A few weeks later they called me and asked me to come down to the store; it was ready.
It’s an exciting moment when they bring out the suit. I was a bit anxious about whether the fabric I selected – based on that small swatch – would match that inner vision I had. But as they opened up the carry bag it all went away – it looked really good. The texture and slight shine of polyester worked just as well as I had hoped.
The fit is as good as a made by measure suit should be. The pants and vest sit perfectly, and after a tiny adjustment of the shoulder padding even the jacket was exactly as I wanted it. The shirts – one white and one textured light blue – were also tailored so they hug the body without constricting. Finally a shirt with long enough sleeves and a collar that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to slowly strangle you! The cuffs – French one-buttons – are embroidered with a monogram, next to which I added a pair of cufflinks by Arrow.
I needed a pair of good shoes to go with this, and opted for a pair of brown ones by Aldo.
Now I just need to get myself invited to formal occasions where I can flaunt this shamelessly.
I was so happy with the results I decided to order another suit – this time a black mandarin one!
I’ve been doing Mysore Ashtanga yoga for some years now, and one of the things I was looking forward to when moving here was to get some serious in-depth lessons, straight from the source. Think Miyagi-san in Karate Kid, the whole trimming the Bonsai tree and doing some “wax on, wax off”, inner enlightenment thing.
But no. This might come as a surprise, but yoga is not a big thing here. It’s not a national sport – that would be cricket – or even a common hobby.
In Helsinki I would see people carrying yoga mats quite often. The gyms would be crowded to the point of every class being a hot yoga class. And that’s good, people taking care of themselves is a very positive thing.
But here the only time I’ve seen anyone, ever, carry a yoga mat has been by some foreigners down in Goa or Kerala. In Varanasi, the birthplace of sun salutations, the only people doing them in the light of the rising sun were westerners.
So that’s one myth busted.
Oh well, at least the Chinese still do Tai-Chi every morning. Right?
Although Varanasi is a city that features many spiritual aspects, I think one of the first that comes to people’s mind is its way to handle death: few places are so open and direct with seeing a life come to an end.
In the past the deceased were sent floating down the Ganges river. However, since this resulted in high contamination levels in the water and remains washing up on shores, the practice became – for most – to burn the bodies and spread the ashes in the water. This sacred ritual is done on cremation sites, also known as burning ghats.
Most of the numerous ghats in Varanasi are places where people go to bathe, in the Ganges river. But a few of them are burning ghats – the largest of which is the Manikarnika Ghat, pictured above. Throughout the ghat enormous piles of wood lay stacked, constantly being fed into the several fires. The firewood is of a special kind and therefore expensive, and for the people who are there to send off the deceased it’s usually a big investment – not only an emotional one but a monetary one as well.
One thing that is good to know before I go on, and this is something everyone entering Varanasi are told: taking photos of the cremation sites is strictly forbidden. You could get into serious trouble, not with the nonexistent law enforcement, but with the relatives and workers at the ghat.
So as we entered the premises of the Manikarnika Ghat we politely put our cameras away. Immediately a few locals approached us, claiming to be some kind of authorities in the area and wanted to show us around. We let them know that we weren’t interested and would rather just walk around and mind our own business. They were persistent; Lauri got fed up with them and went off to the perimeter to find things by himself. Meanwhile I was stuck with the two guys, one of which proceeded to inform me that he’s also into selling opium. Not really my cup of tea, so no thanks.
I turned to the other guy, who claimed to be a foreman for the firewood workers. He told me there’s a place where I could get a good look over the area, if I wanted to. I assessed the situation and decided to follow him. A few corners later we came out to a ledge, close to the river bank, overlooking the cremation site.
People were offloading firewood from boats, carrying it up to the fires. By the water others were going through ashes and remains, looking for jewelry. Off to one side a fire was burning, at the last stages of the cremation process. Next to it a few bodies were lined up, wrapped in orange cloth and waiting for their turn.
Taking in the scene, we talked about the price of firewood, and how that’s something one could donate to. Sensing an opportunity I asked if there are any ways a tourist might be allowed to take a few photos; if the foreman carried enough weight in the community to permit that, and it actually being ok with all parties. Well, as it turned out, that was probably exactly what he had in mind, and after some negotiations we agreed that for 500 rupees I was allowed to take two photos. Being high up on the ledge, in plain sight of everyone, I knew this wasn’t going to be a few snapshots off the hip. Everyone was going to see what I was about to do, and I wanted to make sure they also see the foreman standing next to me. If it was a sanctioned exploit perhaps my intrusion would be forgiven.
I took out my camera and was as discreet as I could about it. Point, click, pan, click – done. Camera away. Gave 500 rupees to the guy and started doing a retreat while I could.
Another guy rushed up to the ledge. Hey, you took photos, we need to go see the boss now, he said in a firm tone.
I told him of my agreement with the foreman, who was still standing next to me, and told him that whatever issue he had he could take it up with him. They started arguing between each other, in hindi, which indicated that either one or possibly both were pretending to have authority that they didn’t possess. The new guy said ok, we could solve this between us if I gave him 500 rupees too. I told him he can split the money with the foreman, I wasn’t having any of this. But they were persuasive, and I had no desire to escalate this over such a relatively small amount of money, so I handed the new guy 500 as well, and started walking.
This is where things got a bit sticky. The two guys ran after me and blocked my exit – an aggressive move that I hadn’t come across with the previous miscreants. They wanted more money. I told them no. We had an agreement and I already paid more than that, so they were just going to have to accept it. They started pleading, saying there were many ways to solve this – this being the nice way. They insinuated what the other way meant: tourists had been robbed and assaulted over these matters, cameras had been thrown into fires and such. If I paid them 500 rupees extra, each, that would make the problem go away.
Now, in a situation like this there are several options: I could give in and cough up the money, and possibly feel tricked. Or I could call their bluff and just force my way out. But the thing is, I didn’t know the nature of the community I was in, and what role they played in it. If the community’s attitude towards photographers was as unforgiving as I had understood, and these guys were some sort of leaders in it, I could get into serious trouble if I got on the wrong side of them. Or they could be just scoundrels who had no backup from the others whatsoever. I couldn’t know.
So the bottom line was I had more to loose on this than they had. Reluctantly I paid them the additional money and shoved my way through before they could come up with more bullshit. Met up with Lauri a way down the street and had a laugh about it – admittedly a little relieved.
In the end though, I got to document a sacred area and situation – a rarity that relatively few have access to. Granted, it cost me 2000 rupees, but I can live with that.
One of these details was to prove my residency at Vasant Vihar Towers, apartment J1103. In order to confirm that, an FRO employee would need to visit and see me open the door. So yesterday morning I got a call from Sid and was effectively put on house arrest, since they might turn up during that day. No problem, I could sit and wait in the apartment for the guys, and work while I do so. Several hours go by and nothing happens, but finally at five in the afternoon they show up, for a three minute visit, just to see the bunker in all it’s frugal glory.
With that out of the way, we just needed to go to the FRO and finalize everything. Today was the big day, the coup de grâce to the stamp wielding monster. Just a matter of showing up and getting the paper, right?
We show up at 10:30 and I’m to meet with a police inspector at the Prosecution and Vigilance Cell. It’s unclear to me what the purpose of the interview was, but before being sent in Sid told me to keep my tongue in check and not be too clever. No worries, the inspector had only a few questions about my occupation and Sid’s role in the company – nothing I can put my foot in my mouth with. Everything seemed ok.
Then my file was handed over to the senior police inspector, who promptly proceeded to blow a gasket.
You see, foreigners have for some strange reason the tendency to not register at the FRO at all. I have no clue why that is; it’s such a smooth, effortless process – why in the world would anyone choose not to? And it bugs the inspectors that they never get to prosecute those culprits. So now that they have a guy who’s been trying to register for the last four months, and is almost in the clear, what’s the most logical thing to do? Take him to court for being late!
So next thing I know they’re saying I might be prosecuted for visa violation. That means a court date, possible fines and even jail time. One can question how serious they were, but still it was beginning to form into a sticky situation. Also, Sid pointed out that if I get called to another interview in the coming week or two I should be available for that. This would put the East India Express trip at risk. That’s where I drew the line: I told Sid that regardless of what they’re going to throw at me, I’m not going to cancel that trip. I had a friend coming over from Finland, and no way in hell was I going to call it off for this red tape circus of powertripping, bribe-hungry clowns.
What followed was a few hours of waiting. I don’t know if the senior inspector was actively pondering on the case or doing something else. At some point he left for lunch.
Some time later Alok pulls through and says we might be able to skip this guy and go above him – directly to the top. That’s right, we were aiming to meet the kingpin himself: the FRO manager. Some smooth talking with one of the clerks and next thing we know we’re standing outside his office, waiting for an audience. We get to go in. Time to look sharp.
He had a nice looking office, spacious. Dark wood. Polished, clean surfaces. Lots of paperwork on this desk. Notes laid up in an organized fashion. He was in his 50’s, slightly grey hair on the sides. Sharp features. He didn’t look particularly intimidating, but he had an aura of a different type of bureaucrat than any of the other ones: he was serious about his work and didn’t have time to mess around.
He glanced through my file and addressed Sid directly, speaking in hindi. From what little I could understand of the conversation, he questioned how it was possible that it had taken four months to get the full application submitted. He also pointed out that I was not the only one who could be prosecuted – Sid could as well. A lengthy monologue later, it seems we were done and should exit. He looked squarely at me, and I thanked him for his time.
Turns out he agreed to sign the papers, making my registration official and therefore eliminating the risk of prosecution. It would take a few more hours, but that was it. We had to leave since we had other business to attend to, but Alok would remain and keep us posted.
Triumphantly we exited the FRO, hopeful over that it is for the last time.
Later today, we got a call from Alok. He had received the signed registration. It was now official; 133 days after arriving, I was now a registered resident in India – 119 days overdue.
Oh, and that final signature cost us 5000 rupees. Some expensive ink in the manager’s pen, it seems. Funny.
Not too long ago I vented my frustration over the absurd amount of paperwork and back-and-forth involved with registering oneself as a foreigner in this country.
Well, we decided to drop the gloves and escalate this by hiring ourselves an agent. Enter Alok Mane; bureaucratic fighter and stamp assassin. We met him and went through our predicament, handed over all the paperwork we’d gathered and let him at it. A few days later he had the whole C-form business sorted out. Yes, just like that.
Turns out the bozos at the FRO booth – the ones who, as documented below, had more pressing matters to tend to than customers – never even needed to meet our landlord, like they claimed. As a matter of fact, mine nor Sidd’s presence wasn’t needed either. And to top it off our paperwork had been fine on that matter for weeks. Funny thing. They just wanted bribes. But the uncompromisable integrity these noble men possessed wouldn’t allow them to express their desire for monetary bonuses. At no point did they even hint that our problems could be solved instantly with some additional paperwork – you know, the kind of paper with pictures of Gandhi and some numbers.
Now, mind you, this might also be a smooth co-operation between the two parties; a scheme which creates a need for agents and easy bonuses for clerks. The clerks won’t offer the possibility to accept bribe from anyone they don’t trust – it’s much easier to push people to hire an agent. That way the clerks receive the bribes from a source they’re used to working with.
Be that as it may, our hitman was on a roll and shortly after getting the Certificate of Residence he had a meeting set up for us at the FRO. So today we went there, all three, into the lion’s den. This guy Alok, he’s a real smooth operator: he knows the people at the FRO and can navigate the murky waters like a trained shark with a taste for ink. He gets stuff done. All the clerks we presented our paperwork to were counting the months I have been here, unregistered, and by the time they had four fingers up they all had this “Four months late!? Are you kidding me?”-look. How did we even have the nerve to show up there anymore? But he handled it like a pro and talked them over.
Although, Sidd did have to write a handwritten apology letter to the commissioner, for us being so tardy. You know, because it’s our fault. I signed it and, after handing everything in, we were informed we would still have to come in twice before I get the final papers. Oh, and someday a FRO employer might ring our doorbell and expect to see me, just to make sure we’re not pulling anyone’s leg. Yes, that is someone’s job description.
There is light at the end of the red tape tunnel, and next week this will finally be over – one way or the other.