Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Settling into life in Mumbai: A Licen...

It is now 18 months since we moved back to Mumbai. Girija and I had lived in Australia for many years prior to that. 

A few days back, we had organised a Twitter-inspired get-together -- a TweetUp -- at our appartment in Mumbai. The evening has been captured wonderfully in a blog-post by the lovely Naren Shenoy.

During the evening, I recounted -- badly, of course -- some of the initial struggles we had when settling into a "new normal" life in Mumbai.

"You are so incredibly bad at telling a story Mo," Girija said. She is good like that! She calls a spade a shovel and keeps me grounded. Always!

As I sulked and slithered into a corner that was happy to receive me, perhaps out of extreme sympathy, one of our guests (Twests, perhaps?) said, "Why don't you write these experiences down?"

I thought that that was a sensible idea since I do write better than I narrate -- now you know how terrible my narrations are!

And so, here I am... Using my hitherto suspended blog to write once again about things other than cricket.

The invitation and encouragement to blog about my experiences may have been driven by a momentary rush of face-saving empathy on the part of my friend. However, on reflection, I think it is a good idea to write because I believe I am caught in the middle of a truly fascinating process; a process of re-connecting and re-discovery.

I moved back to Mumbai in March 2010. I had been away from India for some 24 years. That is a long time to be away from a place. I needed to re-establish connect with the place and her people. Of course, in the time I had been away, I had made the pilgrimage to attend the Madras/Chennai "Music Season" almost every year since I had left. However, we soon realized that living in a place is quite different to making fleeting annual appearances during which one eats out almost everyday and when one attends classical music concerts in well-appointed air-conditioned halls.

"Living in a place like India is very different to visiting every now and then," I was warned by a friend!

"Unless you stand in a queue to purchase a train ticket, you have not really lived here," said a another.

I had lost all sense of what it was like to live and work in India.

It is now 18 months since we moved back, to live in India; a year and a half of immense paradoxes.

Initially, when we had just moved back to India in March 2010, I used my "Face Book" (FB) Status updates quite a bit to connect with the friends we had said goodbye to in Australia -- I wasn't much on Twitter then. I used my FB status updates to talk about life here. I would marvel at things that astounded us. I would also whinge and moan about things that weren't 'quite right'! Even when I whined, I was trying to laugh at the situation in a mock-tragic manner rather than ridicule the situation and the actors in it. That said, I did also post positive messages of some amazing things that we were seeing. I did marvel at the fact that we had our MTNL connection within 12 hours of applying for one -- that too on a Saturday! I did marvel at how 'easy' life had become in India. But "perception" is a funny thing! People remember the negative comments more than positive appreciation/affirmation.

One of my FB friends who lives in Chennai called me immediately after one such 'negative' FB status update and snorted angrily, "If you don't like it here, just pack your bags and go back."

I accepted and empathized with that sentiment even if I did not support it entirely. Mainly because that sentiment resonates strongly with a picture I have of Indians as people that love humor and love a laugh except when it is on us! And even when the laugh is on Indians, more often than not, only an Indian can be the originator or creator of such self-denigration.

In those initial days, I wasn't Indian enough; I had not earned my self-sledge rights. So the "go back" comment was par for the course.

Witness the Edison drama that played out when Joel Stein wrote an article in The Times. The 'race card' was used and waved quite easily. If the same article had been written by an Indian-Indian -- like say a Karan Thapar or Rajdeep Sardesai -- I submit that it would not have registered a blip on the race-card-scale!

I say "Indian-Indian" to indicate Indians who live in India. The Indian-Indian has self-sledge rights by virtue of his/her residency. Indians who live overseas are not considered "Indian" enough. The overseas-Indians who only visit here during their children's school holidays or for "Music Season" visits are commonly referred to as NRI's. Non-resident Indians is the official expansion of the acronym, although Not-Required Indians is a commonly accepted expansion too!

So one needs to earn self-mock stripes and you only earn it after spending (read: suffering) enough time here. It is like a prison sentence.

Indeed, a few months after I moved to Mumbai, a friend of mine said to me, "I totally agree" when I whined about needless traffic delays in Andheri West caused by a truck moving the wrong way on a one-way street!

I said to her, "But when I whined about exactly the same issue last year, while I was visiting, we had a three-hour argument! We argued about the impact of population and then moved quickly on to how discriminatory the ICC was against India, Ricky Ponting's misbehavior, Adam Gilchrist's ears, Arjuna Ranatunga throwing his weight around and the need for Sri Sri Ravishankar to have two titles in his name!"

She said, "Ah! But that was different. Now you have earned the right to complain!"

But I accept that some of what I wrote in those initial few months (on my FB updates) could be seen as "grating". In that sense, the "pack up your bags and go back" friend was right. But the intent of those FB Updates was less to "make fun of" or "laugh at" and more to share my somewhat unique experiences. 

I was seeing India with a different lens.

And to be constructively balanced about it, I was having an incredibly rich experience! My life in Australia had become too regimented. Too planned. Incredibly structured. Too well-organised. There was an absence of anarchy in my life. There were few surprises to life. Here, in India, at least in those initial months, every hour threw new surprises! I learned to cope in a highly ambiguous environment, interacting with highly ambiguous personalities! I soon acquired inter-personal skills that were hitherto buried or latent. I had to hit the ground running. I had no choice. I sharpened these hitherto absent skills considerably in order to "cut through" on many issues. As a mentor of mine often says, "In India, there is no point in climbing stairs, you have to land on the terrace using a helicopter!"

But, simple/small things used to get to me initially.

For example, I would constantly get irritated by the fact that people pressed the "Up" and "Down" button on elevators. Simultaneously! "Surely, they don't want to go up and down at the same time," I'd think to myself.

One day, I plucked enough courage: "Why did you press both buttons, madam", I asked one of these Up-Down-lift-button-pushers politely.

"Mein neeche jaane ke liye lift ko upar bula raha hoon," was the assured response ("I am calling the lift up so that I can go down")

A novel explanation for why both buttons needed to be pressed. I had no come-back to that.

Initially, I marveled at how simple English errors would cause me to break into a smile or a laugh.

For example, the other day, I was at a hotel in Bangalore. I had asked for a cab to pick me up at the hotel at 8.30am. At exactly 8.30am, I got a call from the hotel concierge. He said, "Sir, your car has been reported!" It took me a while to realize that my car had reported to the front desk and that it had not "been reported"!

And there was that bandh last year where some political party was protesting against price increases. A party spokesman claimed victory and in a passion-filled speech he said, "Prices have begun to rise. We are revolting!" I had to agree with the second statement!

And then, there would be some deeper frustrations.

For example, I would often get worked up about the fact that not many people would respond to a meeting request 'appropriately'. Back in Australia, I'd get a, "Yep, you are on mate." or a "You got to be kidding. No way. Get stuffed." The best I would get initially in India would be "That time should be ok" or "That time would be ok". Now what exactly does that mean? It took me a while to figure out that the presence of would/should/could in response to a meeting request means that the person is buying an option on a potential future cancellation! This made life quite complex for a neurotically organised and frenetically structured person like me. But I guess that is my problem and not their problem! And therein lies a fundamental dysfunctionality in the landscape -- far too many people worry about their issues and problems.

But like much else over here, I got used to that too... 

Until a few weeks back that is, when, in response to a meeting request, I had the person at the other end of the line saying, "I think that in all probability that date-time would be possibly ok!" Now, I can buy one option on a future cancellation. But I counted at least four in that particular form of extreme dithering!

Nothing, however, prepared me for my drivers' licence experience. The test was the biggest joke played out on me in the initial 5 months of my stay here. The way it works these days is that one has to go through a driving school in order to secure a drivers' licene.

So on the appointed day, my local driving school piled on 15 of its test-ready candidates into 4 cars. It is a surprise that these cars traveled 20 meters! However, somehow the 4 cars managed to reach the RTO office in a place called Wadala, located some 20 kilometers away! We were warned the previous day that we had to get there "on the dot" at 10.30am. "We cannot keep the inspector waiting," we were told.

So, we got there at 10.30am and waited... and waited... and waited... in the rain and out in the open and right next to an open drain! There were 5 other driving schools with their gaggle of test-ready candidates. In all, some 90 people, 20 cars and only 10 umbrellas waited patiently for the arrival of an inspector.

The inspector finally made an appearance at 2.30pm. By then I had already devoted 5 hours to this utterly useless exercise, and that was already 4 hours and 45 minutes too many. I was quite irritated -- especially considering the fact that I stood out in the rain and alongside an open/smelly ditch

When the man arrived, there was a mad scramble by the entire collection of hungry, irritated test-ready candidates to get into the cars of their respective driving schools. The driving instructors from these schools meanwhile jockeyed for positions on the circuit. This was akin to a Formula-1 grid where cars and drivers often duck, weave and swerve in order to eke out a starting position on the grid for themselves: "Mark Weber would have no chance of surviving this mad scramble," I thought to myself.

Anyhow, the result of all of this frenetic activity was that 20 cars lined up one behind the other on a busy highway in Wadala. I was in car number 15.

And so, the procession set off with the candidate who was to be tested in the driver's seat and with the portly inspector in the front passenger seat. After each "test", which would last no more than 300 meters, the portly inspector would ask the candidate to stop and get out of the car. The test-driver would move to the back seat and the next candidate in the back seat would move to the driver's seat and take the "test". Once all test-candidates in one car had completed their "test", the portly inspector would get out of the "now completed" car, shoo that car and its contents away and move to the next car in the queue!

This uniquely ridiculous procession made several U-turns on this very busy highway. Several large trucks traveled on both directions on this highway. The fact that I did not witness an accident that day was a minor miracle. It was totally surreal and incredulous!

I had never seen anything quite like this before... ever! One part of my brain was exploding. The other laughed so hard, I had a head-ache. I sat there shaking my head at the ridiculousness of it all. This "procession test" went on for an hour before portly guy settled into the car I was in -- car number 15 in the mad-grid-scramble earlier on.

Portly guy asked me to sit behind the wheel and drive. I was quite irritated by then. Frankly, by then, I didn't care if I got my licence or not.

Portly guy announced: "Licen Test shuru!" ("Licen Test starts now!")

A point to note here is that the traffic inspectors call it a "licen" here and not "licence". I could never figure out why, but I would soon have the answer.

I settled down behind the wheel with the express intention of irritating portly guy. I asked him, "Should I wear a seat belt?" to which he said in Hindi, "No. Not required". I continued with tongue-pressed-firmly-in-cheek and asked if I had to adjust the rear-view mirror. I was met with a stony glare and a terse response, "I haven't got all day. Just drive now, will you?"

I drove fast. I changed three gears in 20 meters! I was angry.

Portly Guy: Stop! Looks like you have driven before.
Me: Yes
PG: Why did you not say this before?
Me: Why did you not ask me before?
PG: It is not written in this form.
Me: It was not asked on the form.
PG: Ok. Do not try to make too smart. Get down. (zyaada smart math ban-naa. uthar jaayiE)

As I got down from the test-car, I asked Portly Guy in my broken Hindi:

Me: "ab kya hoga?" ("What will happen now?")
PG: "ab aur kya hoga? Licen mil jayega do hafte mein". ("What else can happen now? You will get your LICEN in 2 weeks")

Pleased as punch, I pressed on, innocently:

Me: "Sir, isko aaap Licen kyon bolte hain?" ("Sir, why do you call it a LICEN")
PG (looks at form and then at me and says in a brusque and angry tone): "aaapko ek hi chahiye naaa?" ("You want only one no?")
Me: "haaaan, ek hi chahiye". ("Yes, only one")
PG "to theek hai. Licen hi hai. Ek Licen, do licens" ("So that is right. One Licen. Two Licens")

I had my licen in two weeks. But more importantly, I was finally able to figure out why the traffic cops call it a LICEN in these parts. One licen. Two licens!

Since then, that word has become part of our vocabulary at home. I need a licen from Girija to drink one glass of wine. If I feel like a second, I need a licens! A licen for one morning coffee. A licens for two!

Precious lessons, these.

-- Mohan


  1. haha! Lovely! Brings back the evening to me, when you narrated the story. Now it is preserved for posterity!

    Well written and most delightful!


  2. Anonymous3:49 a.m.

    Hahaha, great post. Hope to see more.

    Thanks to Naren for the link.


  3. Epic! Licen is just awesome stuff :D

  4. Hahahaa... Good One Sir,

    Having recently moved to Australia after 24 years in India,

    I guess I am experiencing the other side of this story.

    Wearing a seat belt while sitting in the back seat of a car. Tell that to any Indian-Indian and a usual response would be.
    "Woww.. Why would anyone do that"

    I guess it's these small INDIANISMs which makes us unique.

    I had written something about our Indianism a long time ago here:Response to 10 Classis Indianisms

    Having said that the logic for Licen and Licen(s) is err... Is brilliant the right word


  5. Novel explanation for 'licen' lovely post!

  6. Thanks Naren for encouraging me to write about this stuff! Thanks also sribkain, Bhel and Shrijeet. There is much more to chronicle by way of experiences. But needs more time than 24 hours in a day :)

  7. Haha, extremely well written! Ek licen, do licens is the icing on the cake!!!

  8. Awesome post- I am glad I read your Dadar Post- before reading this one. Shows how well, you have readjusted to Changing India.