The Stamp and the Signature

Getting a visa was hard enough – two interrogating and intimidating talks at the Indian Embassy in Berlin and long waits included. But to get the visa changed was even harder.

The nice, pink and baby-blue journalist visa in my passport is only valid for three month, and only serves for entering the country once. So I needed to show up at the (roll your eyes every time you hear that name) Foreign Regional Registration Office, known as the FRRO.

As India is the country with the world-famous bureaucracy, this one doesn’t come easy. First, and of the uttermost importancy, you need to get your papers right. Which include: a letter from your landlord, stating you actually live here, a letter from your employer, stating you actually work here, and a letter from the foreign ministry, stating they actually want you here.

I’m temporarly living with a friend of mine. This obviously doesn’t produce the papers, the desk-people want to have, so we asked the indian-german chamber, which resides in the same German House as my office does, to print and sign something, that looks official. They did – but there was an unpleasant surprise to come.

Convincing the foreign ministry was more of a challenge. Brigitte, the fairy godmother in our office, went with me to an ugly concrete tower-block, that rose memories of the former GDR, where I was born. After  pushing in the front (one learns that rather quickly here) at the entrance and getting a number quite fast, we got security-checked (never without here in Delhi, wherever you go) and made our way through the kafkaesk building.

In the appointed office linoleum and worn out furniture from the 60s awaited us, together with a man in charge, that seemed to have no idea what to do. We presented him a lot of papers, but he asked for more and more, trying anything possible to not give us what we wanted. He finally suceeded. His problem: I am an addition to the office. “An addition??? Oh, that’s not stated in the letter from the employer.” He told us he needed to check that with the Indian embassy in Germany first.

In the days that followed, Brigitte called over and over again. The problem was that foreigners should show up at the FRRO within two weeks of arrival – a period that drew to an end. She got in touch with someone she knows in the embassy in Berlin to accalerate the process. Two public holidays also got in our way, one in Germany, the other one in India. Finally the letter came.

But: To enter the FRRO, one needs a number. And obviously queues are very long. So, like every middle-class Indian that needs to show up at a government’s office, we sent a man that waited for us. He had also been there two days before to queue up to get access to the computers at the FRRO, so that he could print my application. In four copies!

Being number 2 (good man!), I went to the FRRO at 9.30 am, the time they open. Obviously, being me, I forgot my passport photos in the office, so I had to rush back. By doing so, I really had to push the taxi driver – unbelievable in India! – but he really was the first driver I experienced in Delhi that wasn’t in a hurry.

After being security checked, I had to enter alone. “Just one party”, the guard shouted at Brigitte. I entered the crowded, dim-lit room. First desk: reception. The man checked my pile of papers with a grim look and told me to go to the second desk. This guy checked them again, went away without notice, came back and sent me to desk number three. Here the papers – you might know what follows – got checked again. But this time, the bad-tempered guy, that yelled at the guy behind me to “get off and sit down – SIT DOWN”, found something to complain about. No lease agreement!

We argued. He thought it indecent that my office’s adress and my apartment’s adress are the same. I told him about the big house, that has offices at one side an an apartment at the other (which is true, actually). So he looked deep into my eyes and finally gave in. “Okay, but next time you bring a lease agreement.” I nodded obedient. And then the miracle happened. Once it was clear that I was going to be successful, he became the nicest person on earth, made compliments, chatted about Germany, asked what I thought about India and so on.

Next thing: I needed to write down my name in a huge visitor’s book on yet another desk, sign there, and then give the consecutive number (mine was 4434) to my man. He pressed a huge stamp into the passport, added the number, printed out some more papers, to which I affixed passport photo number five and six and which, if I understood that right, now are my official residing papers.

So now I was only two desks away now from my visa. Across the room was the cash counter, where I had to pay 6500 rupees (nearly 100 euro). “How much did you give me?”, the guy asked me in a hoarse voice after counting. “6500?”, I replied carefully. He counted again. I noticed I had handed over 7500. He extracted two of the 500-rupee-notes and shoved them into his breast pocket. Then he showed me a big grin and handed them back.

With the receipt and my pile of papers I got waved over to the “Incharge” desk, where the people in charge didn’t work. The big man again looked through my papers, or at least pretended to do so. Finally, he signed the stamp. And now I’m officially allowed to work as a journalist in India for the next twelve month – and even re-enter the country.

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