[Part six of the Visiting Home series.]
During my last week in Bangalore I visit a government office to pay property tax for a site we own. (Pa usually does this, but this time he thinks I should “get a taste” of Indian bureaucracy too.) It is a small office above a supermarket, a place you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it. Inside, a long hall with rows of desks stacked with papers and ledgers, at the end of which there is a cabin and two counters with tiny windows for accepting cash. Large monitors sit unused on some desks, with a dot-matrix printer on the side. Dust is everywhere: on fans, on monitors, on tables with files, on slotted-iron shelves with more files. A framed portrait of Ganesha hangs in a corner, garlanded with flowers, now dry. Employees are chatting unhurriedly. An atmosphere of stasis.
The man I approach – middle-aged, plain white shirt, thick-framed spectacles dominating his flabby face – glances at my form and tells me that all properties now need a “Property-ID” – my site is still in the old “format”, and without this ID no tax can be paid. How can I get the ID? Over there, the man in the blue shirt. This man (again flabby cheeks and thick-framed spectacles – they all look the same) looks at my form, pulls up my data on his screen, takes a glance – all the while chatting with his neighbour about a recurring water problem in his apartment and the “totally incompetent” water board authorities unable to fix it – and tells me that I cannot get a Property-ID unless I’ve paid all my taxes. I tell him I can’t pay tax unless I have an ID – can he talk to his colleague over there please? Sorry, that is beyond his “jurisdiction”. So what’s the solution? Meet the manager, in the cabin there. The manager is not in his cabin, no one knows where he’s gone, or when he’s expected back. I have a hunch these guys want a bribe – paying a couple of hundred rupees will get me out of this muddle in no time. But I’m not sure about this, an uncertainty prompted by a large board I see near the entrance:
DO NOT PAY A BRIBE
Please, lend a hand to CBI in ensuring a clean public life by passing on any information about corruption in Central Government offices, Public Sector undertakings, National banks, Insurance companies, Defense establishments, Indian Railways, etc situated in Karnataka to:
The SP, CBI, Anti-corruption branch, No.30 Bellary Road, Bangalore.
I tell them both that I will talk to the manager soon.
On my way back home I stop at a watch showroom to buy a set of batteries for my wristwatch. This is a big store, and the contrast to the government office is striking: elegant hardwood furniture, spotless glass cabinets showcasing expensive watches, smartly dressed employees serving lemonade to waiting customers. I am directed to the repair center at the rear, where an elderly man, seated at his desk behind a glass partition, is focused on the watch in his hands. As I observe him carefully piece together tiny pieces with precision, I notice that his own wrist watch – an old model that has lost its lustre long ago – is running a few hours late. It cracks me up (how often do you see a watchmaker wearing a kaput watch?) but later, after I’ve narrated this episode a few times, I wonder if this contradiction hints at something deeper: the lack of time, perhaps, in this society increasingly obsessed with commerce, ambition, and status. I’ve met few friends this time; everybody is busy in the hive of their lives, flitting from one place to next in search of another drop of honey, the sweetness of which few have time to savour. For those who have time, there is much to savour: the arts and culture scene is vibrant, options for local cuisine have exploded, there is no dearth of great travel locales.
I spend the last three days completing things I’ve postponed this far: shopping for clothes, visiting “pending” relatives, getting a haircut, calling up friends. Ashwini, engrossed in a project, has a tight schedule; we plan twice to meet, but she cancels due to work. The baby pigeons have begun to grow feathers, shades of grey and white; in a few weeks they will be ready to fly, to find their own place.
Only Ma accompanies me to the airport (Pa is away on a business trip). A simple goodbye, with little emotion. It was too short Ram – stay longer next time, Ma says. I nod, give her a hug.
Auf Wiedersehen, Ma, I say. She likes these parting words in German; they contain a promise: until we meet again.
Auf Weedershen, Ma says. She waves as I turn around.
After check-in, past security, I stop near the immigration section to fill a form. Resident status? I check the box labelled “NRI”. Non-Resident Indian. Or Never Returning Indian, as a satirical piece had suggested. Either way, it implies I am different from other Indians. Ashwini had said I behave like an outsider in my own country: I notice things others do not, constantly spot differences they gloss past, instead of assimilating and accepting them, like “normal” Indians do. There is truth in this: Mr.Aloknath, Venu, the watchmaker and the tax officials – these characters, ordinary- regular folks in this country, stand out in my view. But the differences mean little to me beyond observations of human nature. I do not mean to judge, and this Ashwini cannot understand.
There is no queue at the immigration counter. The officer, an elderly man with an uncanny resemblance to Mr.Aloknath, asks me the nature of my work in Germany.
I’m a consultant, I reply.
How long in Germany?
Ten years? Still Indian citizen? The officer smiles, keying in the passport number. Not planning to become German citizen?
No. I smile back. This is an unusual conversation with an immigration officer. Any relation to Mr.Aloknath? I want to ask.
Why not? I heard it is very comfortable there. You want to come back?
Not sure, I reply. I’m okay with the NRI status right now.
NRI means neither here nor there, he says. You must decide some time, where you want to be. He stamps the passport and hands it over. Have a nice flight.
Thank you. I pick up my passport and leave.
Neither here nor there, I repeat to myself, as I walk towards the gate.
* * *
[This was the final installment in the Visiting Home series. You look relieved, my friend, but do not make it so obvious. It was an experiment, an alternate way of looking at the experiences a visit to India generates, and if you have followed this journey I thank you for your patience. It is now time to return to more mundane matters of life in Germany. To small things, local matters.]