|Image courtesy Google.|
This year, of course, I wasn't in a parish over Christmas. I have so far received a bunch of Christmas cards from back in the US, including several from my former parish. I love receiving cards, and I send out a bunch as well (I blogged about the experience of going to the central post office here a couple of weeks back). On Facebook, I instructed folks not to send any valuables or perishables -- it's just not secure over ordinary airmail.
Well, one of the cards that recently arrived contained a Walmart receipt. This very sweet, devout, elderly couple had trekked to their local Walmart and figured out a way to send me some cash via an international money order. On the accompanying note, they apologized that I would have to go to Walmart to get the cash. The generosity and large-heartedness of the people of God never ceases to move me!
Of course, there are no Walmarts in India (at least no retail stores). The receipt clearly indicated that the money would be delivered in Indian rupees. It turns out that Walmart uses a money transfer service known as Moneygram. It must be fairly popular, since there were quite a few locations where one could receive a Moneygram, including the neighborhood post office. Intrigued at how this would work, I trekked off to the local PO.
The lady at the counter saw my receipt, asked me to wait and disappeared into a room. A second later she emerged and yelled across the floor, "How much are you expecting?" I told her the amount. "Ok, come over." I entered the room -- I think it was the Postmaster's office (or, in this case, the Postmistress). There were three ladies there. One of them looked at my receipt. "ID Proof?" I said I had my US license. "Hmm. Ok. We need two photocopies." Of course. Why on earth did I think all I had to do was show my ID? "Oh yes, and your PAN card too." (I.e. the identity card issued by the Indian Income Tax department. I have one, since I have a local bank account). I smiled, and with just a hint of sarcasm said, "Ah, I should have known. Here we need copies as well. Should I bring a photograph too? I have several." She smiled back and shook her head. So I went back home, and made a copy of my PAN card and my OCI document (Overseas Citizenship of India), and went back to the Post Office.
By this time there were only two ladies in the office. Lady 1 was the senior one (I think she was the Postmistress. She had an air of authority about her). Lady 2 was the one who was going to cash my money order. She fired up an old Windows computer and opened a program called "Moneygram." I swear, I thought I saw a dial-up screen! She started entering info and then stopped. "Oh -- do you have proof of address here?" Crud. "Why do I need that?" "Arre sir, you are getting money from the government, of course you need address proof!" Such as? A light (utility) bill. Well, I don't actually reside here permanently. It would be in my mother's name. She pauses and ponders. "Look" I add. "My OCI card lists the names of my parents." She looks at Lady 1. Lady 1 nods. "You are an NRI? ... Ok." Lady 2 adds: "In the future, when you ask for money, have them send it in your mother's name, since it's her address, you know."I respond that it's a gift, and I wasn't expecting it. "Ahhh ok." "Do you have a lunch break?" I ask. "No no, bhai. No lunch. But come back before 2." It's now 12:50 pm. Oh yes, she needed two copies of everything, and I had only made one. Of course.
So I go back home again. By the way, it's not unusual that one's parent's address is proof of one's own domicile. Many folks here cannot afford to own their own homes, and live with family. Having a utility or phone bill in one's parent's name is proof enough that one resides at that address! (A few years ago, when I purchased an Indian SIM card for my phone, I had to go through this whole rigmarole. They actually called my mother to inquire if I was staying there! Thankfully it was a SIM with lifetime validity, and I'm still using it.) I make a copy of the latest utility bill (which is actually in my late father's name!), and return to the Post Office, with two copies of the bill, PAN card and OCI document. Lady 2 isn't there. Lady 1 looks busy. She eventually notices me (I mean, my bulk is hard to miss, especially since I am at least a head or more taller than everyone else around here). "Arre, bhai, sit sit. I'll call her." Lady 2 is summoned. She arrives, and examines my documents carefully. "Both are foreign?" "No, no -- they're both Indian. The OCI card is also issued by the Government of India only," I insist.
There's a couple of approaches one can use with bureaucracy. One is to be overbearing, and display one's superior authority, either because of wealth, or social or governmental status, or connection to someone of influence. Another is to grease the palm -- extremely common, for all kinds of things. However, this wasn't a situation that warranted that. The ladies were not being obstructive; just following their red tape steeped training. Cussed, bureaucratic, nitpicky, red tape; but they had no vested interest in withholding money from me. Yet another approach is to make them feel that they're doing you a favor by, well, doing what they're supposed to. Elicit sympathy. I explain the situation at home -- "matajini sevama" ("serving one's mother" -- the expression is used specifically to refer to caring for an elder parent), and why I'm here. They nod sympathetically. "Thayi jashe, bhai." Don't worry, it'll happen. Lady 2 has entered a variety of details already onto the computer screen, including asking what my occupation is (?? but why is that necessary?? I stifle the question), and whether I would describe my relationship with the sender as "friend' or not. Some printouts emerge. I am asked to sign two of them. All the documents are neatly arranged and stapled -- a total of 6 sheets, I count. "Please sign." I have to put my signature against the photocopy of each document. Then there follows a 15+ minute search for a receipt book. "How would I know where it is?" barks Lady 1, as Lady 2 rifles through drawers and flings open steel cupboards. Another employee is summoned. He finds the book, which is then filled out in triplicate (yes), and, yes, I sign again. Lady 2 asks me to follow her. I bid Lady 1 farewell who bobbles her head in return. Lady 2 then enters a giant metal cage at the back of the Post Office. Yes. Like a police evidence locker in TV dramas. She sits down, and fills out a register with more details. Yes, I sign this as well. Then she counts out the money, at least three times, and finally hands it to me, through the opening in the cage.
It took a total of 3 trips, and perhaps an hour, to get this little money order cashed!
At one point I had asked if they did a lot of Moneygram transactions. "Na, sir. It used to be 100 a day sometimes. Now it's maybe 20 a year. It's so much cheaper for people to send via banks nowadays." Indeed. I had recently transferred a bit from my US bank account to my Indian account. The transfer charge was about 0.1%, and took a few clicks on the bank's website. The folks who sent me the money order had paid 9% in fees! I'm glad that only 20 folks a year go through these byzantine hurdles to get their money, at this particular PO.
So -- if y'all really want to send me a gift, use Paypal. I can access my US funds very easily. Actually, there's no need. Your prayers and good wishes are invaluable, and very gratefully received.
And this little episode has underscored that I really need to get an Indian driver's license -- not to legally drive here (my US license is valid for up to a year), but for the convenience of having a locally issued identity document. Foreign documents tend to be treated like toxic waste. (Well, unless one is a foreigner. I'm not, regardless of what my passport might say.) Tackling the Regional Transport Office (RTO), especially as an Overseas Citizen, will make today's exercise seem like a fun stroll in the park. However, my perverse sense of challenge has been stoked. Y'all will hear about it. :)
the rule of babus