Ledgers and Other Oddities

IMG_2622Sharing another post from my January journey to Southern India—this one focused on the bureaucracy of the second largest country in the world.

In the course of our first two weeks in India, we ran into only a handful of Americans. The few we have seen are here for a specific purpose—a wedding, visiting their daughter’s fiancee’s family, a tag-on to a business trip. The number of international tourists is small, even among those for whom the journey to India is shorter. My sense is that the combination of Western perceptions of India combined with some of the odd barriers that India creates for tourists are factors.

One begins to realize that India will be different when beginning the Visa process. The agency that works with the Indian consulates in the US to process visas changed hands last year. It is now an Indian company with offices in the states, rather than the American company I worked with a year ago. The result is that, in addition to the insanely long visa application, there is an array of additional forms required by the agency. There were many points in the process of deciphering the odd questions, written in a language not quite my own, that I began to wonder whether India really wanted me to visit and that perhaps this was simply a means of deterrence. I have never seen such a masterful job of turning a lengthy and bureaucracy-laden offline process into an equally lengthy and bureaucracy-laden online process. I use the term “online” judiciously as everything must be printed and mailed in a very particular manner. I persevered—proudly figuring out solutions to some seemingly intractable catch-22 steps of the process and deciding not to feel offended or concerned at the request for my deceased parents’ birthplaces, birthdates and professions.

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A woman I met in Munnar told me that she went to the consul to pick up her Visa in person, given that she lived in New York and had waited too long to use the mail-in option. The experience of arriving at 5 p.m., after having been told the office would be open for pick-ups between 5 and 6 and then watching the door shut at 6 when she was next in line, was enough for her to question the wisdom of her travel plans. She also shared that the first time she went to the consulate to drop off the forms, she asked a guard how long a wait it would be. After being asked her profession and telling them she was a doctor, she was ushered to the front of the line immediately. She refused to play the doctor card twice.

Once in India, you can’t help but be struck by the strange uses of high and low technologies everywhere—not least in the tourism industry. I signed more unwieldy ledgers asking for more detailed and personal information than one can imagine (my wedding anniversary, my birthday, the next place on our itinerary.) We made it a habit to take pictures of the ledgers as they never cease to amuse us. Often a hotel will have a two to three ledger sign-in process. My personal favorite was the special ledger used at one hotel to record your use of wireless. It isn’t just hotels. A physical ledger “guest book” sat at the counter of an Apple store in Mumbai.

When we commented on these processes (which were almost always redundant to a computerized process) we get blank stares. How could it be done any other way? The two hotels without ledgers were a wonderful retreat lodge in Munnar, where the owner, who lived in Tokyo for twelve years and worked in IT, actually realized that the ledger was expendable. The other was the hotel in Madurai, which is a Taj hotel—the top of the line Indian hotel chain. Rather than a ledger there is a two page contract for a one night stay and another couple of pages of receipts at checkout.

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Last year, in the small town of Bundi, in Rajasthan, we observed clerks who sat in their small open air shops doing work that required writing in a variety of ledgers all day long. I have seen the same scene since and witnessed a small industry of ledger production and sales and xerox machines for recopying all kinds of paperwork. An entire section of shops in Mumbai is all ledgers, all the time.

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I have vague memories of this kind of paper intensive way of operating from my early years in Israel in the mid-seventies–and assume this is the legacy of the British. We bought tunics and scarves in an old “department store” in Mumbai with British furnishings and a four-step purchase process including choosing the item, receiving the bottom portion of a carbon paper form (a separate one from each department,) taking it to the cashier and then taking the form and a receipt to the delivery person, who stapled all three pieces of paper together and handed you a perfect package. Why these methods were abandoned in Tel Aviv but retained in Mumbai–and show few signs of abating is beyond my comprehension. And how this reliance on ledgers and paper fits in a country at the forefront of IT, further boggles the mind. Shashi Tharoor describes India as a country that “manages to live in several centuries at the same time.” That one phrase captures so much of what is both wonderful and challenging in India—and is exemplified in the ledger.