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.


W for Wedding

And here I am, finally, talking about big-fat-incredible Indian weddings.

Ever since I moved here, I have been desperate for an invitation to a Indian wedding. It hasn’t happened yet.

During wedding season, Delhi roads were constantly congested with cars driving to wedding venues, party marquees popped up everywhere just like mushrooms, and music and fireworks went on till late at night. Yet, I somehow managed to knew only the few people in town who were NOT going to get married this season.

Having no other choice, I crashed a couple wedding.

Fully equipped with saari, camera and smile, I went to one of those huge party hoping none would have found the presence of a blond-fair-foreigner girl too weird. Luckily enough, none did.

Indian wedding are exactly as huge as you would imagine. No, they actually manage to be bigger.

In one I’ve been to there were – I am not exaggerating –  at least fifty different dishes of Indian (North, South, Veg, Non-veg), Chinese, Continental and Asian cuisine, not to speak about the desserts. There must have been three, maybe four hundreds people there, and everyone kept saying that it was not a big wedding. Flowers were in such insane quantities that I have seen guests walking away with full bouquet in their hands (they’d wither, such a waste!).

Women were wearing insane jewelery, so beautiful and precious that I couldn’t stop staring at them and thinking, more than a little shocked, that those stones were all real.

And in all this circus of colors, silks, flowers, diamonds, gold, henna tattoos, music, lights, fireworks and riding horses, what’s surprising is that during an Indian wedding none really pays attention to the bride and the groom.

They stand almost by themselves, under some canopy, taking care of the myriads of different rites they are supposed to go through before they can call teach other husband a wives. Everybody else somewhere else, too busy chatting, eating, mingling, drinking, gossiping to pay attention to the rituals. Seriously.

At one of the weddings I ended up being the only person (aside from the happy mothers-in-law) standing in front of the groom-and-bride to-be while they were performing the knotting ceremony (please don’t ask me what it is). I watched them for quite a while, and of course they both knew I was not invited to their wedding and they had never seen my face before, but they didn’t ask me to leave. And I took the risk of being kicked out because I felt a bit sorry for them: you should be the attraction on your wedding day, and you deserve at least a complete stranger standing in front of you while you perform the mysterious rituals.

So yeah, what I discovered about Indian weddings is that they really are not about the couple. Which coming to think of it makes sense, because to begin with they are not supposed to be about love, or romance, or passion. Marriages here should be about joining two families, and that’s absolutely reflected in the (several) receptions. A weddings is an occasion, THE occasion for families to show off, and you can be sure they’ll do it as best they can. They will happily spend every rupee they can on the party (or rather parties), which will be huge, and last much beyond exhaustion.

So my suggestion is: if you are in India during wedding season, wrap all your good wishes and crash a reception (possibly one where people dance a lot!). Everybody is welcome to an Indian wedding. Everybody, including blond Italian girls, clumsily wrapped in silk saaris, who end up spending all their time right next to the buffet table, when they are not staring at the newlyweds.

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?

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.

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.

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.

The ways of trash are infinite. Here, for instance, they include aerial trajectories from windows and balconies to streets or sidewalks. Or long residencies outside people’s front door, on the landing, until someone (someone else) comes to take it away. Trash occupies the sides of the roads, and it serves as food and bedding for strays and holy cows.

There is recycling, because there are people whose work is to take out from the dumps whatever could be sold: metal, glass, wood. But trash bins are an authentic rarity in Delhi, and most people don’t think there’s anything wrong in throwing any kind of waste on the streets. As there is nothing wrong in peeing on the sidewalks, or spitting, why not?

Anyways despite the garbage-ness of this city, I found at least three evidences that, traditionally, Indian culture would be quite eco-friendly.

Evidence #1: chai cups.
The cups in which chai – Indian most popular beverage, tea with milk and lot of sugar – is served are made of terra cotta. The invasion of plastic cups has begun, but terracotta seem to be winning the battle, at least in Old Delhi.

Evidence #2: take away dishes.
There is a lot of plastic happening in this sector too, but when people get street food, it’s served in small dishes made of some kind of leaves (I think its banana): exotic and non polluting. Totally in.

Evidence #3: shopping bags.
If here you go shopping, particularly for cheap stuff, your stuff is put inside a recycled paper bag. Which is not a bag made of recycled paper, but it is a bag made out of another paper bag that has been used to wrap something else. You buy a shirt in a cheap shop, and the bag they’ll give carry it might have been a bread bag in its past life (and still show it, although folded into a new size). I know very well which pleasure can give walking around with a nice shopping bag, and the local ones are maybe not so fashionable, yet it feels just right.

Now smashing the chai cup on the ground after finishing drinking the tea is not exactly the most environmentally conscious of habits, nor is spreading the banana-leave made plates or paper bags on the streets, but at least terra cotta becomes dust in a blink and banana leaves decompose quite quickly.
There’s a lot of potential there. Especially considering that someone hand-makes the cups, the dishes, the bags. Someone, simply makes a living out of those.
Not too bad, eh?