Friday, 12 February 2010

A Word of Advice

"If you follow fun, misery follows you. If you follow knowledge, fun follows you."

Pause for a minute one and all. Think about that sentence and contemplate on it. Mull it over, swish it around in your head. Massage it into your consciousness and string it up in the répertoire of wisdom that you have accumulated. After some time pick it out from the library that is your brain and ponder on how it has impacted your life.

And we have McDonald's to thank for this tid-bit of advice. To be more precise it was the on the television in the McDonald's restaurant (I use the term loosely) near Thane station.

There's a lot of advice on offer around here. Every station in the city has little boards with gems along the lines of that demonstrated above. Some are well know, such as 'a stitch in time saves the nine', the one I come across most frequently as it graces platform 1 of Borivali station. They all seem to be funded by the Majithia Trust Foundation. I couldn't find them on a Google search just now and so they shall have remain but a mysterious and benevolent organisation that dispenses charitable advice free of charge. What a wonderful thing to do. Of course it could all transpire that they are, rather than a benevolent company, actually a malevolent company trying to influence gullible people and take over the world through a nefarious scheme that we will all be unaware of until we awake one day and realise it's 1984, but I doubt it somehow.

I think, rather, that it fits with the general culture of helpfulness that you find. Sometimes it can be a tad overbearing but it is certainly cheering to find people willing to help with things such as directions and train etiquette. I must admit that since seeing that original notice in McDonald's I have gleaned much enjoyment from additional education. I bought some of the works of Plato from a bookshop in a spur of enthusiasm and was enthralled by its content. I confess with some shame that despite studying ancient history for three years at university I had still not read anything from Plato's corpus of work.

What a revelation it was. Did you know for example that the popular remedies for curing hiccups such as holding your breath and gargling water are first espoused in the Symposium? And in relation to my previous post, in Plato's Republic Socrates talks of how if someone is unhappy with the laws of the state that they live in then they can just get up and move to another city. Alas, if only it were still the case today. The clamping down of national borders within the last century or so has hampered such notions. I may add a slight complaint, if I may though, I bought what was title as 'The Republic and Other Dialogues', with the cover claiming that the content was 'Complete and Unabridged'. The opening few sentences of the introduction then said that the 'selected passages from the Republic were chosen' - hang on. You mean to say that not only is this book incomplete, it is also abridged. Trade descriptions I ask you.

The dialogue was a little hard going as well. There were some sentences that I read multiple times and still hadn't the foggiest idea of what was being discussed. I guess that's the trouble with reading ancient Greek philosophy. I have since passed on what knowledge I gained, however. After all in this spirit of sharing advice I thought it only fair to grant the request of one of my students who had asked to borrow the book. We met at the Blue Edge project that Oasis India runs in Dnyaneshwar Nagar, a slum of about 50,000 people between Bandra and Kurla. It's financed by a courier company called Blue Dart (who are partnered with DHL) and provides a course that includes English, computer training and life skills (such as interview techniques). The age range of the students broadly falls between 18 and 21 and upon successful completion of the six month course they get a certificate and help in obtaining a job. Indeed one of the students from the previous batch, which finished in December, has recently become employed with Blue Dart itself.

It's quite an exciting project for me to be involved in as it means that I have direct contact with people who don't work for Oasis. Indeed the student I mentioned (who also admitted having trouble understanding Plato) has become quite a good friend and I have learnt a lot about Islam and Indian culture from him. He may have struggled with Plato but he's a sharp guy, only the other day he was explaining to me that the purchasing power of the pound is stronger than the rupee and how this affected buying consumables such as bicycles and cars. I merely nodded in agreement and later went to look up what purchasing power meant.

Maybe I'll explain it sometime - after I've actually understood it.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Neither Here Nor There

I am back in India after three weeks spent in the UK (7th January to the 27th), not, I stress, for a holiday or recreational purposes. The break was as a result of what I term 'visa issues'. In light of the international fear of terrorism it is perhaps no surprise that I might come a-cropper of immigration control (by which I mean in general rather than myself being particularly suspect to terror issues). I am hoping to use this post to explain what I think happened and also to state to those inquiring, I have a new visa and it is valid for six months. That's right, six! It expires on 19th July 2010.

Since 9/11 there's obviously been a lot of attention given to the movement of people internationally, but the Indian visa system has only started to get extra strict in the past few months. In December the Indian government announced that people on tourist visas would be barred from the country for two months after the visa expired. This caused some outrage in the US and UK who were targeted with this rule and was covered by The Guardian and BBC News.

Whilst the media understandably focused on the impact on tourists, given that most foreign visitors to India are people going on holiday (almost 800,000 Britons a year according to government figures), a business visa was actually a major cause behind the troubles.

The Mumbai terror attacks on 26th November 2008 killed some 174 people, the Indian government and people were understandably a little shaken, especially when evidence seemed to suggest that the terrorists were from Pakistan, a neighbour that India has a disputed border with and has gone to war with three times since independence in 1947.

Things took a new turn, however, when it transpired that a citizen of the US (although of Pakistani origin) may also have been implicated in the attacks. David Headley apparently travelled to India several times to scout out targets for the attack. He travelled on a multiple-entry business visa.

Thus, partly owing to their large South Asian communities, both the US and UK were especially targeted by the crackdown. As it happens, when I came to apply for a visa I requested a 12 month multiple-entry business visa. Brilliant. I ended up being given a mere three month single-entry business visa. As The Guardian's article notes, almost in passing, 'India has already cracked down on business visas this year, informing thousands of holders that they must return to their home countries and prove that they meet much stricter criteria before new visas will be issued.' That's more or less what I was told at the FRRO (Foreigner Regional Registration Office).

I did, however, apply for my visa in early October before this all kicked off big time. So it is possible that my situation was completely unrelated. I say this for several reasons. At the FRRO I was told that the reason they weren't going to extend my visa was actually because the Mumbai office did not have the power to extend short-term (i.e. three month) business visas, only long-term (year long) ones. They claimed that Delhi would probably have the power - though not necessarily the inclination. This occurred eight days before my visa's expiry on 7th January.

When I later went back to the visa office in London the woman who served me said that if I applied for a business visa I would only get three months again. The reason for was actually because of my stated occupation: researcher and writer (yes, I'm claiming to be a writer!). Because this isn't a 'practical' profession I would get less time. At this point I started to stress the teaching that I've been doing as well. The woman seemed quite nice and said that she'd try and get me six months, but recommended an entry visa instead, which is geared more towards volunteering. Indeed, when I came to collect said visa that was what I was given, a six month 'X' visa. Happy days.

A final possibility may be the simple fact that I'd never been to the country before. I've heard multiple stories of people going to countries such as India for the first time and being given shorter visas that desired. On the return, or renewal of the visa, a longer duration is often given, perhaps because you can now be trusted having not caused any trouble the first time round.

In any case, the fact of the matter is I had to go back home and get a new one. I was unexpectedly and suddenly expelled (to an extent) from the country but am now back, yay! As my visa ends in mid July and I was only likely to stay until August anyway I shouldn't have any more problems. This is fortunate as I've been hearing many stories regarding visa issues elsewhere. A friend back in Swansea has had to return to Zambia and an Indian who works for Oasis India was rejected twice by the UK in applying for a visa (a particular issue as he's just got engaged to a UK citizen). What's more is that a number of people visiting from the UK on tourist visas who work for charities have been having to prove that they aren't coming out to do sneaky work behind the governments back. It's all a far cry from the more or less free border movements of yesteryear, well, yester-century anyway.