Sunday, January 24, 2010

Everyone Needs a Handler

One of the benefits of entering India on an employment visa is the experience of visiting the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) within fourteen days of arrival in the country.  Registration is also required if you stay for more than 180 continuous days on any other sort of visa and since we didn’t meet that criteria during our prior assignment, this was our first experience with true Indian bureaucracy.

Leading up to our appointment I was in fairly regular contact with the law firm assigned to assist the process.  Initially, I was providing documentation and asking questions of a resource that I thought was in Bangalore so it wasn’t a complete surprised when he hadn’t me over to a “Mr. Kumar” who was described as his “man in New Delhi.”  Within India, the salutation “Mr.” or “Ms.” is very much a sign of respect, especially for authority figures within a business relationship.  As an example, during cultural training in the states, our facilitator had mentioned how, in a traditional Indian office, it would be appropriate for Lindsay and I to refer to each other at the office as “Mr. Luth” and “Mrs. Luth”; thankfully based on prior experience, we knew our office is westernized enough that we knew that such formality wasn’t necessary.  Or maybe I’m just disrespectful in the office.  At any rate, this “Mr. Kumar” seemed  fit for the title.

Blankly stated, without the help of Mr. Kumar and his associate, I’d still be trying to find the FRRO office much less actually registered.  Prior to our visit to the office, we were requested to provide seven passport photos, our assignment memo from Hewitt indicating that we were employed, a letter on hotel letterhead stating that we resided in the hotel, copies of our passports, visas, and entry stamps, and a copy of our unsigned lease indicating that we were going to be around for a while.  From this documentation, Mr. Kumar and his associate had put together an application packet intended to quickly move us through the process.  A colleague that had been through the process had described it as “I’m pretty sure our contact just had a fistful of rupees and was paying people off to get through the registration process.”  Naturally, I was intrigued.
I found it somewhat odd that Mr. Kumar wouldn’t give us the address of the office (even though the concept of an address is somewhat different here; they tend to go by sector numbers and landmarks, at least in Gurgaon), I was told instead to call him as we left the hotel and that he would provide directions to the driver.  The driver still struggled to find the location, which turned out to be the local general purpose government building, including both the police headquarters and courthouse.   Somehow Mr. Kumar was able to identify us as the car dropped us off at the entrance and he quickly whisked us into the building and we started climbing stairs.  At that point I may or may not have smelled hashish.

We passed the office, went through a door marked “authorized persons only” and Mr. Kumar pulled out our application packet, reviewed it with us, glue-sticked our passport photos to each page, and instructed us to sign.

As a side note, I was extremely proud of my passport photo which was taken after we arrived here at the local Kodak shop (I was shocked this type of establishment still existed); it’s taken in very odd lighting that doesn’t seem to exist in the states, makes me look kind of green, and very much like how I’d expect a diamond thief to look.  In other words, the world’s perfect passport photo.  Lindsay’s original photos were considered “super cute”.  Unfortunately for her, I later read that the pictures were to be “despectacled” with both ears showing.   Of course, her “super cute” photo prominently displayed her glasses and no ears.  The replacement photo didn’t quite reach the same “super cute” status, and she’d be the first to admit she looked somewhat elfish.  Thankfully for her, it’s unlikely anyone will ever see the pictures.  That is, unless we get into some minor disagreement over the next two years and I decide to post on Facebook.

After our application packet was completely assembled, we entered the actual FRRO office (or would it be FRR office?  FRRO office just sounds better) which was much smaller than I anticipated (maybe 12 to 15 foot square) and divided by plexiglass into three smaller rooms.  The largest of the three subrooms was where you entered and quickly passed through.  This seemed to be the room where they were processing existing applications or requests.  The second room was some sort of waiting area with a desk (which is where Mr. Kumar instructed us to sit) and the third room was where the actual registration officers sat, wielding their considerable power.  It’s the third room where Mr. Kumar spent most of his time.  As we waited patiently, he quickly cut in front of everyone and started our process.  There appeared to be other “handlers” like Mr. Kumar helping other foreign nationals but I was impressed that there was a British national with paperwork from a prominent American accounting company that seemed to be there on her own.  While she went through the process slightly slower than others, she still successfully navigated the bureaucracy, which was certainly a afeat in and of itself.

We had to wait a few minutes for our application to make its way around the room.  When it got to the final stage, Mr. Kumar motioned Lindsay and I into the third room.  There seemed to be a slight issue with Lindsay’s entry stamp, in that it was very faint and not on the page next to her visa.  While it ultimately didn’t matter, it was fairly obvious Mr. Registration Officer was just making an issue because he’s Mr. Registration Officer and he can do pretty much whatever he wants.  After some back and forth between Mr. Kumar and Mr. Registration Officer, we were asked to sign a paper ledger.

I have no idea where this paper ledger goes or how they’d actually find our names in the ledger if they ever needed.  I say this because the entire room looked like it was about 3 weeks from appearing on “Hoarders” – bundles of paper held together like bundles of newspaper lined the entire room from floor to ceiling (though there may have been some shelving on one wall).  Needless to say, the electronic age doesn’t seem to have fully met the FRRO office.

We didn’t actually receive our paperwork, which we’re required to carry (at least copies of) while we’re traveling within or to get out of (or back into) India.  Mr. Kumar told us that it takes a couple days and that he’d go back in two days, get our paperwork, and have his associate drop off at the hotel.  Naturally, two days later I emailed for a status update, because to be honest I was still a little nervous since we hadn’t moved into our residence and just tend to worry about this kind of thing (i.e.,  I’d rather be 100% official as it’s never been a personal goal to recount my story on National Geographic’s “Locked Up Abroad”).
When Mr. Kumar’s associated responded that the paperwork was not finalized and that they would go back again the following week on Tuesday (which I doubt considering it’s a national holiday) but that it would help if we had finalized lease papers.  This started to worry me because it’s in my nature and the fact that our hotel paperwork said we were only registered until January 25th.  At that point, I should have remembered the stacks of paperwork and the nature of the process, but I was still a little skeptical until I received a response from Mr. Kumar himself stating:


You both are registered.  You are official now.  Once you have the lease agreement ready please let us know we will take it to the FRO and collect your registration papers and hand them over to you.  Until then relax.  Nothing to worry.

It’s amazing the level of trust and faith we put in people here each day, whether it be wondering if our drivers are actually going to take us where we’ve asked them or blind faith in handlers like Mr. Kumar that are actually going to take care of the little details.  It’s an odd sensation to feel so powerless yet a necessary one to become comfortable in this type of setting.  Every decision we make has consequences, which is more obvious here than elsewhere; however, as long as one looks at dealing with the outcomes as minor problems to solve, it makes what makes life here interesting.  That, and having the pleasure to meet characters like Mr. Kumar.

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