4. Water, Toilets, Ambassadors and Pondicherry (17 August 2004)

The House

We moved into our rented house on Wednesday, 4 August.  This was not the day the house was actually ready…rather, it was the day when our hotel could no longer provide a room for us.  I have learned that, for a house to be ready to move in to, it should have the following: 

  • toilets with all pipes present and connected to each other
  • running water (preferably hot and cold)
  • some furniture

On Wednesday morning when we arrived, our house did not have all of the above.   By Wednesday afternoon, our house did have some furniture (rented) and two toilets that we could use.  For most of us, two toilets for two people is quite sufficient but I have discovered that the human body has an innate attraction to use the toilet one is nearest to and not necessarily one of the two toilets actually hooked up with pipes.  It has been two weeks and all toilets are now working.

Water

Running water in a house is something I have, in the past, taken very much for granted.  I never really questioned where water comes from or how it gets to a faucet that I turn on.  I have always simply turned on the faucet and water would pour out until I turned off the faucet.  I have learned that, for water to run out of the faucets, in our house, it must come from the water tank on the top of the roof…which must contain water.  And, for this to happen, water must be pumped from the sump pump under the driveway up to the roof tank.  This is done by a simple flick of a switch in the kitchen which sends water from the sump pump to the tank on the roof.  I have gotten quite adept at flicking this switch because (1) it is a switch that works and (2) it makes sufficient noise that I know something is happening.  Being naturally curious, I asked an Indian woman how I would know that the tank was full.  Her response was that I would hear when the tank begins to overflow and that this would be a sign that the tank was full.

We have 11 faucets in our house, none of which provides potable water.  Drinking water is supplied by our Aquaguard Royale, a water filter system attached to our kitchen wall. 

Aquaguard Royale

Aquaguard Royale

To use the Aquaguard Royale, I consulted the user guide which explains the four essential steps to obtaining drinking water: 

1.   To switch on the unit, press the “power” switch.  The red LED will glow for 5 seconds indicating that the power is on.

2.   Soon the yellow LED will glow for 54 seconds indicating that the unit is processing water.

3.   When the green LED glows, you’ll hear 3 beeps indicating that the unit is ready to deliver clear, safe drinking water.

4.   To let the water flow, press the “flow” switch.  While you fill your glass, you can opt for a pleasant musical tone by pressing the “music” switch.

I have done all of the above and it works (as long as there is water in the roof tank).  Having drinking water is a very nice thing, but I must admit that I was most excited about the musical tone option.  While the symbolism is lost on me, listening to “It’s a Small World After All” play while I secure safe drinking water is quite pleasant.

Musical tones are a big thing in India.  Almost all cars and small trucks have a built-in musical tone when driving in reverse.  I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to hear Ravel’s Bolero as I saw a small truck back into a tree.

Electricity

Electricity in our house is supplied by the electric company, except when it is not supplied by the electric company.  The power sometimes goes out, but not for very long…so far.  When this happens, our trusty Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) kicks in.  The UPS consists of a big box connected to 4 huge batteries (think of a car battery quadrupled in size).  The UPS box sits inside the house and, fortunately, the 4 huge batteries sit outside.  When the electric company decides not to provide power, the UPS kicks in automatically, providing power for all 5-amp plugs in our house.  An electrician came to ensure that we had 5-amp plugs for our essential electric needs:   lights, fans and, of course, the tv.  We asked him to provide electricity for our other essential need:   our computers.

Travelling In India                     

Our first travel experience within India was a trip to the Union Territory of Pondicherry.  Our voyage involved one plane trip (from Bangalore to Chennai/Madras) followed by a taxi ride to Pondicherry.  Our driver met us at the airport in an Ambassador car.   I found the following description of the Ambassador:

 “The Ambassador is the first car manufactured in India. A hardy vehicle suited to Indian roads and conditions, it was all what a car was meant to be to the average Indian.

It should be noted that the average Indian does not seem require seat belts.  The Ambassador’s claim that it is suited to Indian roads and conditions is absolutely true:   it rarely reaches a speed over 50 km/hr and the 162 km trip from Chennai to Pondicherry took a little over 3 hours.  Our security discomfort was somewhat mitigated by our climatic comfort:   the average Indian does seem to require air conditioning, which came in handy with temperatures hovering around 40-degrees celsius.

ambassador

Pondicherry

While India gained its independence in 1947, Pondicherry remained a French colony until 1954.  The French language and culture are kept alive by the local Lycée Français and the Alliance Française.  We stayed at the charming Coloniale Guest House where Sabine welcomed us with fresh croissant and baguette every morning at breakfast.

Sabine and me

Sabine and me

The city is teeming with French and other visitors who mingle peacefully with its 650.000 inhabitants.  Pondicherry is an eclectic mix of both French and Indian cultures.  French and Tamil are heard throughout the city.  The rue Dumas and rue Romain Rolland happily co-exist with Jawaharlal Nehru and Nidarajapayer streets.  L’église Notre-Dame-des-Anges is a few blocks from the Manakula Vinayagar temple.

Pondicherry is also home to the Sri Aurobindo ashram.  Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) was a Bengali poet turned freedom fighter who, to escape the British, took refuge in Pondicherry.  It was here that he became a spiritual leader.  One cannot speak of Sri Aurobindo without referring to “the mother”, a Parisian mystic, painter and musician, who first came to Pondicherry with her husband during World War I.  Formerly known as Mirra Alfassa, she was so inspired by Sri Aurobindo that she kindly let her husband return to France without her and stayed on in Pondicherry until her death in 1973.  When Sri Aurobindo removed himself from public life in 1910 to pursue his inner spirituality, the mother took over and created the ashram.  In addition to being a highly developed spiritual centre of activity, the Sri Aurobindo ashram is a vast business enterprise with its own farms, health facilities, publishing house, retail stores, and post office.  One visits the ashram to meditate over the tombs of Sri Aurobindo and the mother, lavishly decorated with intricate fresh flower designs.  It is a tranquil island in the sea of Pondicherry’s bustling city life.

Ten kilometres outside of Pondicherry is Auroville, an experiment in utopian living.  Created in 1968 by the mother, it is now a city of 50.000 inhabitants who come to Auroville to pursue “divine consciousness”.    At Auroville’s centre is the Matrimandir (Sanskrit for the Temple of the Mother), a huge gold sphere built for meditation.  It was being renovated when we were there.  The hours for visitors are so convoluted and changeable that I can only assume that it is meant primarily for Auroville’s residents.  What I have read about the Matrimandir is that the sole source of light is a single ray of sun that falls on a crystal globe.  Total silence is imposed.  I hope one day to visit Matrimandir, as I believe it is one of the few places in India that is silent…unless there is a special Matrimandir musical tone…

Hans Einar and the Matrimandir

Hans Einar and the Matrimandir

3. Visas, Staples, Glue and an Angel (29 July 2004)

The Assistant Police Commissioner

This is the person who HOLDS YOUR LIFE IN HIS HANDS when you first come to India.  All foreigners with visas permitting them to stay for more than 180 days must register, within 14 days of arrival, at the Police Commissioner’s Office, which is conveniently located in one of the busiest and most congested areas of central Bangalore.  The building itself is a beautiful architectural splendour.  The entrance is a long courtyard with a exotic trees and potted plants.  I was lulled me into a false sense of peace and calm.  This, until we entered the “single-window” office (which has 6 separate windows) where our first stop was before two kindly looking men whose job it is to ensure that everyone has the necessary documents for registration before going to the registration window (I will call them the triage guys).  Everything went downhill from there.

The false sense of peace and calm I had upon entering was shaken as the triage guys told us that we have the wrong visa type.  Not knowing what type of visa we actually had, or what type of visa we actually needed, this was a big surprise. 

When we received our visas in Oslo, we were thrilled, since it was not at all apparent that we would get them, and we had spent days showing them off to our friends and family in Norway because they are so beautiful…colourful and cheery.  Of course, it never occurred to us to check the visa type, since the visas were issued by the Embassy of India in Oslo which, we assumed, had some kind of link to India itself.

What we failed to realise was that the Indian visa was like the entrance to the Police Commissioner’s Office…behind it’s beauty lurked a maze of bureaucratic entanglement that even Kafka would not have understood.

For those of you dying of the suspense, we both were given visa type “B”s which are business visas.  The triage guys agreed that Hans Einar should have a visa type “E” which is an employment visa.  And my visa type should be “X” for multiple entry only (I didn’t think the triage guys would appreciate any humourful musings on having an x-rated visa so I remained silent).

The triage guys informed us that we would need to see the Assistant Police Commissioner (the APC) himself and we were duly ushered to the WAITING ROOM.  The WAITING ROOM is a scary place.  It was full of people…waiting.  The first thing I did was to look for a machine which would hand me a number (for example 79) which would be called after the person holding the number 78 had finished.  There was, of course, no such number machine.  Instead, our NCA colleague (I will call her our NCA angel) said a few words to the guy sitting outside the APCs office and we were asked to kindly be seated.  Within a few minutes, we were ushered into the APCs office…where the APC was still dealing with the person holding the imaginary number that preceded our imaginary number (I will call him Number 78).  Number 78 was being summarily dismissed with a wave to the APCs hand and told to come back on Monday.  Then it was our turn.

Our NCA angel explained our predicament to the APC.  He listened carefully, nodded his head in understanding, agreed with the triage guys that we had the wrong type of visa and said that he would need to see a copy of Hans Einar’s work contract in order to make a final decision on his visa.  There was no doubt that I should have an x-rated visa.

The next day, we drove back to the Police Commissioner’s office, still conveniently located in one of the busiest and most congested areas of central Bangalore.  We marched directly to the triage guys, without taking in the beauty of the entrance.  The triage guys seemed happy enough to see us and looked through Hans Einar’s work contract with appropriate seriousness.  They then told us that they would be able to issue us resident’s permits if the Embassy of India in Oslo sent the APC a fax correcting our visa type.  We were then asked to deliver the work contract to the APC who, when we showed up in the WAITING ROOM, was not there.  Our NCA angel found out that he was, in fact, not at work that day (this, on the day he had told Number 78 to return).  I bet Number 78 didn’t get past the triage guys…

Back at the office, we planned our next move.  The NCA office in Bangalore would phone the NCA office in Oslo, who would then contact the Embassy of India in Oslo and ask the person who issued our visas to send a fax to the Police Commissioner’s Office.  Seemed straightforward and I, at least, felt smug in our efficient planning and clear thinking.

At this juncture, I will introduce a word I seem to use often these days:  “oops”.  Oops, that I was smug in our efficient planning and clear thinking.  Oops, that I assumed it could all be taken care of quickly and with relatively little hassle.  Oops, we are in India.

It turns out that the guy who issued our visas at the Embassy of India in Oslo was happy to send a fax to the Police Commissioner in Bangalore…as long as the Police Commissioner in Bangalore sent him a fax requesting that he send a fax.  OOPS…

I will be a bit sketchy about the third visit to the Police Commissioner’s Office, since I had decided that the best thing I could do to be supportive to my husband was to not go with him.  I decided that my creative energies would be better utilised staying in our hotel playing online backgammon with my mother and sister.

What I learned about that third day at the Police Commissioner’s Office was that (1) the WAITING ROOM is accurately named and (2) we were invited back for a fourth visit at which my presence was requested.

Our fourth visit was a learning experience.  We learned that when an official form in India is marked “affix photo here” the affixing agent must be glue (no staples).  We learned that there is a glue store amazingly close to the Police Commissioner’s office.  We learned that when the APC makes a handwritten note on my registration application, the same handwritten note must also appear on Hans Einar’s application…and that this should be done in two separate trips to the APCs office.

Our fourth visit was semi-successful.  We both got registered.  We will both receive resident’s permits, but for 15 days only, during which time we have to get our visa types changed by the Embassy of India in Oslo.

I won’t go in to detail about how, when we finally made it to the registration window, the glue had seeped through two copies of the forms with my computer-printed photos affixed, removing the ink from the photos themselves and leaving a reverse impression of my face on the back side of the forms.  OOPS…