29 October 2009

To and FRO

FRO. These three letters are hated by every foreigner living in India. Everyone has to pay a visit to the Foreigners’ Registration Office at least twice a year and submit themselves to the bureaucracy of applying for and extending residence permits.

My attitude is if that you can’t beat them, you may as well join them, so I admit that I kind of enjoy the experience of going to the FRO because it’s an opportunity to witness the infamous Indian bureaucracy in action (or rather, slow motion).

The scene is Kafkaesque. There are no queues. There are no signs. There is no one to receive you. The high-ceilinged room hasn’t been repainted since the last century. Half the room is divided into a workspace where men in shirts and big moustaches sit behind desks lined up in rows. They are busy writing in big ledgers. There are files piled up everywhere and not a computer in sight.

Separated by a low counter with a window, is the other side of the room which is arranged into a waiting room. Facing the rows of men with moustaches writing in ledgers there are rows of chairs and lots of grumpy-looking foreigners sitting on them.

You never go to the FRO once. No, you must go to and fro because there is always a document missing. Or one more photocopy needed (there is no photocopier here either – you must leave the office, cross the road and make photocopies at a little stall which probably makes a killing photocopying foreigners’ passport pages). The photographs must be glued and not stapled (glue sticks are also available at the little stall across the street!). Even if you have all the documents with you, there is something else you need that no one told you about. And you must wait. This is part of the process. It takes time to copy out all your details into the big ledger and file all the duplicates you’ve given them. I don’t know what they do with the six photographs.

Just to make things more complicated you must first apply for a three-month extension and then a nine-month extension. Every year. This ensures that you pay the FRO a visit at least twice a year. And even though they already have your documents and duplicates stored away somewhere in those great big piles of files, you have to re-submit all of them again. And don’t forget the fee. In US dollars, please! The rupee has no currency here.

Even though visits to the FRO are tests in patience and photocopying skills, foreigners cannot complain about India’s immigration system (if I can call it that?) which is quite simple and straightforward compared to other countries. There are no interviews, medical tests or fingerprinting required. The next time you are dreading a visit to the FRO, have a look at all the forms and documents an Indian citizen needs to provide just for a Tourist Visa to Europe. Be glad India hasn’t (yet?) imposed all kinds of restrictive measures that our own countries have to keep foreigners away. I’d rather be part of the Kafka novel.

(Photo courtesy of Sean Ellis)

27 October 2009

Kannada Konfusion

After doing an introductory class in spoken Kannada a few months ago, I decided I needed a refresher course. I found out there’s a retired man who teaches Kannada in my neighbourhood for free.

The classes take place in his garage which he has converted into a classroom. There is a white marker board and two rows of plastic chairs. A squeaky fan turns overhead.

The first class started after Diwali. There were six men and six women. I am the only foreigner. The others come from other parts of India. Some have been in Bangalore for over twenty years and are embarrassed to admit that they don’t speak Kannada. Only 55% of Bangalore’s cosmopolitan population is Kannada-speaking. Kannadigas have a flair for speaking other Indian languages, so since other languages like Tamil and Hindi are so widely spoken here, many ‘outsiders’ never learn the local language.

Mr Bhushan is in his 70s and is a product of his generation. On the first day he asked the ladies to sit in the first row and the ‘gents’ behind in the second row. At the next class, all the ladies had shown up but not the men. Mr Bhushan told us that he had observed that ladies tend to be naturally more curious than men. Hence their interest in languages. “Gents have other things on their mind. Like their work,” he concluded. Accordingly he has adapted the course content for us curious but diligent ladies. We are learning how to buy vegetables and saris in Kannada and how to speak to our ‘maidservants’.

Mr Bhushan’s English, liberally peppered with Indianisms, also reflects his generation. Perhaps not used to a ‘foreign accent’, he also has a hard time understanding me. My classmates always have to repeat my questions in a more 'Indian' way for him to understand!

His teaching method is simple. According to the topic, he asks us to write down sentences in English. He then writes down the Kannada equivalent on the whiteboard. Since the focus is on spoken Kannada, he uses the Latin alphabet and not the elegant swirls of the Kannada alphabet which would take me months to decipher.

Mr Bhushan teaches us ‘proper’ Kannada. Though many English words have snuck into the colloquial language, he insists on teaching us the proper vocabulary. So we have learnt that market is ‘marukatte’ and airport is ‘vimana nildana’. Also he wants us to say ‘yeke’ for why, instead of ‘yake’, which is more commonly used. “Yake is a low-class word,” he explains, “you should use yeke. This is a high-class word.”

We are also learning to use the polite form when addressing others. But when the topic turned to ‘communicating with the maidservant’, the hierarchy of language (and Indian society) again became apparent. “Now we will have a discussion between a housewife and her maidservant,” he announced. "Now we will use the impolite form. Also, ‘dayavitu’ (please) is not necessary here.” And so we learned some useful expressions for communicating with a maidservant, which started like this:

“You are always late.”

Followed by:

“Come early tomorrow. I want to go out.”

“First sweep and swab the house.”

“Wash the vessels properly.”

“Take 10kg wheat and get it powdered.”

I try out my Kannada with my ‘maidservant’ (but contrary to what my teacher has taught me, I don’t use the ‘impolite form’ with her). It’s also useful with shopkeepers and auto-rickshaw drivers who sometimes address me in Hindi, thinking I might be a North Indian. When I answer: “Hindi gotilla” (I don’t know Hindi), “You speak Kannada?!” is their surprised response. They then happily babble away to me in Kannada… I hope that one day I’ll be able to understand what they’re saying to me!

17 October 2009

How does your coffee grow?

Above: coffee berries

A few weeks ago I spent a few days in the area around Chikmagalur in Karnataka, which is one of the major coffee-growing regions in India. 73% of India’s coffee is grown in Karnataka.

While tea is popular in North India, South Indians love their filter coffee. I have never liked the taste of coffee. But after trying South Indian coffee I quickly became hooked. It has a milder and less bitter taste. It is always served Indian-style, with lots of sugar and milk!

The fresh air, rolling hills and fields painted bright green by the monsoon were a nice break from the city. I stayed on a coffee plantation owned by Ajoy whose family has been in the coffee-growing business for over 100 years. It was the tail end of the monsoon and it poured rain almost non-stop for the three days I was there. This was exceptional for this time of year and Ajoy was concerned about his crop. If the rain persisted, his crop would be ruined.

Above: the coffee plantation

One morning the rain let up and Ajoy showed us around his 275-acre estate and explained the coffee production process. The plantation grows a mix of Arabica and Robusta coffee bushes. The more valuable Arabica is a more delicate plant which needs sprays and fertilizers and thrives in high elevations. The Robusta, like its name, is hardier and grows well in low elevations. This variety is used mainly for instant coffees.

Most of the coffee berries were still green and would eventually ripen, turning a bright red in the next few weeks before being harvested in November. Coffee plants need some sunlight but not too much otherwise the productivity of the plant would be affected. A variety of trees are grown around the coffee plants to provide shade, but branches are regularly trimmed so that the plants get some needed sunlight. The bushes are also trimmed to keep them at an ideal height for harvesting. A mature bush can yield 8 to 10 kilograms of coffee beans.

After harvesting, the skin of the red coffee berries is removed. The beans are then washed before being spread out on coir mats and left out in the sun to dry for about 7 days. The beans are then sorted using a sieve according to size and quality. The leftover ‘bits, cuts and blacks’ are used for instant coffee. The coffee is roasted only after export.

Coffee is the second most highly-traded commodity in the world market. So coffee-growing must be a highly lucrative business? It certainly can be, explains Ajoy, but it is also volatile. Last year he lost 70% of his crop because of excessive rain. Also, running a coffee plantation is becoming increasingly difficult. His main problem is finding labour. He needs at least 300 workers to harvest the coffee. His workforce has traditionally been made up of farmers who migrate to the region during the coffee harvest, but labour is no longer easily available. With socio-economic changes, people are moving to cities and towns and do not want to stay in rural areas. Ajoy is the fourth generation of coffee-growers in his family but he is not sure whether his sons will take over the family business in the future.

When the crop is good, he manages to sell all of it. Nestle and Coca Cola are regular buyers. He also has regular visits from representatives of international coffee companies who come to taste his coffee and buy up some of his crop.

With the proliferation of popular cafés like Barista and Café Coffee Day and the growth of ‘coffee culture’ in India, coffee consumption has been steadily rising by 8-10% a year. 60% of the coffee produced in India is consumed at home, while the rest is exported. But if demand continues to rise at current levels, it will exceed production in 4 years. Does this mean that India will cease to be coffee exporter? Or will it have to import coffee to meet demand? Only time will tell...

16 October 2009

Happy Diwali

Look outside my window and you'll see Diwali lamps.

Diwali lamps for the festival of light.

Wishing you a Happy Diwali full of light, peace, joy, prosperity!