Signs of India

The removal of shoes sign at the Parvati Temple that I included in the last post, with its “By Order of Chief Trustee” tag in the lower right hand corner, is one among many signs in India. And, like in the old Firesign Theater skit, they are all speaking at once. The signs, in Marathi and English, provide a glimpse into the often unexpected and delightful ways of Indian society and culture.   

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The more pedantic road signs like this, offering what seems to be sound advice, have been among our favorites. Alhough some of them are more straightforward than others.

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Indian signs also hint at the remarkably intricate, and most often bewildering, steps required for any transaction here. These signs hang on a gate outside the courthouse in Delhi, explaining who may enter, and where.

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If you were a lawyer driving a car, but without a sticker, there would be little hope. Trust me. You’ve simply got to have the right sticker. Just yesterday, in fact, we were “carded” by the gaurd at the pool. this was the gaurd who first greeted us about a month ago and who has smiled every afternnon when we arrive to swim at the pool.

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In a bakery in Delhi, on the day after we arrived, we explained to one person what we wanted. He then gave us a slip of paper to hand to another person who gathered up what we wanted. We then were waved ahead to a third person to present our order and pay our rupees. When I arrived at the airport on a trip to Hyderabad, a less obvious process unfolded. Fortunately, the online reservation system worked well. When I arrived at the airport, I needed the e-receipt for the transaction to enter the building. (If I did do not have it, I would have had to walk to an out-of-the-way counter to have a copy printed.) Next, my bag was screened, and each of my two bags received its own sticker. I then presented my e-ticket receipt at the check-in counter. When my reservation was confirmed, the ticket agent handed me by boarding pass and kept the e-ticket receipt. Now, it is not often that my mind works quickly. But this was one of those times: I realized the need for a receipt on the return flight. But to get a printed copy of the receipt, I had to leave the ticket area and walk across the airport to a service desk that, I was told, would happily print out a receipt.

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More complicated protocols await when setting up a mobile phone, an internet connection, a bank account, or enrolling your children in school. One of the first things we did in Pune, at the advice of our friend Sujata, was to get multiple copies of passport photocopies, passport-size photos, and proof of address forms. We then proceeded to use every last one of them at the mobile phone store and the children’s school. The broadband internet connection, too, required forms and photographs.

After a week of trying to find an agreeable time, the agent from Tata Indicom arrived one evening to help with arranging an internet connection in our flat. We settled on a prepaid tariff plan, and I filled out the forms in duplicate and handed over the photocopied documents and photographs. However our agent, Girish, could not accept cash. So Nathaniel and Ellinore and I hopped on the back of his two wheeler and motored down to a branch of the ICICI Bank on Bhandarkar Road to draw a check. To get to a teller in the bank, one has to 1) identify the type of transaction and receive a slip with a transaction number, 2) wait for the transaction number to appear on a screen above a crowded waiting area; 3) wait for the teller to finish with the other customers; 4) and then find out that only one transaction is allowed before the whole process is repeated. Our three transactions took well over an hour.

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About ten days later the technician from finally arrived. Nanny and Ellie’s friend Nisthula was over and the kids were playing soft-ball cricket in the hall. After days of phone tag, I was nervous when the landlady and her helper could not get the key to the terrace. No problem, as they say in India. Achaa. And here is what happened next. The technician opened the window and called across the street to a colleague untangling cables on a nearby rooftop. He then asked if we had a cricket ball. (But of course!) And a plastic bag. (Too many!) He wrapped the ball in a plastic bag and handed it to his assistant who ran down the stairs, crossed the street, and climbed to the adjoining rooftop. The other technician, meanwhile, was unrolling a ball of twine. They tied the end of the twine firmly to the bag-around-the-ball deal. Then the assistant ran down, crossed the street, and stood in the courtyard in front of our building. Then, the technician across the street—with the kind of precision only possible with practice—tossed the ball over the lane full of two wheelers, rickshaws, cars and pedestrians. The assistant, we were all pressed to the bars by now, watching, waited for a clap from the technician in our apartment. When he received the signal, the assistant on the ground tossed the ball up into into the technician’s waiting hands stretched through the black metal bars outside our window. He caught it on the first throw (no problem), qucikly cut the twine, and then tied it to the end of the broadband cable. The other technician then pulled the twine, and the cable lifted over Lane #7 to the rooftop across the street. (A familiar technique for those of us who have faced impassable rivers during spring runoff mountaineering and skiing trips.) As he proceeded to hook the cable up to the satellite dish, here in the apartment the modem was quickly set up, the computer configured, and, after a few mobile calls to activate the account, the team was on there way. The cable—along with other cables, TV, who knows what else—snakes out of the window and hangs in a gentle arc across the road.

The next day, I received a call from the customer service line asking if the installation went well. I said yes, and that were we to have such professional service is the US!

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As we continue to gather photographs of signs in India, they will surely appear in other posts. 


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