I arrived in Delhi on July 22 in the early hours of the morning after a wonderful flight with Lufthansa airlines via Munich, Germany. Leaving Berkeley, Fremont, and the Bay Area behind was more difficult this time since I knew I would be away from family & friends longer than all of my previous visits combined (shorter visits every year starting in 2004 with longer visits in 2006 & 2007).
Jawaharlal Nehru Universiy (JNU), my new academic home for the next two years, is only a few kilometers from the Indira Gandhi International Airport and since I arrived on the very morning that registration began, I took a taxi from the airport directly to the University. My offer letter mentioned that upon arrival at JNU, I would be provided with a guest house until permanent housing was allotted. It also mentioned that priority for the guest house would be given to those students who were arriving from far off cities (going East or West, San Francisco is the farthest place on the map from Delhi at about 7,692 miles by flight). I arrived to the administrative block of the campus at 8:00 a.m., with two check-in size bags, my hand carry luggage, and my favorite Jansport Odyssey backpack only to find all of the offices closed. The security guard told me to wait for two hours, which I happily did despite the scorching heat and the stale, unmoving air of the building. Finally when the foreign student’s office opened at 10 a.m., I was the first in line. I calmly requested for the guest house accommodation that was mentioned in the letter so that I could put my overloaded bags away and could freshen up before I registered myself at the University. I was told that no rooms were available, and that I should leave my bags in the hallway with the security guard while I handled paperwork formalities. I was physically & mentally exhausted, hungry & thirsty, and annoyed from all of the flying – but I complied anyway.
Though I had studied at Delhi University (main campus and St. Stephen’s College) in 2006, it was only for a semester and all of the registration procedures were taken care of by U.C. Berkeley’s study abroad office (Education Abroad Program, or EAP). What I experienced that first day as an independent student coming to an Indian University without any support was far from what I had imagined. Instead of a long narrative, I share with you a few hilarious (only in retrospect) but frustrating moments from my first two days of registration. It finally got done, but it lasted over six hours each day. The vague and pointless nature of the policies in place, the lack of interest and knowledge of the staff members, and the crab crate-like spirit of the students jam packed in small spaces fighting to be recognized in the books of the University instilled in me a greater appreciation for my former employer and Alma Mater, UC Berkeley. I also experienced firsthand the workings of the Indian public institution: standing in long lines, providing all sorts of irrelevant certificates (genuine or not), obtaining a dozen signatures, getting a superstar lineup of babus to stamp your shit, and if all else fails, my personal favorite in “come back later”.
Scene # 1: Registrar for Foreign Students
About twenty foreign students are packed into a tight room. The other 80 students have not arrived yet, so those present are thankful. A long desk separates the students from the staff – a three member team consisting of a middle-aged woman reading a newspaper sipping on chai, the registrar Mr. Dharam Pal, and his younger, mischievous looking assistant whose name I cannot recall. There is no line, and all the students are frantically waving their acceptance letters in the assistant’s face. Finally, they call each of us one by one. When I get to the ‘hot seat’ in front of Mr. Pal, other students from Korea, China, Nigeria, Bangladesh, & Nepal crowd around me and are breathing hot air down my neck. They, without concern, become a part of a questioning process that should ideally be private.
Dharam Pal: Show me your original secondary school transcript & Bachelor’s transcript. Also, I need a health certificate saying that you are mentally sound.
Sudev: I sent my original transcripts with my application, but I don’t have a health certificate. I can email my physician in the U.S. and can have it emailed to you.
Assistant (in Hindi): Koi baat nahi, 200/- mai aap kahi doctor se banwa sakte ho. Kal de dena. Don’t worry, for 200/- you can get some doctor nearby to give you one just like that. Bring it tomorrow.
Dharam Pal: Please show me your passport and student visa.
Sudev: Here is my passport and my Person of Indian Origin Card (PIO). The PIO card is a government of India scheme that allows me to travel, study, and work in India until 2022. I do not need an explicit student visa.
Dharam Pal: This is not possible, you have to have a student visa.
Sudev: Yes, I know. This PIO card is a student visa and more. See here, the stamp from the embassy office says “No Visas required for travel to India”.
Dharam Pal: What is your proof that you are of Indian origin?
Sudev: Besides that fact I obviously look Indian, my Person of Indian Origin card is my proof.
Dharam Pal: But prove to me that your Person of Indian Origin card is valid. Do you have your parent’s birth certificate?
Sudev: Uh, no. I don’t carry my parent’s birth certificates with me. My proof that my PIO card is valid is that it was issued by your embassy after submitting all of the necessary documents.
Dharam Pal: Okay, let me check with the higher authorities. You come back tomorrow, but pay your fees today.
Scene # 2: Paying Fees
After waiting in line for an 1.5 hours, it was 12:30. Lunch for those working at JNU is officially from 1-2 p.m. I was about 10th in line from the ticket window, and was sure I could make it before 1 p.m. But without cause, they shut the windows and called a lunch break at 12:30, yelling out that those who still want to pay their fees should come back after lunch.
Sudev (to the girl in front): What is going on?
Girl: They have called a lunch break early today.
Sudev: Why? Can they even do that? I have to pay my fees so that I can get my classes approved today.
Girl: They can do whatever they feel like. Now we have to wait until they come back, unless you want to lose your spot.
Sudev: I don’t think I can wait in the heat for another 1.5 hours on top of what I have already done. What if they don’t come back? This is crazy. How much are your fees? I think they are different than mine since I’m a foreign national.
Girl: Mine are less than 500/-. How about your fees?
Sudev: Mine are around 28,000/-. Is it even worth your time to wait in line and the University’s time to take that 500/- from you? It doesn’t seem like it.
Girl: This is my 3rd year here, and the system is still stuck in medieval times. The number of students are increasing, but the system is not changing.
Sudev: Well, I’m not going to wait here. I have to come back tomorrow anyways, so I’ll just pay it then. God Damn.
Scene 3: School of Social Sciences
The following day, after paying my fees, I receive my ‘folios’. The folios are a set of the same documents that I have to fill out repeatedly by hand and have signed by various administrative units on campus. One of them is the School of Social Sciences, the host unit of the History Department.
Sudev: Here are my folios. I have filled out all of the necessary sections on each of the eight forms. I have also attached my photograph to each of the forms as mentioned.
Babu: Please sit down and wait ten minutes. Yells across the room to a younger boy. Chhotu, zaraa chai leke aanaa! Little one, go get me some tea!
Ok, come here. Give me your forms.
Sudev: Here they are.
Babu (shaking his head): You are a foreign national? Where are you from?
Sudev: I am from California.
Babu: Hmm. Why are you coming to India to study, aren’t there better universities there?
Sudev: Uh, yes, there are very good universities there. But I want to study Indian History, so I came to India.
Babu: Ok, you don’t have the proper stamps and signatures on these forms. You have to go back to the main administrative building. On this form, get the Dean of Students to sign. On this one, go to the library and obtain a student identification number. On these two forms, go to your chairperson in the department and have him sign. I cannot give you my stamp and signature without these other signatures.
Sudev: The administrative assistant told me to come here for your signature first before he gives me his. The Dean of Student’s office was on a tea break when I went there, and my chairperson was supposed to arrive at 10 this morning and he still isn’t here three hours later.
Babu: Mai kuch nahi kar sakta. Baad mai aana. I can’t do anything about it. Come back later. Next in line please.
If you have a story that you’d like to share about similar experiences, please post them.
Also, if you are wondering where I ended up staying that first night since the promised guest house fell through, I frantically called my uncle and thankfully took a cab to his home in South Delhi. I’ve started to look for an apartment, but who knows how long that will take.
27 July 2009