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Archive for February, 2009

Y for the five Y

I wish I had something interesting to say about the Y. I really wish, and I say it with all the guilt of a western girl in India who is too lazy to do Yoga for more than a couple of weeks in a row. Give me one more year, and I might provide a serious Y for Yoga for the pleasure f all of you, my friends who come here and to go A for Ashram-ing.

Meanwhile, I’ll dedicate this post to something that any tourist knows very well. But something that never ceases to amaze me, and I will never stop to find irresistibly cute.

As journalism has the five 5, India has -at least- five Y. They are questions that your daily life must answer to make any sense.

1. Yes madam/sir? – Yes is not an answer. It’s a question. This question: “How can I sell you something you don’t want nor need and possibly ask you for twice the right price?” (Actually, despite what I said a few lines above, this question isn’t cute, nor amazing. Just annoying, but in a funny sort of way).

2. You from? or, extended version, You from which country? –  Any answer will lead to a smile and an appreciative “Oooh”, followed by a repetition of the name of your country. If you come from Italy, as I do, most time the “Ooooh” will  be followed by a “Sonia Gandhi also”.

3. Your good name? – No, this question doesn’t mean: choose the good one of all the names you have. And it is not an advanced compliment to your name. Good name just means name, and if someone knows where this expression comes from, I’d be happy to know.

4. You are husband/wife? – The question is not if you are a husband or a wife, it’s if you have one. Needless to say, the right answer is “Yes”. But feel free to be as honest as you want.

5. You’re having how many children? – Pretty straightforward, but the question doesn’t refer to future offspring. It’s about how many children you have. At the moment. And again, it’s up to you how honest you want to be.

So prepare answers for question 2 to 5, and a lot of patience to deal with question number 1 and you’ll be set to have many interesting conversations. Of course, the interesting part comes when you ask the questions back: the interviewer is most of the times much more interesting than yourself. No offence, it might just be exhotic charme.

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Maintaining security in a country of over a billion people is obviously no piece of cake. And the way India deals with it reflects two of the strongest forces in this country: boureaucracy and individualism.

I’ll begin with individualism, which here is much different from our western faber-est-quisque. It is not about concentrating all the energies on yourself to achieve some goal, it’s about taking the uttermost care of your family, your friends, your stuff without paying any attention to whoever and whatever is out of your own business.

I am not talking about egoism, but of a very complicate balance of love and egoism, that Indians master to perfection. Because, actually, Indians love to love. So they will ignore you, try and get your place in a line, scam you in a shop and so on, if they don’t know you. No courtesy rule applies. But if they make a minimal connection with you, if they get to know your “good name”, then you become, right away, their good friend.  And they would be ready to starve themselves to make sure you get a proper meal. It’s a paradoxical, but I guess it’s the result of the struggle for survival amongst millions.

The way this applies to security is: everyone thinks for himself. Roads are insane, checking in train stations are almost nonexistent, because they technically belong to none. But in front of every mall, theater, hotel there is a metal detector, a few (unarmed) security guards, and sometimes a x-ray machine. Do you want to bring your helmet inside a cinema? Forget that. Keeping your laptop case with you in the supermarket? No way. Sorry sir, sorry madam, it’s the rule.

Of course there is a metal detector at the entrance of every market. But it doesn’t really work. Because the market, really, belongs to none. But, inside that same market, most of the stores will ask you to deposit your shopping bags at the entrance, ad after a purchase you will get up to three receipts: one for yourself, one for the guy who hands you the purchases, and one for the security guard at the exit.

Try and enter the airport without a printed copy of your ticket. Just try. Tell the guard at the entrance everything about paper waste, and confirmation numbers, and passengers lists. Seriously, try. If you’re lucky, the guard will go through the passengers lists of all the flights taking off from the airport, and you can just hope that he will find your name, and that it will be correctly spelled. It might take a while. You might miss your flight.

Now, this request for printed stuff leads to point number two: bureaucracy. No, it deserves a capital, Bureaucracy. From getting a simcard replaced to making a wire transfer from your bank account, everything requires an insane amount of paperwork. In at least three copies. Passport pictures are needed continuously in the most improbable situations, and in multiple copies. Just venture inside any government building: you’ll find rooms, walls, columns of papers.

To give an example, if you loose your phone and want your number back, you need to present a police report. You lost it abroad? No problem, just present an Indian Police report. But you lost it abroad, what has Indian Police to do with it? No problem, go to the police station. Ask for a report. Then come back. With passport. And passport pictures. Multiple.

Another example. The way wire transfers work in most of the countries is: you enter your online bank account, and make the transfer. Sometimes, you need to confirm the transaction online.

Here, you fill four forms. In three copies: one for you, one for the bank, the other for who-knows-who. They will ask you to write the same information (stuff such as account number, reason of the transfer) up to four times. Then, a smiling clerk will hand you a list. A list of documents you have to provide to make the transfer: three salary slips, a letter in which you write that you can support yourself without the money you are transferring out, and a letter from your company saying you work for them and make this much every month. Try and tell them you already deposited the same letter, and the contract, when you opened the account. No, really try. Maybe I’m just being unlucky, here.

Once I asked where all that paperwork goes, when it leaves the bank. Because it obviously can’t fit in the branch. Answer? They end up in a town, not too far away, which is full of warehouse, existing with the only purpose of containing paperwork. A whole town. It sounds so surreal that, of course, I fully expect it to be true.

Can you imagine that place? Something inside me really wants to see it. And something else is just terryfied by the very thought of it. And, I would say, rightfully so.

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