6. Visit to Sri Lanka, 2004

This brief is our recent visit to Sri Lanka, a fascinating and complex island.  We left Bangalore on Saturday, September 11th.  Despite the infamous travel date, our direct flight from Bangalore to Colombo, a short 1 hour and 20 minute ride, was uneventful.  There seemed to be no additional security at either of the airports.

Our host for the visit was Father Ebenezer, a Methodist priest who heads the National Christian Council (NCC).  NCC is a Sri Lankan NGO that brings together Christian-based organisations in Sri Lanka and is also doing a lot of inter-faith work in Sri Lanka.  Father Ebenezer and his colleagues had planned a trip that would take us by van from Colombo across the entire island to the northeast, with visits to Trincomalee, Batticoloa and surrounding areas.

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The purpose of our trip was to visit some of the projects NCC is sponsoring to promote peace in the northeast region.  But first, you need to know something about Sri Lanka to put it all in context.

Some History

Until the 16th century, Sri Lanka was a land of kingdoms.  The Dutch were the first colonisers to arrive in 1505 and, after successfully exploiting the cinnamon and spice trade, were followed by the Dutch in 1658, and finally the British in 1796.  Large numbers of British settlers came in 1832 and the coffee trade became the backbone of the colonial economy.  The British could not persuade the Sinhalese to work on the plantations so they brought in large numbers of Tamil workers from South India.  When crop disease wiped out the coffee plantations, the British switched over to tea.

Sri Lanka (then know as Ceylon) became independent in February 1948, 6 months after Indian Independence.  Sri Lanka boasts the world’s first female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was elected in 1960.  In 1972, Sri Lanka became the country’s official name.

Sri Lankan People

Sri Lanka’s 19.8 million people are comprised of three major ethnic groups: the Sinhalese (74%), the Tamils (18%) and the Muslims (9%).   Minority groups include Veddas (a tribal group believed to be the first inhabitants of Sri Lanka) and Burghers, who are descendants of the European colonial settlers.

Buddhism

Buddhists represent about 70% of the population.  Buddhism first came to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC when Mahinda, the son of the Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka came to the island to spread Buddhist teachings.  There are two schools of Buddhism: Theravada (practised in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and parts of South Vietnam) and Mahayana (practised in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and also among Chinese Buddhists).

According to legend, Buddha visited Sri Lanka three times.  Adam’s Peak, in the hill country, has been known as Sri Pada or the “Sacred Footprint”, left by Buddha as he headed towards paradise.  It is also believed that Adam’s Peak was the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven.

In recent times, a more militant Buddhism has appeared in Sri Lanka, based on the belief that Sri Lanka should be a bastion of Buddhism in its purest form.  Some Buddhist monks are among the country’s least tolerant people when it comes to compromise with the Tamils.

The Conflict

Although the source of the Sinhalese-Tamil difficulties dates back to the 1950s (when Sri Lanka’s official languages were at issue), it was the enactment of two pieces of legislation in the 1970s that saw the beginnings of the violence that has continued for over 30 years.  One piece of legislation limited Tamil numbers in universities and the other was the declaration of Buddhism as the state religion.

The Tamil reaction was immediate.  After a state of emergency was declared in the Tamil areas, left-wing tamils started fighting for an independent Tamil state called Eelam, meaning “precious land”.  Thus was founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers.  The area the Tamils claimed for the independent state of Eelam was the Northern and Eastern Provinces, about one-third of the island.  Tamils clearly made up the majority in the Northern Province but in eastern Sri Lanka, Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils were about equal in number.

In 1983, 13 members of an army patrol were massacred by militant Tamils in the Jaffna region.  This led to several days of rampages by the Sinhalese, leading to the death of between 400 and 2000 Tamils and massive destruction of property.  Thousands of Tamils fled to safer, Tamil-majority areas.  Many left Sri Lanka altogether.  At the same time, many Sinhalese moved out of Jaffna and other areas dominated by the Tamils.

Revenge attacks continued and there were several large-scale massacres during this time.  The government did little to stop the violence.  In the early 1980s, the Indian equivalent of the CIA trained and armed Tamil militant factions on Indian soil and, in 1987 the Sri Lankan president made a deal with India to provide an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to disarm the Tamil rebels and keep the peace in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.   The IPKF eventually alienated both sides, attempting to isolate the LTTE by promoting and arming other Tamil rebel groups.  The Sinhalese feared Indian influence and considered the deal harmful to non-Tamils in the East.  The IPKF withdrew in 1990, with the LTTE agreeing to a cease-fire to ensure their departure, but the war between the LTTE and the government began again shortly after the IPKF withdrawal.

The war reached a new peak in 1991 after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a female LTTE suicide bomber.  After a failed round of peace talks in 1995, the army invaded the Jaffna peninsula and huge numbers of inhabitants left the area. 

In late 2000, a Norwegian peace mission led by Erik Solheim was invited to bring both sides to the negotiating table.  Both sides were ready.  The government was approaching bankruptcy and morale was at an all-time low after an LTTE attack on the airport destroyed half of the Sri Lankan airlines fleet.  The LTTE had sunk to forcibly recruiting women and children to replace the 20,000 forces who had been killed in the conflict.  In December 2001, a “permanent” cease-fire was officially declared after new presidential elections and peace talks resumed in February 2002.  A year later, the LTTE suspended their participation in the peace talks, claiming they were being marginalised.  In March 2004, a renegade LTTE commander known as Karuna led a split within the LTTE and went underground with his supporters.  Amidst allegations that Karuna was supported by the government, the LTTE discontinued regular meetings with government.  Peace talks are still stalled, despite further Norwegian intervention to revive them.

The conflict in Sri Lanka is not just between Tamils and Sinhalese.  Violence has also shaken the Tamil and Muslim communities in the northeast.  In 1985, Tamil militants killed a number of Sri Lankan Muslims in the northwest. Militancy increased within the Muslim community, triggering a wave of Tamil-Muslim clashes. In 1990, Muslims suffered attacks from the LTTE, including the killing of 147 worshippers in a mosque at Kattankudy and the expulsion of all Muslims from the north. Unable to provide adequate protection, the government created a Muslim Home Guard, an armed civil defence force. This fed into the spiral of violence, with reprisal killings carried out against Muslim and Tamil civilians by the LTTE and the Home Guard respectively.   A fragile peace currently exists between the Muslim and Tamil communities in the northeast. 

The result of the 30 years of conflict has left 60,000 people dead, more than half a million people displaced and countless numbers of physically and psychologically scarred children and adults.

Our Visit

There are so many impressions but this is getting to be a long “brief” so I will relate some of the highlights.

Kandy

Before going to the northeast, we stopped in Kandy for one night.  Kandy is best known for the Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple that houses Sri Lanka’s most sacred relic, the tooth of Buddha.  The tooth is said to have been snatched from the flames of the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 543 BC and was smuggled into Sri Lanka during the 4th century AD, hidden in the hair of a princess.   The tooth is carefully guarded in a shrine in the centre of the temple, encased in gold layered boxes.  The tooth is shown once every 7 years for 2 hours a day for 10 days.  The next presentation is in 2008 so reserve your tickets now!

Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic), Kandy

Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic), Kandy

Trincomalee (known as “Trinco”)

For me, the highlight of this trip was a visit to the Peace Nursery.  Set up as a pilot project by the Methodist Church, the nursery brings together children between the ages of 3 and 6 from the three ethnic groups – Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese.  When we arrived, we were greeted by all of the children, some of whom presented us with the traditional welcome garland of flowers around our necks (they had to be lifted by their teachers to reach our necks!).  They also sang us a well-rehearsed song about butterflies, with fluttering arm movements and sweet voices! 

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Another highlight of our time in Trincomalee was a dinner meeting with a human rights lawyer who is fighting for people whose rights were violated during the conflict.  Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of prisoners by police and security forces was common. It is estimated that around 18,000 people were arrested under emergency regulations from January to November 2000. The vast majority were Tamil, some of whom were ordered detained without trial for more than two years.   Reports of sexual violence against women by security forces are numerous.  Rape was a commonly used weapon of war.

Muthur

A 45-minute ferry ride from Trincomalee took us to the Muthur peninsula, a primarily Muslim area deeply affected by war in which there is considerable tension between the Tamil and Muslim communities.  Muthur is also a border region between Government controlled areas and LTTE controlled areas.   We first visited a Muslim school full of hundreds of well-behaved children (that is, until I showed them the photos I had taken with my digital camera…I was almost the cause of another riot in Muthur!). 

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We were greeted by the smallest children, lined up in two rows who, after we had received our welcome garlands, threw flower petals at us as we walked to the meeting room.  It was another touching experience with children in Sri Lanka.

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The headmaster of the school is also a member of the Muthur Peace Committee, an inter-faith committee organised by the NCC.  Following our visit to the school, we met with members of the Committee, comprising Muslims, Tamils and local police personnel.  They are all working together to promote peace and co-operation in Muthur.   Particularly touching participants were two Tamil youths who had recently left the LTTE and are now working for peace in their community.

Young people working for peace in Sri Lanka

Young people working for peace in Sri Lanka

Batticoloa

Here we had a most memorable meeting with about 30 Tamils from a small village.  They had just returned to their village, having left 20 years ago when the conflict was at its worst.  Resettlement is a fragile process in Sri Lanka.  This particular village is sandwiched between a Muslim community and an LTTE-controlled area.  If any violence breaks out, the villagers will be caught in the middle.  When I asked (through an interpreter) why they had come back, the response was “because it is our home”.  They are slowly re-building their lives with scarce resources.

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We also visited the Jummah Mosque at Kathankudy, where in 1990 a brutal attack by Tamil rebels killed 147 worshippers.  The LTTE denied any role in the massacre.  The mosque was rebuilt but one wall riddled with bullet holes remains untouched as a reminder.  

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Outside, the graves of the victims are in a single row, surrounded by white stones as a memorial to the boys and men who were killed.

On the drive back to our hosts for the night, we stopped at an LTTE graveyard.  We were curious that the graveyard existed at all, since most Tamils are Hindu and bodies are burned on funeral pyres rather than buried.  We were told that bodies of LTTE members are buried in martyrdom.  The graveyard is a cruel testimony to lives lost.

Tamil Cemetery

Tamil Cemetery

We stayed overnight at the home of Father Arul and his wife Valentina.  Father Arul is a Methodist priest working in a small town near Batticoloa.  The Methodist church across the road doubles as an ashram.  In the evening, we joined some youths who get together up to three times a day to sing and pray.  As the sun set, we sat in a concrete circle filled with sand, listening to their beautiful voices, truly moved by their smiling faces and gentleness.  We found out that they are all orphans whose parents were killed during the conflict.

Our last morning in the northeast was an experience I will never forget.  Father Arul had arranged for us to meet a group of 20 youths, all of whom had been child-soldiers in the LTTE.  In addition to the physical and psychological problems they face, they lost years of education and have no skills.  Each one of them stood up, said their name and age and how long they had been in the LTTE.  The oldest was 23, the youngest was 15.  The time they had been in the LTTE ranged from 3-8 years.  The four youngest were back at school.  The others were at home.  None was working.

When I asked how they imagined their future, only two spoke.  Both said that they just hoped they would be able to find a job to support their families.  One boy had lost an eye.  A girl told us that her legs were damaged and she was worried about being able to work.  All of the girls had short hair.  In a country where long hair is the norm, the haircuts they received when they were released from the LTTE are an additional stigma that they carry with them.  Father Arul and his colleagues are just beginning to work with these young people, hoping to be able to provide psychological support and vocational training.

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Former child soldiers

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Our trip was so rich and emotional.  I hope I have succeeded in sharing some of these feelings with you.  We leave for Bangladesh in two weeks to attend a one-week seminar on gender-based violence in the region.  In the meantime, I will be in Bangalore, still shopping for furniture…

5. Shopping, Driving, Complaining in India (25 August 2004)

Shopping in India

I hate shopping in the best of times.   Since moving into our house, I have spent most every day shopping.  Before we moved here, I knew that we would have to furnish an empty house.  I saw it as a challenge.  I imagined finding the Indian version of Ikea, going from department to department, saying “I’ll have one of those, two of those” etc.   My first mistake was thinking that there would be an Indian version of Ikea.  My second mistake was thinking that I could say “I’ll have one of those” and that the one of those would be delivered the next day.

From my experience so far, I can only surmise that the average Indian wants every piece of furniture custom-made with their own selection of fabric and wood.  Virtually nothing in a shop is ready for delivery.  And, while the shop may provide the wood, it is likely that you will have to go to another shop to buy fabric.

Being someone who gets my ideas from seeing things in shops, furnishing our house has been a difficult and time-consuming journey.  “Journey” in most cases means from furniture shop to fabric shop and back to furniture shop.

Delivery of Items Purchased

Placing my first order for household furnishings was a relief.  Finally, I had accomplished something.  What I had yet to discover was that placing an order is only half of the journey.  The next challenge is actually getting what I ordered.  Take our curtains, for example…please take our curtains!  We ordered curtains for the living room and dining room.  We were reassured that the tailor came to our house to measure the windows.  We then calmly waited for curtain delivery, which happened as promised, only 2 hours late.  Much to our surprise, the curtains delivered were not at all what we had ordered.  The fabric was the right one but the style was not at all what we had agreed.  The shop owner came for delivery and, as we looked on in shocked surprise, she kept saying “wait and see them, they will look very nice”.  Unfortunately, her taste was quite different from ours and (fortunately for us) she would not be living in our house to enjoy her design. We promptly sent her back to the shop with the curtains, after refusing to pay more for the re-design.  The correctly designed curtains were delivered the next day.

We purchased quite a lot of furniture from the “Looking Good” furniture store.  Since I want our house looking good, I thought this was a good place to shop.  Another mistake.   Our dining room table and 6 of 8 chairs arrived last night (only 3 hours late).  The fabric I had selected for the chairs was a beautiful gold colour with a fleur de lys pattern (hommage to my former life in France).  The fabric was on all 6 chairs, which was good!.  But 5 of the chairs had the fleur de lys going in one direction and a 6th chair had the fleur de lys in the opposite direction.  Now for those of you who think I’m being picky, I must say that I didn’t really care which direction the fleur de lys went…but I do think it a matter of good taste to have all the fabric on all the chairs going in the same direction.  One chair will be sent back to the “Not so Good Looking Furniture” store today.

The Cherry Tree

I’ve often thought how wonderful it is to have fruit trees at home (we have them in Norway and they are fantastic).  Our house has a cherry tree just outside the front gate.  “Marvelous” I thought when we first saw the house.  “Dreadful” was what I thought after we had moved in and I realised that cherries fall off the tree and stain everything they drop onto (in our case, our upstairs terrace and the entire entryway).  Not only do cherries naturally fall off a tree, but in our case, they were helped by a family of monkeys who visited everyday, shaking the branches so that more even cherries would fall off the tree.

We decided to spare most of the tree but not branches hanging directly over our house.  After consulting with some of Hans Einar’s colleagues at the office, we were told that one cannot just cut down a tree that grows on public property and that we would need permission from the local authorities.  Two days later (a quiet Sunday morning), a gardiner mysteriously showed up and cut down the branches (please don’t tell the local authorities).   We are happy.  The monkeys are sad.

Driving In India (Part II)

Well, we did it!   We drove in Bangalore.  Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon, there was virtually no traffic due to a trucker strike and it was only 5 kilometers but we did it and are very proud to report that we survived.  

Here’s how it happened:  after sulking around on Sunday morning, we threw off our feelings of being home-bound without a driver and took the brave decision to DRIVE IN BANGALORE (capital letters provided to show how momentous a decision this was).    First, we had to pick a destination.  A local shopping mall not too far from home seemed like a good choice because (1) it was not too far from home; (2) we knew how to get there and (3) it involved only one turn.  Then, we had to plan our itinerary.  Now, in Norway, France, the US or Canada, the itinerary would have been “drive to the mall”.  In Bangalore, the itinerary went like this:

  • drive 2.5 kms straight along the side road, avoiding any and all traffic on the parallel main road.
  • when you get to the first intersection where you need to turn and join other cars, abandon the car and walk the rest of the way to the mall.

We shared the driving so neither of us would be totally stressed out about the whole thing.  We were VERY proud.

Complaining

While some of you may be shaking your heads right about now, wondering how I can live in one of the most fascinating and exotic countries in the world and do nothing but complain.  I will now say a few words in my defence. 

Complaining is how I cope with the small and big frustrations of this very unique period of settling in.  What many of you don’t know is that, by the time I have written a Bangalore Brief, I have already vented many of my frustrations in real time while playing online backgammon and “chatting” with my mother and sister.  With the 10‑½ time difference between India and the middle of North America, this event occurs almost every day and sometimes twice a day.   A recent internet chat between me and my mother went something like this: 

My Mother:    what plans do you have for today Roberta?

Me:  electrician at 10. rented furniture pick up at 11. then going to the bank to set up an account. all thrilling stuff in this exotic country that is India…and more  furniture delivery at 7 p.m.

My Mother:    you sound depressed Roberta, are you or are you just frustrated?

Me:  I wasn’t depressed until I started playing backgammon with you! [she was beating the pants off me]

My Mother:    Well I feel better about that.

Me:  Actually, this whole settling in process has been frustrating. There’s no way around it. I have good days and bad days (and good moments and bad moments). Not surprising but I’ll be glad when it’s over and I can start just doing normal things…whatever those will be!

My Mother:    hand in there darling. the best is yet to come

Me:  where should my hand be?

My Mother:    lol..around the hang

So you see that my frustrations are vented with my family and, thankfully, soothed by their wit and humour.  If you are ever frustrated, I highly recommend playing online backgammon with my mother or sister…but be warned, they will probably win…

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.

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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…