Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thinking Ahead

There's an interesting relationship here between a driver and the people he drives around. On one hand the driver is really in charge when we're on the road - in theory he knows exactly where he's going and the ability to survive in Bangalore traffic is incredibly impressive. On the other hand it's not uncommon for drivers to be subservient to a fault.

Our driver, Mahesh, is quite young, in his mid-twenties, and he's a very nice chap and very capable driver. We really trust him, especially with the kids and our other valuables, and as a family we rely on him hugely - I'm not allowed to drive at all, so whenever we need to go somewhere we have to have him there. On the whole he's very capable indeed, but today he showed me that kind of subservient, eager to please attitude which can very easily make you crazy.

We have some friends from Minneapolis coming to visit in late July, they're flying in to northern India and will have a week or so there before coming down to Bangalore. I'm actually off to Minneapolis later this evening (early tomorrow morning - all the international flights leave overnight) and will be seeing them next weekend, so my friend asked if I could bring him over an Indian SIM card so that he can use his phone as soon as he arrives in India - great idea. I spoke to Mahesh about it yesterday, and it turned out that while you can buy SIM cards almost anywhere, you need several types of ID, most of which I don't have, so I asked him to get a pre-paid one in his name. Today while we were going into town he gave me the card, and said that it should work just fine in the phone - I asked a couple of times if I should just pop it in my phone and was told that it was all set. A friend of mine was in the car at the same time, and he asked what we would do when the phone company calls this week to verify the name and address associated with the SIM card. Apparently in India you can't just buy and then use a SIM card - there are various background checks, and if the phone company can't get hold of you to validate your details within a week they just switch the card off. I'm told that it's a security thing, but like lots of bureaucracy and supposed security checks in India, it ends up being incredibly annoying without actually providing any kind of improved security whatsoever.

Anyway, I asked Mahesh about this call from the phone company and he said "yes sir, they will call." I asked what the call would be, and he said "They will ask for my name and address which you should tell them [so I would have to pretend to be Mr. Mahesh] - I will give you my address sir." Aside from the unlikelihood of someone with my accent being called Mahesh, I had to point out to Mahesh that he knew that I would be out of the country for the next two weeks, seeing as he will be driving me to and from the airport, and how did he think that the phone company would be able to get hold of me? He didn't have an answer for this, so after a while he suggested giving me one of the SIM cards from his phone (which strangely has two SIM cards) and they could use his number. I guess that's the only way we can make it work, so now I have his SIM card and he has mine.

So we kind of have it worked out, but it is one of the facets of life here that when you are the "sir" there are a lot of people who want to say yes to you (like when you ask "do you know where such and such an address is?") but they actually have no idea of the answer; or tell you that they have fixed things when actually the things are not fixed. I totally get that Mahesh wanted to do the right thing and show me that he had gotten the SIM card, but if my friend hadn't been there to ask about a fairly crucial detail it would all have been a waste of time. It's one of the things about being a newcomer to a country that lots of little details aren't immediately obvious and navigating even basic things is tricky (the same thing happened when I moved to the US) but it would help if the people who are supposed to be helping me would give me the whole story without me having to keep asking questions or somehow stumble on a potential problem.