Peace, Order and Noble Riots

After finally gathering the required documents, we went to the Foreign Registration Office (FRRO) in Shanthinagar, Bengaluru on September 12th. The FRRO is the zenith of the visa hurdle, and after dealing with the immigration process for 6 months (realizing, too, that this is no amount of time and suffering compared to what immigrants to the US experience), we were ready to have it over with so that we could get on with our work in queer India.

We arrived at the FRRO at 9 am. It was on the 5th floor of a colorless bus depot (it felt like the inside of an unused coloring book) and featured prison-like windows peeling tint at their edges, barely exposing the bright day and variously chromatic cityscape. The officers were bored and the paper-pushers, overworked. Immigrants from all over the world ignored the order of the tickets and demanded attention from the first layer of application readers, who chanted “please sir/madam, take a seat, you will be called shortly.” Miss S, with ticket number 8, had to fend off a man who she discovered was trying to tell the application reader that he was ticket number 8 but had lost his ticket. Miss S put up with none of that and pushed herself into the chair to consult with the reader. Everything in the application was present and perfect, and so our application was pushed ahead to the fact checkers who sat in a fluorescent lit corner behind a very tall counter. To speak with the application reader, one had to sit and bend their head under the sneeze guard; but to speak with the fact checkers, one had to stand on their toes and wave around with the hopes of being noticed. We were told to wait one hour while the application was fact checked. We walked to find coffee, but found none. We sat in a samosa and sweet hall but didn’t order anything because of nerves. After an hour, we went back to the FRRO and the application was still not processed. Miss S was told, “please madam, take a seat…” etc. a few times before she was bold enough to approach the fact checkers and inquire about application ticket number 8. A man in a cubicle behind the tall desk had apparently over heard and came out to ask if our application had listed Maya for Women as the affiliating institution. We affirmed that we were that application and the man said he was confused about how we were going to do research with an NGO. He wanted to know what kind of women we were observing and asked Miss S to define “queer.” Not expecting such a direct question (an obvious power move on his part), we anxiously told him we were researching the homosocial relationships between women in female-centric networks. We said nothing about homosexuality with the fear that he would deny our application. Confused, he called the director, Mari, of Maya for Women and hardly listened to a word she said, only repeating “Yes, I understand the nature of the work, mam, but….” He told us to go home for lunch because the office was going to lunch, and to come back at 3pm (it was 1:15pm).

After enjoying some kati rolls for lunch in our neighborhood, we decided to venture back to the FRRO, a 5 minute auto ride. The streets were suddenly very crowded with school children and every auto was either taken or denied us. We found this strange, but since the day had been a day of denial, we went on our way by foot, which was about a 20 minute walk. Bengaluru is a crowded city (9 million people) but it was strangely crowded with people walking down the narrow sidewalks. This was not something we had experienced, but we had only been in the city a week and we attributed it to the after school rush (Denver always seems impossible to get through around 3pm). We saw vendors packing up their product and people rushing around, yelling, which we thought strange, but traffic was noticeably irritable, jammed and cacophonous, and we were a bit late and flustered, so we stopped to question nothing. Once we reached the FRRO, sweating and a bit out of breath, Miss S went straight to the man behind the cubicle. He looked at her and asked, “What are you doing here?” She said he had asked them to come back, and so here they were only 10 minutes late. He pointed to his television screen and said “Yes, but things have gotten much worse.” On the screen were six scenes of burning cars, identifying six parts of the city where riots had broken out in response to the Supreme Court’s refusal to reverse the previous week’s ruling on the Cauvery water distribution. Additionally, the bandh (as a gesture against sharing water with Tamil-Nadu) resulted in Karnatakian tourists in Tamil-Nadu being attacked over the weekend, making the citizens of Bengaluru angry and inflamed. The violence had not yet come to this side of town, but the man asked how we had come and how we were planning on getting home. We told him we couldn’t find an auto here so we had walked, and he told us that it was a liability to take people, especially foreigners, in autos right now, which is why we were being denied rides. He told us that the best thing to do would to remain in the FRRO for the time being. This sounded and, most importantly, felt like a terrible idea (Note that the FRRO is above a bus terminal and citizens were setting cars and buses on fire; later that night, at a bus depot in another part of the city, 20 buses were set on fire–so we followed our intuition). Miss S asked the man if we had to get home, would it be better to walk or take a taxi. He advised us to walk but to pay attention and to avoid areas where people were gathering in large groups and chanting. Our application had been sent back to the short desk of application readers where people had amassed. Everyone was trying to get their application finished and wanted to get home before the violence escalated towards this side of town.

We pushed through the crowd to ask where in the large stack of papers our application was. The man from the cubicle saw the worry in our face and noticed us struggling to find our application in the mess. Seemingly, he felt responsible for asking us to return under such conditions of political unrest, and we saw human kindness for the first time in the FRRO. He went over to the overburdened application reader, pulled our application, called us to the desk, signed off on the approval and told us to leave. We thanked him and left. A very sweet Muslim girl whose application was called after ours, wished us good luck and we wished each other a safe journey on the streets.

Once on the street, Miss K told Miss S that if anything were to happen, to follow Miss K’s lead, since Miss K is very stealth and attentive in chaos. The streets were even more crowded and insane than before. A curfew, Section 144, had been called and everyone was rushing home. Ambulances were screeching, roaring below the massive raised highways, and were completely stuck, hollering out for an urgent way through. Traffic was absolutely locked but Miss K pulled us through pathways between cars, autos, goats, bikes and people until we reached a calm side-street that led right to our guesthouse. Once inside and on wifi, we received text messages sent by our friends at 3pm, after we had already left for our second visit to the FRRO, telling us to not go outside because Section 144 had been called into effect. Since we don’t yet have an Indian phone, we weren’t able to receive this advice until 5:30pm. Luckily we were okay, and in this case, our ignorance of the situation also allowed us to get our registration completed (is ignorance always bliss, or is it sometimes dumb luck?). Though we learned a good lesson about staying abreast of local events and news for our safety, if we hadn’t gone back at 3pm that day, we would have had to wait two days to go back to the FRRO because Section 144 had been imposed for two days, effectively closing all schools and government buildings, and we could not get on with the next leg of our travel (Mussoorie) until registration had been completed.
In our room we put on the news, which is equally fear-inciting in India as it is in the US. We showered and called around to see where we could get food, as we had none in the guesthouse. The only place open was a speakeasy-style pub called Bootlegger. When we called they said they were open, so we walked half a block to find a security guard at the door, who told us the pub was closed. We explained that we had called and were told it was open. In true speak-easy style not typical for this bar, the guard ducked inside and re-appeared telling us we could go in. We walked in to find that we were the only customers. The staff was clustered around a television, watching women’s WWF wrestling, a royal rumble with four chicks stunt fighting and writhing in/on the ring. The waiter pulled down the big screen and put it on for us too. We ordered a pepperoni pizza and two pints of beer. We thought, what the heck, let’s ask for ranch dressing. The waiter knew of it, and said he would describe it to the chef and have him make it for us.

Hiding out in a speak-easy, below the rage, we enjoyed communion and conversation with the bar staff. It was rough out there, but human in here. After finally being legal residents in India and finding ourselves caught in a city protesting serious governmental infringement on human rights, we rallied with the men of Bootleggers to luxuriantly and safely cheer-on American pleasure-fighting. The next morning, the Supreme Court responded to Bengaluru’s protests by reconsidering the ruling. What was blatantly obvious was that the bandh, the peaceful protest, received no attention from the government, but as soon as violence erupted, as soon as cars bearing the Tamil-Nadu plate were set on fire, as soon as Tamil Nadu shop keepers in Bengaluru were attacked, as soon as a curfew had to be set, the government listened and responded (though, the response was a sneaky attempt by a judge who is known to have been paid off by Tamil-Nadu: the court lowered the amount of gallons taken but increased the frequency; Karnatakans did not blindly accept this, so the protests continue). It seems that however much peaceful protest is revered, prayed for and encouraged, it’s fighting that people want to see. Those in power (men and money and political sway) want to see us on our backs writhing in the ring, they want to see our desire in a burning car, they want to watch us squirm as we define queerness out of itself, to be something proper and valid, giving them enough documentation to show that we aren’t here to change things. But we are here to change things, and these are stunts intended to covertly open a real space from which we can take back our own power, authority and autonomy. There’s something here about being excessively visible for the sake of the invisible, for the unspeakable powers of the rhizome.

Major Bengaluru Intersection Empty due to water protests.
Major Bengaluru Intersection Empty due to water protests.
bandh-ub-city-0516
UB City Mall covered with riot netting and Karnataka flags.

 

 

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