If I Cannot

If I cannot

enjoy the waiting

and endure the long walks

then how can I embrace

the God who waits for me

and who walked

across the universe

to win my love?


I walked out of the Foreigners Regional Registration Office today with a smile on my face. Not because I got what I wanted, or what I needed. But more because I understood something and I accepted it.

I applied for visa extensions five days ago on behalf of my wife and kids. My Business Visa is good for another six months, but their Entry Visas were only valid up until December 17th. Today is the 15th. I’m smiling because I’m not worried.

The system here works in a certain way. It’s different than anywhere else I’ve ever been, but it works. It’s complicated – at least, it is to a foreign mind – but it still actually makes sense, as long as you’re willing to think like an Indian. As a non-Indian, that’s not easy. It takes time. In the past four and a half years, I’ve walked out of the same FRRO with a great many different faces and feelings. I’ve had my share of tension and frustration in connection with visas and registration. And I’ve seen far worse from other foreigners in the midst of their own struggles and challenges. However, I no longer expect things to happen here like I would expect them to happen in Canada or somewhere else. This is India. I understand that. I accept that.

I also understand that the people who work here are not necessarily my enemies. Perhaps there are people within the system who abuse their positions of authority from time to time, or on a bad day they may be stubborn and become easily irritated by belligerent foreigners. For the most part, I feel sorry for them. They have heavy workloads and a stressful work environment. I see them trying, and I appreciate that. Usually, when I smile and speak gently, they respond in like manner.

Today, I talked to the police at the FRRO because I was told that our applications for extension are pending a police enquiry. We've been through this before. A police officer is sent out to our home to verify our situation, to gather a few more photocopies of essential information and to prepare a report. I'm not sure how long that will take this time around. I was told that the police investigators are very busy and that the one designated to our area may be away for training for the next 15 days. Perhaps another officer could come out. Perhaps. After the report is filed, then I have to collect that report from the Ministry of Home Affairs and then bring it back to the FRRO where they will hopefully stamp our passports with the appropriate extensions. This will all take more than a couple days.

I understand that when our visas expire and our applications for extension are still in process there is no need to worry. It will get done in time. Thankfully, our situation is quite straightforward and our request is routine. Until it is complete, however, there is still an element of uncertainty. Life is like that. I think it’s supposed to be. It's like that everywhere, isn't it? It’s not just India, though I am willing to admit that uncertainty does thrive here in a special way. Especially for us foreigners, it can add to the stress, but it can also add to the sense of satisfaction. Today, I am confident that when I walk out of the FRRO in another week or two week’s time with our visa extensions in hand, I will be smiling again.

Arriving into Mumbai

I saw the outskirts of Mumbai in the early morning light from the window of the train. After waking up a thousand times throughout the night only to see persistent darkness outside and the re-configured mess of fellow passengers inside, I was happy to see the dawning of a new day.

The middle berth had been cruel to me. I swore that if I traveled Sleeper Class again, I would accept nothing less than the upper berth. I never quite settled into a proper sleeping position during the journey and so my body was furious with me. My neck suffered especially and had a nasty kink in it. I was already looking forward to the next bed I would find.

It was Day One in Mumbai. As we came nearer and nearer to the heart of the city and my eyes scanned the dwellings of the waking masses, I was becoming sure about one thing – this was a city. It was, at least, a city unlike I’d ever seen before. It was alive, breathing, pulsating. Though I’d never been to some of the more classic cities in my own country like New York or Chicago, I imagined that Mumbai was like an Indian version of the Big Apple. It seemed huge and harsh, but in a very subjective way I also sensed that there was something endearing about the city, something accepting. I hadn’t felt the same about Delhi on my initial visits, and Varanasi was something completely different. Even before I strolled a street or returned the smile of a Mumbaikar, it seemed to me that Mumbai was unusual in a nice way. Of course, I had no idea at that point about the depths of despair that I would experience in this city, though I could not really fault the city itself for any of my pain.

My train was to reach its journey’s end at Mumbai CST. Those three letters stand for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, but apparently most locals rarely use the name despite the fact that the letters have become commonplace. Most people in the city still call the station, Victoria, or simply VT, for Victoria Terminus. The name change happened more than ten years ago and was a part of the general movement to shed colonial influences and to replace them with local flavors. This is also, of course, how Bombay became Mumbai, which is an even more slight change on the surface – three letters to be exact – but also came with its share of hassle, and was the result of much political posturing.

Changing names is complicated and really needs to be worth the effort. I felt this way even before I really considered changing my own name – and that by only two letters. It’s relatively easy to do on paper, of course, but sometimes hard to convince people to use the new name, even if the reasoning for the change is sound. In addition, different kinds of people adapt to the change differently.

Chhatrapati Shivaji was a local king in the 17th century, and a hero who successfully resisted and battled against powers from outside, namely the Mughal overlords. His name apparently makes the regional peoples, the Marathis, feel proud. But of course Mumbai is much more than a regional centre; it is nothing shy of a world-class city with a wide mix of prominent minorities, most of which have a long history in the city and thus can hardly be considered outsiders. Despite this mix, certain political parties have recently appealed to the majority element and attempted to unify the state and city around the Marathi language and the Hindu religion. Name changing has been one of their tools, or their weapons, depending on how ambitious and antagonistic their program is perceived.

In the case of VT to CST, I couldn’t really see the sense in the name change. It’s one thing to build a beautiful new airport and to honor a local legend like Shivaji by putting his name to it (which this city did recently). But when it comes to a heritage site like Victoria Terminus, it is already a part of the city’s cosmopolitan legacy. It’s not like it originally had an indigenous name and it was corrupted or wrested away. The reason for the renaming seems to be a disdain for the city’s British heritage. Maybe the original choice of Victoria was pompous – even if the structure was completed in 1888, the year of the Queen’s jubilee – but that was just the British way. Had I been asked, I would have suggested something like Stevens Station, after the chief engineer and architect of the building, Frederick William Stevens.

The great irony, of course, is that changing the name doesn’t blur the fact that the building is a perfect specimen of Victorian Gothic architecture with its impressive stone dome, and its turrets and arches. Whatever its name, the structure itself will always quietly scream of its heritage. But even then, the building is not British through and through. Like the city, it’s a beautiful blend. A lesser-known fact about the structure is that Stevens and the other British architects worked closely with local Indian craftsmen and even with students from the Bombay School of Art to achieve a unique concoction of cultural influences in the final product. It’s an amazing building by any standards and as such it was officially awarded the status of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004, some ten years after the name change.

So, the incongruities of renaming persist, as is also true for the name of the city itself. The origin of the old name, Bombay, is rather confusing, and thus so are the reasons for changing it to Mumbai. In this case, it was more the influences of the Portuguese that were being thwarted. However, people both locally and globally are slowly accepting the new name. Though it is interesting to note that somehow the nickname of the city’s film industry has stubbornly survived the change – and so, as far as I know, Mollywood is nowhere in use. Maybe the strength of the name, Bollywood, is suggestive of the growing preference for a new imperial influence – that of America. Somehow, that persuasion has a different taste and many Indians, for better or for worse, seem to easily accept it, if not outright like it – to the deeper chagrin of those trying to preserve local preferences.

As the train slowed into Mumbai CST, these were the matters that were occupying my mind. Despite the complexities, I felt optimistic toward the city. But as I moved and readied myself for disembarking, my body reminded me of its aches. I stood up and reached for my bag. Beyond the pains of a bad night, I could already feel the inklings of an illness. I tried my best to resist the impulse to feel discouraged.