, that truly is something.

Rickshaw in water

You can be driving along a road at a normal speed in normal traffic when suddenly the rain comes out of nowhere. It only takes a moment sometimes; clear-looking skies and dry weather are overtaken first by small drops, then persistent rain, then a heavy downpour, then rain so thick you can’t see your hand in front of you. And that whole shift can take place in a matter of seconds.

In that instant, the traffic snarls to a halt. Windshield wipers are practically useless in the deluge. Hazard lights are turned on just so that each car will know where the cars around them are basically located. A trip that could take 30 minutes suddenly takes two hours.

You can always spot a few victims once the rain lets up enough to let you see out. Usually in heavily flooded areas you’ll see abandoned rickshaws, not strong enough to get out of a flooded area.  Parts of roads will remain flooded for hours afterwards, since the water has nowhere to drain.

I’ve gotten sort of used to living this daily rainy existence – there’s never a full day respite, but some days aren’t so heavy or often it’s just a light drizzle. And I know what to expect once heavy rains start to fall.

But the one thing I can’t get used to is our internet connection.

Our high-tech cable running from our roof to our neighbor's roof

It was installed as soon as we moved in, and the process itself was humorous. A cable was run from a few buildings over – over and around and up the side of our apartment building the cable went. It’s not underground, it’s not through a wall, it’s just across some buildings and drilled neatly into our wall.  But it’s a cable and it seemed simple enough. We bought a wireless router and thought that that would be that.

However, nothing is so simple. It stops working at best for an hour a day. Sometimes, like now, it stops working for a few days at a time. And every time Daniel calls up the company they say “nothing works right in the monsoon.”  If the power goes out in one of the buildings along our one cable line, no one has internet (At least, this is what they say. I don’t know if I actually believe that this is the real reason).

Now, I understand why our cable dish doesn’t always work in the monsoon. We get a message on our tv saying something is wrong and I think of the small dish trying to get a signal through the deluge. But a cable? What could be so wrong with this cable every day? How can the monsoon be an excuse for constant failure of an entire product?

Our television during heavy monsoon...

Yet it’s everyone’s excuse here – our carpenter was late because of the monsoon (what exactly about the monsoon, we don’t know), people are always late to dinners and meetings because of the monsoon, our shipment was late, items can’t be delivered because of the monsoon. Doesn’t this happen every year? Don’t you think by now people could have figured out how to work around it? It’s a bad rain, but its just rain.   It apparently is also a great excuse.

So today I am only connected to the wider world via a wireless card Daniel can plug into his computer. It’s slow but it’s a useful backup – after all, there’s still another month of monsoon. Who knows when our internet will come back on again.

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I am beginning to understand the root of “Indian Time” a little bit better. It’s not (as my Indian friends at home would have me believe) just an Indian way of life where they are allowed to be late to things because its inherent to Indians.

I think in actuality it’s related to something much simpler. Indians are late to everything because, at least here in Mumbai, there are NO STREET ADDRESSES.

That’s right. Street addresses do not exist. In fact, street names are barely recognized. Instead, there’s a system, that doesn’t work, of just telling someone what ‘landmark’ you’re near, and then hoping for the best. But when they say landmark, they just mean another place or business. So when we give someone directions to our apartment, it goes something like this:

“It’s La Paloma, it’s on St Cyril Road across from St Anthony’s road. Do you know it? Ok, well do you know where Turner Road is? It’s off Turner Road, towards St Andrews College. No? Do you know where Holy Family Hospital is? How about the American Express bakery? Yes? You want me to meet you there and then show you? Ok. I’ll meet you at the bakery.”

This is really how it has to be done. Because you can’t just say “Oh when you get to the bakery go straight, turn right on St Dominic and then left on St Cyril because NONE of these roads would have a sign indicating that that is actually the name of the street.

Not to mention that the main road, Turner Road, actually (if you look at a map) technically changes into Gurunanak Marg right before our house – but no one knows that. To them it’s still just Turner Road. Even after it THEN turns into Perry Rd.

And you’d think you could solve this problem with a driver, but you can’t. Today I wanted to go a store to buy some Indian style clothes. The store is well known and its called FabIndia (I could delve into the awesomeness of that name, but I won’t now). And when you look it up online the address is: Navroze Building, Next To HDFC Bank, Pali Hill (Yes, that is the actual full address). So you’d think you could find it easily – but you would be wrong.

When we went to Pali Hill (an area in Bandra), near the market there is an HDFC Bank but no FabIndia. We drove around, asked around, looked around. Nothing. We finally called FabIndia and solved the mystery. We were meant to know its next to the OTHER HDFC bank in Pali Hill. Up Zigzag road. Not by the market. Obviously.

This applies to any address. For example, one of my personal favorites is the address for Phoebe’s groomer. It is (and I mean this is the actual mailing address):

Tail Waggers Pet Salon
Near Hotel Mini Punjab
Pali Village Behind Hawaiian Shack
16th Road
Bandra West, Mumbai 400050

It’s hilarious, completely Indian and yet an all encompassing theory to explain the Indian loose relationship with time. It’s inherently frustrating but you can’t help but love a city where people find their way around SOLELY based on trusting everyone’s local knowledge.

So if you want to come visit me, just remember: La Paloma doesn’t exist. Just go to the tree in the middle of the road in St Anthonys Rd next to the hospital, next to Lemongrass Restaurant, next to CitiBank, next to Crosswords bookshop. Then ask someone where to go. And don’t worry if you’re late- we’re all on ‘Indian Time’ here.

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My stomach churned and it stopped me in my tracks. No! I’m not ready to get sick, I thought. I’d avoided feeling ill for my entire time here so far. I’d heard everyone tell me that it was inevitable, but I wasn’t buying. Yet here I was with my stomach doing somersaults and I was armed with only Pepto Bismol.

I felt the thick pink liquid going down my throat like troops on their way to fight the war in my stomach. I ignored the jolting momentary pangs of pains and instead I got dressed and went outside with Daniel to go to a bar to watch the World Cup. My stomach is just a minor hiccup, I told myself.  I hadn’t even eaten anything questionable that I could think of.  I rationalized and justified the situation, thinking that my mind could ignore the true matters in front of me.

But as we drove along the bumpy Bandra roads I had to concede defeat. The somersaults had turned into full-on routines. It was official. My first night in the grips of India’s notorious stomachaches had begun. I told Daniel to stay out while I slinked home, disappointed that just the mere will to stay healthy hadn’t cured me.

It was lucky though – in the annals of illness history this one wouldn’t go down as painfully memorable. Instead it was a warning shot. Just know what we can do to you, India was telling me. Don’t let yourself forget that you’ll always be on guard here. It’s not truly your home. I curled up with Phoebe, willing myself to sleep.

And I did. I woke up the next morning and the sound of a jumping stomach had been replaced by pounding rain outside. The monsoon was back – India’s second reminder in 24 hours that it could make trouble for us whenever we got too comfortable.  And the trouble remained all day.

Monsoon soaked happy Phoebe

Just as I had tried to tell my stomach no, I thought I could say no to my fear of the rain. I could model myself after all the Mumbaikers I saw wandering the streets while they got instantly soaked. I took Phoebe out for a walk on our new street umbrella in hand (can’t throw TOO much caution to the wind). But India once again laughed at me. The elevated pavement did nothing to shield us from the soaking power of passing cars. Phoebe looked up at me like I was a traitor in the ranks. She kept trying to pull me back to our apartment building. Why are you doing this to me, her eyes pleaded. She was soaked completely after just a minute. Indians in rickshaws slowed down as they drove by to watch the crazy white lady walking her tiny dog in the morning’s downpour.

But the sun came out in the form of that tiny dog. Phoebe was the strong one in the face of the chaos. The same dog who had curled up next to me the night before in solidarity came inside from the rains, shook herself off and seemed utterly unfazed. She was happy – she ran across the floor, sliding in the water coming off her own body, completely happy just to be back inside even if she was soaked head to paw. If Phoebe can let the rain roll off her back, figuratively and metaphorically, then so can I.

Bolstered, Daniel and I took to our errands in the rain. We drove a few blocks that had only taken 2 minutes the day before, but now it took 10. The streets were crowded, flooded, and the traffic knew no rules. Everyone was trying to get somewhere and the urgency only crowded and slowed the streets more. We stepped out of the car to go into a store. A car immediately splashed us. We took off our shoes and went inside, soaked. On the way out I went to put my shoes back on only to see that a long worm had coiled its way through my waterproof shoes.

Illness. Rain. India had thrown it all at me today trying to see if I would crack. But I haven’t.  Because today, I stood in my still mostly empty apartment and unloaded groceries that Daniel and Nisha had gone to buy and it started to feel a bit more like home. And Phoebe kept smiling at me.  Bit by bit I’m saying to my new city, “Bring it on”. I just hope that that audacity doesn’t earn me another case of illness.

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I am getting the sense that there’s a theme for me in Mumbai: when I want to do something, India often has other plans. And in the race between me and India, I’m usually not on the winning end.  I wrote last night that Daniel and I were off for vacation.  Unfortunately, we were paid a visit by the notorious Indian bureaucracy. They hadn’t met us yet and they surely wanted a day of our time.

We got to the airport, checked in and then went to exit immigration. I was asked some questions and checked through – a new red 16th of June exit stamp started drying in my passport. But as I prepared for us to continue the immigration officer asked Daniel “Where is both your registration?” We explained that we had been told that we only needed to register for residency once we were going to be here for more than 180 days. Alas, we were wrong.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, immigration has tightened up considerably (similar to the US after 9/11). And niceties that used to fly a year and a half ago are just not so anymore. Instead of falling asleep on Malaysian Air we were taken to Indian customs.

We sat in a room with no windows and nothing on the white walls except constant black scuff marks from years of office chairs leaning against walls. Our captor sat at a desk with only a plain blue Duty Officer sign on the wall to identify him. He made us wait as he thumbed through a worn ledger, uninterested in our plight. When he finally eyed us over his wire rim glasses he said simply, “Sorry, rules are rules. You did not follow the rules.” We tried to reason with him. We were handed a booklet and told, “This pamphlet says you cannot leave until you register.”

Daniel scanned it. “Where does it say that in this pamphlet? I don’t see it.”
“Well, it doesn’t say that directly, but that is the rule.”

We were at a stalemate. Our passports were looked over and discussions were had in Hindi while we sat. One Duty Officer talked on a red phone in the corner. Our officer continued to be disinterested. We tried to reason some more. Surely if we came back and registered it wouldn’t be a problem? Apparently it was.  My passport was taken and a crisp CANCELLED was written across my new red stamp. We were done for the night.

Dejected, we waited by Malaysia Airlines for our bags to come back to us. We sat on the floor like the pathetic losers we had been deemed to be – it was our own fault for believing what we had been told, and that was that.

Our poor driver had had to return to the airport and wait for us to be freed, for our bags to come, and for Daniel to finally be able to rebook our tickets after circling through various parts of the airport with various guides giving us varying instructions.  We got into the car exhausted and hoped to make it back to our guesthouse quickly. Late at night there apparently are no traffic rules in Mumbai and our driver merely honked at red lights as he went through them.

We woke up the next day with a new determination to get our residential permit and so off we went to the Foreign Regional Registration Office. It was a madhouse. Lines were everywhere depending on what your purpose was. Luckily our line was inside the office in air conditioning. Even luckier that we weren’t from Pakistan, where a separate floor altogether awaited nationals from India’s rival who were trying to declare their own detente.

Our room was like a world snapshot. In one corner an Eastern European woman tried to encourage her children to cry louder so there would be an incentive for their name to be called. In another, a woman in a burka searched through her fake Louis Vuitton bag to find her cell phone and start texting. Two older African women, held steady by canes and their feet resting on their bejewelled pink flip flops, kept entertained by whispering to each other and laughing. Daniel immediately made friends initially with some other expats while we waited. I watched a brightly colored 24 hour news channel celebrating its 1 year anniversary while breaking news banners played constantly at the bottom.

Our names were called and I was asked to sign forms. “What is your occupation ma’am?” I was asked. I tried to explain that for my time in India my visa wouldn’t allow me to earn money so I didn’t really have an official occupation at the moment.  “Housewife, then. You should have written housewife!”. And so it was done.

We cut out passport photos and pasted them into various documents- arts and crafts immigration. Every page of our passport was examined. Other documents were needed and sent for. We went in and out, hours spent re-watching the news channel and observing the new people who walked in, wondering why each had come to India to make their life for the time being.

Finally, we were given our Registration Report and Residential Permit. It was official – no turning back now. We are residents of India, perhaps because we have now been given our bureaucracy baptism by fire.  And as residents I would dare say we are now allowed to go on vacation. But I won’t bet on it until I’m out of the country and sure that India has no other imminent plans for me yet.

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