Monday, August 23, 2010

A Short Trip To Delhi

Last week, Sadhana Devi and I flew to Delhi for our annual pilgrimage to the Foreign Registry Office in Gurgaon to renew our visas. In most circumstances, I’m not a fan of the national capital, much preferring Pune for its weather, friendlier atmosphere and all-around ambiance. Yet, for once, I have to say I found Delhi beautiful. It was the cleanest I have ever seen it and very green after the monsoon rains. Big, beautiful trees shade the wide boulevards of the central city. The usual debris has been removed from the roadsides and replaced by tidy landscaping; buildings have been newly painted; the long-awaited Metro system zips efficiently overhead and I could actually see blue sky above. I was impressed. This is the culmination of a multi-year facelift in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in October.

It’s amazing to see how much the city has changed in the five years I’ve been here. Those familiar with the old Delhi airport will remember a rundown facility more suited to a small, declining American town. Now, on your arrival, you’ll disembark at a magnificent new terminal comparable to any of the best in the world. (See photo to left.) A new, multi-lane expressway takes you into town, and traffic, while still bad during rush hour, moves smartly along at most other times. If you are adventurous, you will soon be able to take the sleek new Metro all the way to Gurgaon.

The local newspapers have been merciless in their criticism of the lack of progress and pervasive corruption accompanying the building campaign. Some of the venues might not be completed in time for the Games, but I’ve come to expect this. It’s a national sport to expose the underhanded dealings of officials and the newspapers have a keen eye for it, although from my perspective, what has been accomplished is amazing. The editorialists, while good at feeding the population's disgust for its politicians, are less skilled at proposing useful solutions. That’s how newspapers are.

Criticism is common in every country but I find educated Indians to be particularly inclined toward it, and very good at philosophizing, debate and argument. A noted local author titled one of his recent books, “The Argumentative Indian” and I think the title apt. Indians have high expectations for their country and whereas you may hear some Westerners characterize the country as fatalistic, it’s a mistaken portrayal. Modern India is shackled by some medieval traditions but it is also hungry for change. Young people see what other countries have done and are not satisfied with the half hearted effort that may have characterized the past. It’s a country proud of its heritage but disappointed when it fails to live up to what it could be. And, when disappointed, they aren’t shy about saying so!

India lacks inspirational leadership. Politicians, with a few exceptions, are despised. Spiritual/religious leaders, while given traditional respect, are often dismissed by the young as irrelevant and suspect, with little to say to the modern Indian. Police and civil servants are perceived as corrupt and self serving. The figures admired are Bollywood superstars, sports heroes, a few scientists and writers, mega-industrialists, and technological entrepreneurs. It’s not much different than in America. These last two particularly are fast becoming the face of modern India. As Swami Kriyananda remarked, India has lost some of its spirituality in the last half century, but the change has been inevitable, and perhaps necessary, as the country focuses upon improving its material efficiency. As he also said, “It’s only a temporary phase. Spirituality resides in the soil.” It also corresponds with what Yogananda said about how Western souls are being born in India in this age in order to bring balance.

I love India, I really do, but there are a few things that get to me. Let me tell you about the Foreign Registry Office (FRO). It’s located in the “Mini-Secretariat” building on the outskirts of Gurgaon, a perfectly good example of soulless "Stalinesque" architecture but without the charm. I’ve written previously (May 2006) of my visits there and little has changed in the intervening years except now the elevators don’t work. The Mini-Secretariat is awful, which I find surprising because, on the whole, Gurgaon is a modern city with lots of attractive office towers, malls and beautiful residential districts. The Metropolitan Mall, where we have our Wishing Tree Boutique is pictured to the left. The Haryana government buildings are in sharp contrast.

Every year I make multiple visits Mr. Subhash’s office at the FRO in order to renew our Employment Visas. Two, three, or four visits per application is the norm. I never get it right the first time and this last visit was no different. Subhashji was very sorry (not really) but he had yet to receive approval (again!) from his superiors in Chandigarh (capital of Haryana) even though I had submitted my papers 60 days prior (two visits that time). Would I please return in a month or two or three? It’s the same thing every year. I wonder if this is what happens to foreigners around the world as I’ve been told America’s system can be pretty daunting too. Maybe all bureaucrats, whichtever their country, go to the same, bureaucrat school to learn the arts of delay and the infliction of frustration.

Subhashji’s little office is chaotic. Ten to twelve applicants, many with local “shepherds” guiding them through the process, jostle for position in front of his desk. Five years ago, I would have politely (and fruitlessly) waited my turn but have since learned a few lessons which I’ll pass on should you one day find yourself there. Never leave an inch between you and the person ahead, otherwise the space will be instantly filled. Persistently move forward, never taking a step back. Do not let anyone move around you or, if possible, get to your side. Plan your moves strategically and stay alert to those behind you. You must block their efforts to get in front of you at all costs. You will eventually get to the desk and once there, take as much space as possible and doggedly hold position until you get Mr. Subhash’s attention. If kindly offered one of the chairs to the side of his desk, refuse it—only women and the elderly accept and are then promptly ignored. Remain in front of the desk, leaning forward with papers extended until avoidance is no longer possible and your application is accepted. Be patient because Mr. Subhash has stacks of thick ledgers which must be searched to find your past records, using some inscrutable system known only to him and his assistant. Records are piled along the walls in loose bundles, tied with twine, from floor to ceiling. Don’t worry if he becomes distracted by other applicants reaching over and around you to put their papers on his desk, burying yours. His goal is to get rid of you, so he will ultimately deal with your application. He will take frequent telephone calls, answering leisurely while ignoring you. Don’t worry; don’t move. Stay put and sooner or later, you’ll get results.

Lyrics from an old song keep running through my brain,
He's never early, he's always late
First thing you learn is
You always gotta wait.