Monday, July 26, 2010

India-Bangladesh #9

One final India story (and in a way the most annoying). At passport control in Delhi the official gave my passport an odd look, said something to me, and tapped a line on the stamp I received in Dhaka. Eventually I understood that I was supposed to have registered at the Indian Foreign Office within 14 days of arriving in Calcutta. I pointed out that I was leaving within the 14 day grace period, so I assumed that I did not need to register. The passport guy said, "But you did not register, so you may not leave." I started getting worried. He asked another official to come over who confirmed what he'd said and who reassured me that I just had to drop by the Indian Foreign Ministry and poke my head in the door. Apparently, they just wanted to make sure that I was having a good time and have me fill out a customer satisfaction survey about my time in India.

I never did fully understand why I needed to register. I've always thought that you only need to register if you're going to stay for a long period of time in a country. I had to register with the British Foreign Office when I was a grad student in the UK and occasionally I would write the Foreign Minister letters that said, "Hi! Remember me? I'm still working on that damn PhD."

My registration in India seems to have had something to do with getting permission to re-enter India. In other words, they were not going to let me leave because I had not properly requested permission to re-enter India. So if I missed my flight, went to the Foreign Office the next day and properly registered, then I could leave India and return as often as I liked. The only problem would be that, of course, I would have missed my flight home and would be stuck in India and would lose my job and would become a ward of the state and a drain on the national budget and would eventually bring down the Indian economy. Alternatively, I could get a job as a "chai walla" (tea boy) with the Indian railway or a post card vendor in Benares and become responsible and economically productive, at least until I got hit by a van full of tourists being driven by a maniacal and incompetent driver and was condemned in my next incarnation to be a passport control officer at the Delhi airport as a way of making atonement for all my bad karma.

Eventually, I explained all this to the passport guy at the airport. Well, maybe I didn't explain it exactly the way I've told it here but I did manage to convince him that although it defied the imagination I had no desire to return to India. Two weeks or dust and dirt and marginal accommodations and dodgy food and undrinkable water and bathrooms that were unbearably filthy and flies... everywhere flies and traffice that was designed to deal with India's over-population problem and so on. So giving me a deeply suspicious look, ht epassport guy reluectantly stamped my passport, closed it, gave it back to me, and said, "Thank you, Mr. Vaughn. I hope you had a good time in India."

The strange thing is that I realy did have a good time in India. The place exerts a mysterious fascination. At first, India gives you a violent punch in hte gut with its heat, humidity and monsoon rains, dirt, flies, poverty, and so on. But once you get past that, once you accept India on its own terms, instead of imposing your own expectations, then India comes alive and spaces open up. It will always be frustrating and challenging because that's its nature. In several years, I think, I would like to return (if the Foreign Office will let me). Although I would like to do stuff a little differently: No over nights on trains (unless absolutely necessary). I want to see more of British India and South India. But I have become a reluctant and conflicted fan of this enormous, beautiful, appalling and incredible place we know as India.