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Archive for November, 2008

V for Visa

The Visa chapter of my personal alphabet is a tough one. It is taking me months (months after arriving here) to be completed, and if at the beginning I thought I’d wait for the end of my adventures in the immigrationland before writing about them, but seems like the end has no end.

It all begins when you are in your own country and you apply for an employee visa. If you are lucky, your documents are fine and you’ll get a one-year multiple-entry visa. But if you are from Italy you have no such luck, and even if your documents are fine you’re given a three-month single-entry visa. Which means, they tell you, you have three months time, once in India, to get the immigration office in India to give you a one year visa, and until you make it you can’t leave the country.

You’d better leave soon, your three months started two weeks before, when your visa was issued.

So that stick on your passport means you’ll be stuck in India fighting with beaurocrats for the following three months.

Step 1 – FRRO

The FRRO of Delhi (F for Foreigner, R for Registration, O for Office and the extra R for whatever you can think) is where you register. It’s a crowded place full of immigrants who stay in line and wait for hours until you can give all the right papers and get registered as a resident in India. The first time you get there you normally find out you have only half of the mountain of documents they need, but normally when you go back everything is quite smooth and you get registered.

Step 2 – MHA

Then you have to apply for a visa extention, because you need to be in the country for one year, not three months. For that you have to go to the Minister of Home Affairs. This is how it works: you enter and line up in a small quite crowded office where they give pass to enter the office you actually need to go. With that paper you get to the appication office, feel a form that they give to you, you stand because you are scared by the dirth accumulated on the chairs covered with thick once-pink fabric, and you wait.

After a while a guy calls your name and you have an interview with him. He checks what you want, asks you questions such as “Why didn’t you apply for a one-year visa and only for a three monts one?”. And when you show him the recepit of your application and tell him that is exactly what you applied to but they only give three months visa in Italy he replies “You shouldn’t have come to India then”. After saying so he writes down something on a paper and tells you to come back at 4.30 in the afternoon.

You wish you could ask why, or what’s going to happen, but as everything else you’ll have to guess your way through it because, as one big sign says “It’s forbidden to ask the officials for information”.

So you go back at 4:30 pm imagining of meeting the guy, instead there’s just a big crow around a desk. Following your instinct, you get closer. A lady asks what is your name and handles you a sealed envelope that you will have to give to the FRRO (see step 1). You walk out and are about to open the envelope when a guy stops you telling that NO, you can’t open it, you have to keep the envelope closed and bring it to the FRRO where they will open it.

The content of the envelope says if you win – got your visa – or not.

You feel like in a TV show and wonder if you picked the right envelope. But you’ll have to wait till the following episode to know.

So Step 3 – FRRO

The following fine morning, you get in line at the FRRO again, and give your precious envelope to the guy who’s in charge of opening it. He opens and, WRONG ANSWER. The envelope contains a mysterious extention of your visa of another month.

And for an extra month you can’t leave the country.

Guess where you have to go to ask that at least they change your visa so that you can leave the country?

Step 4 – MHA

I won’t continue. But two months after getting back I am still playing the envelope game, and my visa still says that I’ll have to leave in one month.

Fun, isn’t it?

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U for Urban

There is something special about the first time I see a city. The spacial image of it that I build in your mind when you get there for the very first time, during the very first hour of discovering, is always somehow different from how that city exactly is. Distances are bigger, or smaller. What is near seems far, what is contiguous seems separate. It doesn’t stay for long. Already after a day my mind corrects that image, my sense of direction takes the place of emotional wandering; I get to know the space around me and the model of it in my mind gets more precise.

But that first impression still stays somewhere in my memory and I can always find it: the image of a place I know that you built when I felt lost in it.

I have them all, right in front of my eyes, with their aroma of excitement and fear: the first image of Bologna, the first image of Paris, the first image of New York. An enormous and desert piazza Verdi, Saint Michel on Ile de la Cité, Times square just two or three blocks away from Central Park.

And then there is Delhi. I can remember exactly how it looked to my eyes as I moved here. But it still looks the same.

It might be because I don’t walk, I drive (or they drive me, rather). It might even be because of the way driving goes. Or it might be because, whenever I am on the streets, watching life happening (every corner, every meter) distracts me from keeping track of routes, and understanding geography.

Whatever the reason might be, almost seven months after moving here, Delhi still has no order in my mind. I keep feeling this city as an immense pulsating space. I know my way to some places, I recognize some parts of town, but that’s about it. This city is just humongous: sometimes I can be in a taxi for an hour without passing any place I have been to before. What is next to what, how long does it take to where, which is the way to: all questions I can’t answer. No place like this before, with the millions and millions moving around me, has ever made me feel more like a unity. Nothing to do with loneliness, just that sense you have of being nothing more than a dot, a dot with connections, maybe, but still a dot.

Some people think that a city like Delhi teaches you that a human life doesn’t matter that much, that it gives you a couple of lessons on relativity. At the beginning, I tought so too,  and it is a scary thought. But that is not quite correct. While showing you relativity, a city like this gives you all the responsibility for yourself. Nothing is going to stop for you and this, it seems to me, makes you the center. You have the precise feeling of being not just yourself but all your world. Your past, present, all the ones you love, whatever makes you happy, what hurts you, the memories, your dreams. All of this becomes tangible and stays with you.

When you cross the street. When you stop a rickshaw. When you go to bed. When you order food. You are a planet.

Delhi is a city one cannot master completely. It’s home to planets; just as any universe, it is infinite.

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T for Traffic

The very idea of dedicating a post to traffic in Delhi is ambitious, to say the least.

Traffic rules the city, it sets the pace of your life here and it’s an uncontrollable force that never leaves you alone.

Because traffic is noisy. None who hasn’t traveled on Indian street has any right to talk about acoustic pollution. I come from a place where at the entrance of every urban center there’s a sign saying you can’t horn unless it’s absolutely necessary. And I live in a place where behind trucks, buses, sometimes even cars, you read the hand-painted magic words “Please horn”. And, you bet, everybody does what they he is asked asked to do. Everybody horns. Always.

They do it because, as our traffic is regulated by sight (lights on, mirrors), theirs is regulated by acoustic. You don’t see a car coming, you hear it. So people here horn even when there’s none on the street, just as we would not turn our car’s lights off.

A further sign of the reduced importance of the combination seeing+driving can be  found in all those cars with side mirrors flipped in: you don’t want to ruin them, do you?

And this to me is THE prove that yes, western society is built on seeing equals knowing, and no, it doesn’t work like that everywhere.

Traffic never leaves you alone because it’s noisy, and because it’s enormous: a multitude of trucks, buses, cars, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, motorcycles, bikes, carts pulled by bikes, pedestrian, cows, elephants, camels occupies the street every hour of the day (and, believe me, of the night), a moving being transporting millions of people and tons of things around the city. Lanes? What? Those slow down traffic. So much I could be said about the anarchy of Indian roads, but I will leave you the pleasure of giving it a look by yourself, watching any of the YouTube videos that come out searching Indian traffic.

In this madness, what you would never expect are traffic lights with a count-down chronometer on top of them, telling you how many seconds you have to cross the road, or wait at a red light. But since this is India and India never cease to surprise you yes, there actually are quite a few of those. They are probably more common than pedestrian crossing, or proper side walks. But since this is India and India never cease to surprise, their count down can be quite long. Long like 300, 299, 298.

A five minute long red light seems much longer if you actually keep staring at the count-down monitor. Try.

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This story begins in Paris, Rue des Cinqs Diamants. There’s a restaurant there, yes, probably the one you are thinking about, and in that restaurant worked as a waiter a guy with the most theatrical face I have ever seen. That guy often wore a t-shirt that read Same Same But Different. For months, watching him passing by with hot dishes (“Chaud, chaud!”), I wondered what that meant.

Then I traveled to India, and I found that t-shirt in several shops.

And the same sentence was written on hotel, restaurants, shop signs. A leitmotif, which the more time I spend here the more makes sense.

Same Same But Different is a commentary on life in India. It is life in India. I look around me and everything is almost the same, but it isn’t. In a way you cannot explain, as if everything existing was only defined by the connections it has with the contest, and somehow things managed to work according to the equation Western-Things: West=Indian-Things: India.  While you are here, in the not-so-micro cosmos that stretches as a triangle south of the Himalayas, everything feels almost familiar, as if you had once known something different, but you forgot. Seen from outside, everything is just different, in degrees that go from slightly to tremendously, inconceivably, impossibly.

Anyways I am starting a list of things that are Same Same But Different. I’ll keep updating it, maybe adding pictures (if I remember taking them, otherwise you just have to believe me). So here begins the collection:

#1. Bedsheets  – You know how usually bedsheets come in couples, one “with angles” to go underneath and one without to go on top. You sleep between the two, then add blankets if needed. Here, I don’t know if it’s because it’s normally to hot to sleep even with a cotton bedsheet, you only get the top part, with no angle, that you use for the bottom. And the pillow case. Then you can get a bed cover, but that’s it. I tried several market before giving up, and still my bed seems somewhat unaccomplished.

#2. Mattress – It is still quite easy to find hand-made mattresses here, way less expensive than the imported spring ones, and, according to someone (someone who’s not me), quite comfortable. They are filled with cotton and tend to become quite flat after a while, but the good thing is you get to chose the fabric you want to be filled and become our mattress. Result: you might have uncomfortable nights but at least you know that the mattress that’s killing your back looks good. Which is something.

#3. Shower – The shower in both the bathroom of my house consists in a shower head hanging from the wall. No shower plate. No shower cabin. Not even a curtain. We put a curtain in one of the two bathroom, then the ceiling started leaking and the fun was over. But I guess it’d be the claustrophobic person’s dream to take a shower with the whole bathroom as a cabin.

#4. Handles – I saw a few closets, windows and double doors in which the handles of the two shutters were not aligned. I have nothing more to say about this stylish choice.

#5. Cars’ wing mirrors – One day I was stuck in traffic and I did a quick count. About 2/3 of cars, here don’t have a left wing mirror (they drive on the right). Those who have it keep it flicked inside, because it might get damaged in traffic (I imagine that’s why). All the cars have a rigth wing mirror. About 2/3 of them keep it flicked inside: why would you protect the left wing one and not the other? (Again: I am imagining). After that day I understood clearly why everyone keeps little statues or images of at least one of the gods in the car.

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