Thursday, November 13, 2014

The passport renewal trip (up)

Getting one’s passport renewed ought to be a smooth and quick affair. After all, the issuing authority is already supposed to have examined your credentials thoroughly and found you fit to acknowledge as a citizen. In the past, a trip to the passport office was (i) never just “a” trip, but necessitated repeat trips, with additional scraps of paper (some of them currency), and a photograph that was just so; (ii) nightmarish with long queues and no flow to speak of among different counters in the same office; (iii) rage-inducing with the throng of corrupt officials, agents, and hangers-on. Then, a few years ago, came the Passport Seva Kendras (PSKs) - a welcome, welcome change: Appointments that at least gave you a window, however large, in which your application submission would be facilitated; the complete absence of touts; a few chairs; a photocopier that didn’t charge exorbitantly for the precious copies you suddenly discovered you needed; and rather courteous staff. Or so I thought after my experience of the Begumpet PSK a couple of years ago, to get my mother’s passport renewed. Not all PSKs are the same, though.

As an applicant for a new/renewed passport, you will hit the passport application website early on – to fill the form, pay the fee, and schedule an appointment. It is a disappointment – a sorry demonstration of TCS’s skill, if TCS is indeed the organisation that created and maintains it. The website, a frustrating one, is designed in a far from intuitive manner. You will waste your time hopping about from tab to tab, and uploading documents that may not make a difference to your application, because you have to lug along photocopies and original documents to the office anyway. You also do not have the options you need to reschedule an appointment if it is not the first one you make with the PSK.

I picked the Tolichowki PSK for my own passport renewal since it is closer than the Begumpet one to my current residence: not a very good choice, as it turned out. At the PSK, everyone needs to go through 3 stages of application submission, through counters labelled (very cleverly) ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. Some people need to meet a passport officer type, in addition. The major design flaw is the way people are funnelled through the stages/counters – a sharp drop in the number of counters from A to B and another slight drop from B to C ensure that you cool your heels a good while in the building.

There are 22 ‘A’ counters, staffed by youngish contract personnel, who do their job fairly quickly and unobtrusively, although the first person I interacted with spent more of his time flirting with a simpering colleague than attending to my admittedly dull application. After this, the applicant needs to be prepared to settle down in the waiting hall. So take a book, and a phone – both are allowed. Take a snack, or money to buy some in the waiting hall, as well.

After an hour or two (no exaggeration) you will get your chance to go to the B stage. There are only 6 ‘B’ counters, and these are staffed by passport office personnel, i.e., graver government employees, who, to give them their due, are also reasonable and reasonably quick with their examination of your documents.

Back to the waiting hall for another long interval and you finally come up before the big-wigs (some of them balding) at one of the 3 or 4 functioning ‘C’ counters. The ‘C’ counters are manned by a pompous set of persons who are not even up-to-date with the policies of the passport office/ministry of external affairs, and have no idea what makes someone a “government servant” or a “private employee” or “other”. The official I came up against (I really mean that word) treated me with aloofness at first, made unnecessarily patronising enquiries about my linguistic roots and location of birth next, and finally latched onto certain theories about my employment category and level of disclosure of facts to the passport authorities. I had an annoying (to me) conversation with him, in which his colleague chimed in without invitation, and without regard to facts. Finally the man gave me an appointment for the next working day at exactly the time that I said I couldn’t make it for I had a meeting in office. He assured me that I could reschedule the appointment online, but that turned out to be a vain hope. The link from the website that invited comments/feedback/requests did not help reschedule either.

If you think that a tweak to your application, in the shape of an additional document or an “explanation letter” or a penalty, after all your documents have been checked and found fit, would not take up any more than a few minutes, you are vastly mistaken. Once you enter the building, you are in the mob waiting for your token number to show up on the monitor on the wall, no different from anyone else applying for the first time, and with completely unexamined documents – if you are “normal”, that is. Tatkal applications move faster, even in the application submission stage, and senior citizens have a separate queue too (which is very good, and uncommonly thoughtful for an outfit like the passport office). If you (if “normal”) have reason to go back to the building for any other little thing, you can set aside 4 or more hours for each visit.

The passport officer type (the head honcho of the PSK Tolichowki) is another unapproachable and rude person, whom I cannot say anything more critical about, since he refused to meet me at all!

The address verification process by the police (Cyberabad Commissionerate, in my case), in contrast, was a very faith-affirming (maybe even faith-engendering) experience. In the first place, I received a text message the day after I finally submitted my application, informing me that the request for police verification had been initiated. Then, nothing for a few days, leading to some uncertainty and hesitation to leave the house for any errand lest I miss the police officer’s visit. And then, the police officer who was to verify my address sent me a text message early in the morning on the day scheduled. This message advised me on what I needed to keep ready for his review (one set of photocopies, and the original documents, and a photograph). He arrived in the window of time that he had indicated in his text message. This text message was a very useful and courteous move, as was his sticking to the time indicated. He conducted the review very promptly, and also did not make any suggestion of a bribe (which is otherwise unfortunately quite common in the police verification process for passport issuance). 

To encapsulate my suggestions:

1.    Fill the form on the website. Don’t rack your brains over the documents to upload. Just upload 4 moderately related documents.

2.    Pick a good PSK. I recommend Begumpet, and not Tolichowki. I have no idea about the others. By the way, there is parking space in the basement of the PSK Tolichowki building – you don’t have to keep someone waiting outside in an illegal parking spot.

3.    If you have no choice but to go to a painful PSK, take a book, phone, food, money, and patience.

4.    Take some extra money, a pen and some paper too, just in case you need to pay a penalty, or write an “explanation letter” for something, and are lucky enough to be in time to catch the passport officer type before he leaves for the day (presumably for an early tea and afternoon nap) while you and your co-sufferers are cooling your heels and hotting up simultaneously in the waiting hall.

5.    Keep a photograph and photocopies of the documents you submitted, as well as the originals themselves, ready for police verification.

6.    Also, keep any other proof, such as a receipt from a service provider or a government outfit (e.g., property tax payment) in the name of anyone from the household, from about a year ago to demonstrate that you have been living in the house you claim to have lived in for about the time you’ve lived in it.





Monday, August 18, 2014

Nominal matters: Issue 4

Witness protection?
– on married Maharashtrian women’s names

Madhuri Charudutta Joshi potters about the neighbourhood, goes to school and college, wins championships in sports and arts, interns and works in government/quasi- government/private organisations, hoards certificates and documents, collects friends and foes over the years, and then, one presumably happy day, disappears! Her place is instantly taken by Asavari Dileep Deshpande, and no one bats an eyelid.

Maharashtrian women take this business of moving from one phase of life to another, of becoming another person and making a new start, very, very seriously. Starting with GivenName-Father’sName-FamilyName and hopping to NameGivenByHusband-Husband’sName-Husband’sFamilyName. This tradition gives some boys (when men) the opportunity to realise a nominal fantasy by naming their newly acquired wives. Perhaps it also allows some women to finally get a name of their choosing, via advice to the husband. But mostly this complete erase-and-redo just confuses everyone. [And so would be a great opportunity for someone to commit a crime and change her identity altogether. What better time to eliminate your enemies than the verge of your wedding and the beginning of a ‘new life’?]

Confuses because, often, the name-change is only ‘official’ – what is inscribed in the rice in a post-wedding ceremony is then inscribed on certain documents (e.g., bank passbook), and then put aside except for the rare use in official documentation (official mail addressed to the woman, or mostly on wedding invitations issued by the woman). So it is that you may discover that rather than the aunt you have been calling Madhuri Maami for over two decades, an Asavari Deshpande is suddenly, in collaboration with your Dileep Maama, inviting people to your cousin’s wedding.

Also to be seen in email addresses and on social networking sites is a pragmatic compromise, mainly for personal and social communication. E.g., Madhuri Deshpande, who, notwithstanding her new-found Asavarihood, continues to be Madhuri in daily life (even called so by her husband and his family), and is now a member of the Deshpande household.

Two trends in Maharashtrian women’s names are gaining ground: (i) the NameGivenByFamilyOfOrigin is regiven by the husband, so Madhuri C. Joshi may become Madhuri D. Deshpande, following the highway that thousands of her non-Maharashtrian sisters use. (ii) Both the families – of origin and of marriage – are acknowledged, without declaring the men representing them, viz. the father and the husband. Thus, Madhuri C. Joshi now calls herself Madhuri Joshi Deshpande. What the next generation will do with these compound surnames would be fascinating to observe: Will Girl Joshi Deshpande marry Boy Kulkarni Tendulkar, and powerlift all those surnames thereafter – X Joshi Deshpande Kulkarni Tendulkar? Won’t future generations sound like telephone directories, and develop cramps from filling forms?

Perhaps Harry S Truman will show the way.

Note: Thanks, Shashank, for the comment: “It’s like witness protection”.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Nominal matters: Issue 3
Out of the *ina’petti – on Telugu surnames
(*iron case/ safe/ strongbox)

Remember the Telugu friends you had in school, even college, if you count the time after college in decades rather than months? What were their names? G. Lakshmi, P.V. Vamsikrishna, Y. S. Venkatesh, M. Sravanthi, K. Yadagiri... What did you know? The handle of the individual, and the initials that decided their position on the attendance register, especially with the Lakshmis, Srinivases and Venkateshes, who were always liberally sprinkled in every class. Not the castes, not the regions their families came from, not the occupations their ancestors may have practised. In fact, people who wanted to make a point of their caste appended the caste tag to their names, such as in N. Srinivas Reddy. When it comes to religion, given names are usually enough of a giveaway, so that would be one demographic detail quite public.

And what are your friends’ (same people!) names now? Lakshmi Gollapalli, Vamsikrishna Venkata Pillutla, Venkatesh Sarma Yalamanchili, Sravanthi Moovala, Srinivas Katikaneni etc… You may not even recognise old school friends trying to befriend you on Facebook, because you sat next to a V. Sreedevi, not a Sree Veera (short for Veeramachaneni, but more, some other time, on abbreviating surnames).

Telugu surnames have come out of the strongbox. And I don’t see any advantage of this barring the extremely rare opportunity to discover distant relatives. “I saw from that email that your name is Josyula. My wife’s family name is Josyula too. Where (etc.)…?Or, being identified, at a quiz club in another continent, as a relative of a minor celebrity: Me: "I am not a very seasoned quizzer. My brother got me interested in this. He has been quizzing for ages." The chap:"Your name is Josyula? Is your brother Krishnamachari Josyula, who was on Mastermind?" Me: (Aiyya baaboi!! Does this indicate that my brother is not a total waste candidate after all?) "Krishnamurthi, yes."
The main upshot of the exposure of surnames in a deeply caste-riven society is to make everyone conscious of such from an impressionable age.

There is a lot to be said for people going through at least childhood and adolescence oblivious to their friends’ ‘family background’, and ideally even their own. Surely ignorance of some tags permits more people to be weighed more on their own merit, rather than on advantages or disadvantages bestowed by history and contemporary society. Caste has a way of rearing its head when adulthood hits – in institution-hunts, job-hunts and mate-hunts. I’ve heard of college boys scanning the roster of incoming juniors to decide which girl to line-maaro, based on the surname – a distasteful, though pragmatic move. At least if things actually culminate in contemplation of marriage, one is less likely to have to face threats of disownment by family, ostracism of family, suicide or sulking of family members, and perhaps elimination of self and beloved.

Another significant change in the presentation of the Telugu name is the order: from surname-given name to given name-surname. It doesn’t sound all that comical when an initial is placed at the end of the name rather than at the beginning. But some names sound quite Yoda-esque when the surname in full is placed after the given name. Many surnames have prefixes that mean “of_”, as in the Hindi “_ke”. So a full name, modern-style could sound “Lakshmi Jos.. ke” instead of the smoother “ Lakshmi”. [This rearrangement of the order of the given name and surname applies to any traditional naming pattern, say the Malayali one, that is turned on its head by the new way.]

Why did Telugu surnames go from being modestly wrapped up in initials to having to be used in full in daily interactions? “Thank you for being on hold, Mr. Chilukapatchanulla. (You may be sure that I won’t put you on hold again, because I can’t put my vocal apparatus through another such workout.)” My thoughts spring to one reason – the computerisation (read Americanisation) of our lifestyles. Try creating an email/Facebook identity with the name J. K. Lakshmi – actually, please don’t try this! Even if you did, you would face a few stone walls. The only way I’ve succeeded sometimes is by entering “J. K.” as my first name, and “Lakshmi” as my last. Otherwise, I’ve had to bite the bullet and be Lakshmi K. Josyula. In some fora, I’m Josyula K. Lakshmi, which is a shade less painful, and serves to bridge the gap between L. K. Josyula and J. K. Lakshmi.

Note: Names here, except for mine, are made up. I hope they resemble actual names.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Nominal matters: Issue 2

Sisters [brothers-in-law]!

The Malayali woman’s full name is changing: For the most part, from X-il Y (say Puthenveettil Meenakshi) to YZ (Meenakshi Mahendran), where X=name of girl’s clan, more precisely, house; Y=given name of girl; and Z=given name of girl’s father/husband.

Kerala has, for ages, stood out from most of the rest of the country (with some exceptions in the North East), and in fact, from most of the rest of the world, by virtue of being a matrilineal society. A very noticeable declaration of this is in nomenclature. The mother’s family name is stamped on children, and it is actually the daughters who propagate it via naming posterity. The sons just hang on to the mother’s family name till they hang on to life. At least, this is how it has been, historically.

The trend among women over the past couple of generations seems to be to assimilate into the mainstream, through the nearest path – that of the Tamil neighbours. Malayali women are dropping their family-of-birth names and taking on their husband’s names. And, it’s the husband’s given names, not surnames (true to Tamil form) that are enthusiastically adopted.

The naming of the children is another fascinating matter: Often, people append the caste tag to the child’s given name, granting people a glimpse into the general community, but not the particular family, to which the child belongs. So, you find a Pallavi Warrier or a Suresh Menon, and are none the wiser about the clan. That’s one track, but there is another growing in popularity. In my observation, women of the previous (peri Indian independence) generation, probably the first to use the husband’s given name, stopped there, and gave their children the mother’s family-of-birth name. Their children went the next step to take on their husband’s given names, and confer this name on the children too. Thus, a K. P. Urmila converts to Urmila Manoharan, but her children fly the ‘K. P.’ flag for a while more. The ‘K. P.’ boys are not enabled to perform inter-generational transfers of ‘K. P.’, and as it turns out, their children get the given names of their fathers, rather than the family names of their mothers. The ‘K. P.’ girls too, however, jettison the ‘K. P.’ tag and provide their children with the given names of the husbands. Subsequent generations barely remember ‘K. P.’

Is this an exposition of the dwindling importance of lineage and the ascendancy of the importance of the individual? If so, why the importance of only the man?

A gradually growing number of couples outside Kerala is juxtaposing the surnames of the woman and the man, using this combined surname themselves, and granting the set to their offspring too. But this is usually with family names, not given names, and applies little or not at all to Malayali names. With given names in Kerala, a nascent trend is to append the mother’s and then the father’s to the child’s. Thus, a Jaya marries a Mukundan, calls herself Jaya Mukundan, and her children are Divya Jaya Mukundan, and Varun Jaya Mukundan.

Questions may arise about my name now: Am I shouting the mother’s family-of-birth name out from the rooftops, or certificates? No, I’m not. I’m a special case (but everyone already knows that!). My matrilineal-origins mother married my patrilineal-origins father and promptly sold out, in a very nuanced manner: She took my father’s given name, and gave us children our father’s family name. When I grew up a bit, and took stock of all this, particularly the consonance or lack thereof of my name and those of my cousins, on either side, I asked my father why we were named like we were. He said I was free to choose my mother’s family name, and could switch to it if I liked. But by then, I was so attached to my name that it would have been a wrench to change it. Also, I didn’t want to confuse the Nobel Foundation. So, I stick to my name, and comment on the alterations in other Malayali women’s names.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Nominal matters: Issue 1
“Grand”fathers making a name for themselves (and family)

Vanakkam. What’s happening to Tamil names, in particular, surnames / “last names”? In the melee of Indian surnames which acknowledged profession/caste/place of origin, and placed themselves before/during/after the first/given name, Tamil nomenclature stood out as fresh and only need-to-know informative. Your first name followed/preceded by your father’s first name, altered for most women by matrimony to your first name followed by your husband’s. Caste/ place/ profession, thank you, no mention.
Celebrities often added the place, vide Umayalpuram Kasiviswanatha Sivaraman or Elamanur Madhavan Bhargava. Others replaced the father’s name with the caste, e.g.  Kalpana Iyer, Venkatesh Iyengar. Some introduced the place and caste, and dispensed with the father’s name, e.g., Madurai Mani Iyer. Some, free from constraining character-limits, piled the place and caste to the father’s name and their own, vide Ariyakkudi Tiruvengadam Ramanuja Iyengar.
Some name layouts are a little confusing at first. Take Viswanathan Anand, whose wife is Aruna Anand, and son Akhil Anand. It would seem that he is distributing his father’s name all over his nuclear family, but no – Viswanathan is his father’s name. He merely places it before his given name Anand, which placement is the tradition that is getting somewhat disturbed now, with the insistence on “last names” following “first names”. Had it been strapped up as “V. Anand”, nobody would have batted an eyelid, realising clearly that V was his father’s name.
In the past few decades, Tamil first names they are a-changing: first, the doors have been thrown wide open to Sanskrit-via-Hindi names. The Elangovans, Ezhilarasis and Maragadams are bound for the history books. “-an” has been and is declining rapidly: Yesterday’s Raghavan is today’s Raghav, and he will pick Rohit over Senthil for his son’s name. The Divyas and Ramyas of today are ceding ground to the Diyas and Rias of tomorrow. And slowly (and small-ly) at the moment, surnames are changing too – in the direction of constancy. The Tamil grandfather of today’s Tamil baby is bequeathing his name to all posterity, literally. He getting his name etched in indelible ink/laser print, on passports, certificates and forms, as the surname of everyone in the family who follows him – his sons, (perhaps) their wives, and their kids, (perhaps) wives of said kids, and grandkids… All these perhapses because Tamil women, with all their non-Tamil sisters, are increasingly not as gung-ho about adopting their husbands’ names as sticking to their birth names (in this case their fathers’). So we have a Govindarajan Kothandaraman marrying an Apsara Gopalarathnam, not catalysing a name change despite the acknowledged chemistry ;), and going on to name two little ones Vibha Govindarajan and Srinath Govindarajan.
I wonder what pressure forms (and form-generators) put on parents who pick a grandfather’s name, and share and share alike: Perhaps surnames within the family have GOT to coincide, or else. If your name is AB and your child’s not –B, it’s not your child!! So we may find that a Mahesh Ramanathan’s wife calls herself Kamakshi Ramanathan, and their child is a Rahul Ramanathan, whose kids are Aryan Ramanathan and Akanksha Ramanathan.

Note: I thank all my friends whose names (and their fathers’, of course!) I have used here. I don’t need to thank celebrities, except the ones who are my friends J, and that I’ve already done ibid. The other names are made up, and any resemblance to an actual family is coincidental, though not unintended.