Sunday, September 21, 2014

An Indian Stamp

It's a common joke that when the British ruled India, they introduced bureaucracy, and when they left, the Indians perfected it. And what perfection!

Ty has been trying to lease an office space for several months. After negotiating basic details and the price, he had to sign a Letter of Intent stating officially that he wished to negotiate a lease and listing all of his requirements. The owner responded and signed saying what he would be willing to do. After that was agreed upon and validated on company letterhead, a copy of his passport, his visa, and a photograph were added. THEN the actual lease agreement could be drawn, checked by lawyers, and sent away to be stamped.

All along we've heard about the Company Stamp. Every company needs one and usually only one. Apparently it is a powerful tool that validates a document and ours is held in Delhi with the accountants. So every time we need something stamped, which is surprisingly frequent, we rush the papers to Delhi and have them expressed back. With the lease signing pending, and lots of stamping to be done, the Company Stamp was hand carried and put in Ty's possession. I expected something grand. I imagined it as an official seal pressed into the paper. This is what arrived:

With the pitiful stamp in hand and the lease signed, the next step was to register the lease. To do that, both parties, and all their brokers, had to appear in person together at the registrar's office in the district where the owner's lease was originally registered. Thankfully these legal offices appear to be open 24/7. Our appointment was at 7:00 pm across town and by 7:30 pm an Indian miracle occurred as everyone had finally arrived for the thumb print to be added next to the photo.

The all-important stamp was produced and flourished without any of the pomp or circumstances that we had hoped.

The lease is now completely official! We can proceed to the next bureaucratic hurdle - the Foreign Resident's Registration Office (FRRO) where we can apply for our Personal Account Number (PAN) and finally, finally get cell phones and a bank account. I'm pretty sure at some point next week, our registered lease will end up in one of these many "files" that overflowed from every possible corner. This one was in the waiting room where the ever present cricket game was showing.

As we left, Ty said, "Wait! I need to get the company stamp back. I don't want to forget that!" To which our broker laughed and said, "Don't worry! I had one made last week so I could stamp things."

Where there's Indian bureaucracy, there's an Indian way around it!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

To Give or Not To Give

Slums make up 47% of Mumbai so it's impossible not to witness scenes of poverty wherever you venture. How to "fix" India is a favorite discussion topic but that's really all talk - no action. At some point during your week or your day, you will get a knock on your car window and you'll have to decide what to do about it.

Beggars, in all their variety, try to earn a living by asking for money from people in cars. It's always at the busiest intersections where the signal lights are long. The disabled, the mother's with babies, the "holy" men, and the children forge through the congested traffic tapping on car windows with empty milk bottles or canes, needing very little help to appear pitiful. Chopped off limbs or dirty bandages will be waved in your direction and babies will be smacked to produce compelling tears.

Picture taking is a sure invitation and all the beggars will gather at your window demanding money for the picture you just took. If you are white, your skin color declares your relative wealth and they never leave the window until the signal forces them away. This undeterred women was trying to convince the bus driver and all his passengers to give her rupees.

The beggars live on the pavement and set up veritable villages under the city overpasses creating bottlenecks and opportunities.

It's usually the children who are sent out to navigate unfriendly traffic and customers while the women socialize and tend the plethora of small babies. We've been told many times that the mafia is behind this scheme and that the beggars themselves keep very little of what they make. Still, the face pressed against your window is a real person. 

What do you do while your driver locks the doors? Do you pretend you don't see? That's the most common response. Do you act like you're sleeping? That's not unusual. Some favor handing out water bottles or chocolates instead of money. It lessens the guilt but comes with its own problems of crowd attraction and carrying enough supplies. Signs posted around parks order you not to give to or encourage begging. Begging is a problem all over the city. Occasionally I've seen people crack their windows or lean out of a bus to give a few rupees to a disfigured beggar but not to any others. There are rumors that people have been purposefully maimed in order to make a profit begging.

As I witness another roadside camp being set up and children pushed into a life that is not their choice, I force myself to look them in the eye when they knock. I don't know what else to do or how to "fix" this situation - but I know I don't want to encourage it. I also know that when I sadly but firmly shake my head no, I want to convey that's it's the principle, not the person I'm saying no to.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Festival Time

Upon arriving back in India from a brief trip home, we witnessed our first Indian festival. Like many things here, I'm not so sure I fully understand what's really happening.

The Hindu people worship many gods but select one as their main god. Ganesh is a favorite choice as he represents good luck and this is his 10 day festival. Numerous small shrines pop up for the occasion and families go out and buy a special Ganesh idol to take home and worship for a few days.

Sales are brisk and families eat only veg to show their willingness to worship while the idol is in their home. All over town groups or individuals sponsor large Ganesh statues where people can come make an offering (money, flowers, and food) and receive a blessing. Awards were given to the largest, most decorative, most visited, and most eco-friendly Ganesh statues in the city.

Then, on either day 1 1/2, day 3, day 5, day 7, or day 10 (depending on how long you want to fast from meat) with day 10 being reserved as the most exciting day as the giant statues are all immersed, the family loads up their personal idol and makes a festive trek to the nearest immersion point located at a natural body of water.

They unload their family idol onto a table where they worship and say their good-byes to Ganesh. Boisterous singing, chanting, drum banging, chalk throwing, all serve to express their feelings.

When the family has finished, the statue is blessed and handed over to one of the men waiting to take it out in the water for immersion. Our lake had the added threat of crocodiles.


It is loaded onto a floating dock with other family's idols and one by one each idol is gently submersed in the water and brought back up only to be lowered down permanently. All of the idols are left to live out the remainder of their lives in the water. Environmental concerns have prompted people to favor plaster-of-paris versions that will dissolve in a matter of hours, but with so many thousands of idols being left in the lakes and oceans the amount of dead fish and pollution resulting from this tradition is astounding.

The good-byes finished, the family wraps up their celebration with some fruit and candied offerings before heading home.

All the large tents are dismantled and people resume normal life waiting for their next big festival which happens in two weeks. That's when the lady god Durga will get to celebrate 9 nights of dancing and have her chance at immersion.