Faces of India – Meet the Lovebird and the Bureaucrat
Meet the Lovebird:
“Sir, what are you doing on this bus?”
The young Indian man with handsome features who squeezed himself into the seat next to me a few minutes ago eyes me up inquisitively. He’s dressed casually but neat in blue jeans and a flamboyant turquoise shirt that strongly emphasizes the contrast to his dark skin.
“I’m going to Agra” I tell him truthfully while using the sleeve of my shirt to wipe the sweat off my face again. It’s a sweltering hot day. The decrepit local bus I’m sitting on is full to the brim and hasn’t moved an inch during the past twenty minutes. It’s like a sauna on wheels.
“Yes, I know this bus is going to Agra. But why aren’t you taking the train? Buses like this are not for people like you!”
The man introduces himself as Saif. He’s travelling to a small town half along the way to Agra for business.
“I would certainly go by train if I had a choice but where I’m going isn’t connected to the railroad” Saif says.
“Buses are usually running more frequently than trains, that’s why I am sitting on this one” I explain. “What business are you in?”
“I’m a confectioner” Saif tells me. “I have my own little shop here in Gwalior. Sir, if you don’t mind my curiosity, I would like to ask you what you like and dislike about my country?”
“I like its colors, its food, its art, movies, and music” I tell him truthfully, politely dodging the question about the things I dislike about India, of which there are many.
“I see” says Saif and smiles. “But how about the things you dislike? Aren’t there any?”
“Well, in any place there are things good and bad. When I’m travelling I like to concentrate on the good things as much as I can” I continue to avoid answering.
“But Sir. I know that many foreigners complain about the filth, grime, and dust; the low standards of hygiene, the scams, the crowds, the heat and the noise! Aren’t you bothered by any of this?”
Without waiting for an answer Saif continues: “You know, what I dislike most about India is the caste system.”
“How does it affect you?”
“It’s my girlfriend Priya” Saif laments. “She is Kshatriya. I’m only Vaishya. That’s a huge problem. Priya and I have been together for two years already. Her mother knows about us, but her father doesn’t. He is a very strict and traditional man. I dare not approach him to ask his daughter’s hand in marriage. Even Priya’s mother who likes me has warned me about doing this many times. But what else can I do? I cannot run away with Priya. My business is in Gwalior, but even there the caste-system gives me big problems often. In day-to-day life it doesn’t make any difference to most people here that discrimination based on caste is against the law. People from a higher caste often think they can afford to bully those who are from a lower caste. In my shop, when I sell my goods to customers from a higher caste on credit, and they later don’t pay in time, there really isn’t much I can do. Of course I could go to the police and complain but that would only give me more trouble later.”
Saif sighs deeply. It almost seems as if the weight of the world has just lifted off his shoulders by simply sharing his woes with a stranger who listens and also doesn’t happen to be entangled in this archaic web of bans and rules.
He takes out his mobile phone and shows me a picture of Priya and her younger sister. They are both very pretty.
“Priya’s family are from Punjab” Saif emphasizes proudly. “The prettiest Indian girls are from Punjab!”
“So I have heard.” I say and compliment him on his beautiful girlfriend: “She is pretty enough to be an actress in a Hindi movie!”
“Oh please don’t say that!” responds Saif.
“Why shouldn’t I? I really mean it!”
“Because if she was she would more likely be your girlfriend, and not mine!”
Meet the Bureaucrat:
My taxi drops me off at Delhi’s Indira Ghandi Airport three hours ahead of the departure of my international flight.
“Any luggage, sir?” the cute girl behind the check-in desk asks.
“Well yes, but it should be with you already. I checked it through to my final destination at Kathmandu this morning.”
“Sir, I’m sorry but your luggage has not been transferred to us. I suggest you look for it in the luggage depot on the arrivals level.”
This is India.
A stoic representative of my airline dressed in suit and tie accompanies me to Arrivals. There I pay 150 Rupees (3US$) to reclaim my bag.
“Sir, you have to clear customs now!” the airline representative tells me with conviction. “Red channel!”
“I have nothing to declare, and anyway I am leaving the country and not entering it!” I explain.
“Sir, red channel please! Those are the rules after luggage has been kept here in the depot!” he insists. Approaching the desks of the customs officer the airline representative hands me a customs declaration form. “Please sir, fill this in!”
“I have nothing to declare but have to fill in this form?” I ask him again.
“Yes sir! Those are the rules!”
I trust this guy with this and fill in the paper, listing the approximate value of my bag’s contents. I then hand it to the airline representative who in turns hands it to the smug looking customs officer.
“Sir, I have to ask you to unlock and open your bag!” the customs officer says with authoritarian voice and a stern look on his face. I sense trouble.
“What electronics do you have? What drugs did you bring? What books? What clothes? Why do you have two cameras? I can tell this one is brand new!”
“This one does video, this one doesn’t. And anyway, it’s not new as it’s visibly scratched in a few places”
“I know you want to sell this one in India! I charge you 15.000 Rupees (325US$) penalty for importing this!”
My blood is boiling but I manage to keep my cool.
“Sir, I cannot pay any penalty as I’m leaving this country now and have spent all my money!” I say calmly.
“How is this possible! How can you travel without money? What do you work? How much money do you make?”
A supervising customs officer walks over and takes a look at the customs form. I’m hoping the situation will surely be resolved now.
“You filled in this form. Now it’s a big problem. You must pay!” the supervisor tells me and slowly walks away again. The customs officer smiles self-complacently.
I glare at the airline guy who has kept his mouth shut for way too long already. Before I can say anything the customs officer continues pressuring me again.
“How much can you pay? How old are you? Are you married?
Thinking that telling the truth might not serve me well I lie that I am engaged to be married.
“You are engaged to be married? Where is your fiancée? You travel without her? I have to penalize you for that! You pay 12.000 Rupees right now!”
Finally, after an hour of arguing back and forth I am free to go without paying a single rupee. The airline guy walks me back to Departures without looking at me or saying another word.
Some call Thailand the Land of Scams. You name the scam, chances are the Thais have learned it from the Indians.
“Any problems reclaiming your bag?” the cute check-in girl asks innocently.
“Of course not! This is India!”