Baramati, December, 2015
I had my mobile epiphany—Get a phone!—as I walked in from Baramati’s east side on shade-dappled Canal Street to the junction downtown with the traffic circle and Cinema Street. I’d been talking with an ancient toothless man in a Nehru hat, watching boys swim and women from the Dalit huts pound clothes on the stone platforms at water’s edge, and I calmed four small children gleeful at having their picture taken. My feet were tired.
I’d resisted after my American phone proved to be expensively blocked, but an Indian mobile would let me call ahead to my next hotel and improve the slim chance of finding an unbuggy refuge.
The Reliance shop was close to the junction in a joined line of tiny stores. Its sign in Marathi suggested it sold telephones and such gadgets. Inside, it was chilly; the neatly-dressed clerks in the shop, once they understood I wanted the minimum–No, not that big one!–had just the mobile for me (a basic Samsung Guru or Swirl, Blaze, maybe—I forget the name and have discarded the box), a tiny do-little-but-talk phone of the sort favored by tuk-tuk drivers.
“Just 1,100, sir.”
A day’s lodging, more, in the hotels I favor.
And a SIM card?
The clerks consulted the manager. The AC hummed.
The manager might have been a State Farm agent. His smile was practiced. He adjusted his glasses. “We require passport, sir, and document of residence, where you live…”
Outside, traffic honking honking, high schoolers on their way home shouting, tuk-tuks aswirling, black and yellow, all with untuned engines, cycles swerving, trucks, push carts, the laundry women each with a laundry bucket on her head, sometimes another on a hip, walking the half mile to their streets.
The documentation could be provided by my hotel. The manager took my hotel’s business card and spoke clearly, authoritatively, for a time. He had spoken, he told me as he deftly flicked off his extra-large phone, to the manager of my hotel. In fact, as I soon learned, he spoke to Gotsurya, the easily-baffled front desk clerk, a man destined to end his days in a dungeon.
“No problem, sir. Hotel give document. You come tomorrow with document and passport. We keep phone for you.” He put my Guru/Blaze back in its box and returned it to the display shelf.
I bought a kilo of tangerines and three bananas, fended off a street sleaze asking incomprehensible questions about my passport, his tongue flitting, then hailed a tuk-tuk for the two mile trip north to the Baramati Club, my upscale residence.
Gotsurya, in his mid-20s, dressed elegantly, as befits the front desk man at a plush club, rose to greet me, inclined his head and provided the key to one, one, one. Yes, he nodded. He had spoken to Reliance. “SIM not problem, sir.”
Could I get the document now?
Tomorrow, he said.
Why not now?
“Manager busy,” he said. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow come. Morning time.”
Day 2. After choking down a rubbery omelet and leaving the fancy club restaurant irritated because the waiters, engaged in weighty discussion, failed to bring a cup of tea, I gave a friendly hello to Gotsurya.
My SIM document?
“Busy now. Come half hour.” He scarcely looked up. The purple birthmark on his forehead was throbbing.
A half-hour? That wasn’t good. An omen. It meant he didn’t want to deal with a SIM document. Why not? Damn! He wouldn’t want to in 30 minutes. An empty promise in the land where a promise doesn’t rise to the level of inshallah. It was time to become stern.
I needed the document at once! We had arranged this yesterday! Did he not remember? Goddamnit!! (inaudible hiss.) Glare.
Ten minutes later, all afluster, he handed me a document. It was a blurred photo-copy of my passport pages, copied again from the copy they’d made when I checked in, for the police, to combat terrorism.
He is an idiot? No. He doesn’t know what to do, so he does something. He gives me a document. When it doesn’t work no one will trace the problem back to him.
No, no. No. No! Reliance needed proof I was staying in the hotel. As the man told you. I had my real passport for them. I didn’t need a copy! I patted my pack.
The sound of the conversation wandered slowly down the corridor like the water on my bathroom floor after a shower seeps to the floor drains, to management offices. After a time, Vikhram, an assistant manager and the sports facility director, appeared. He spoke some English and had been the one the previous day to tell me, sadly, that the large swimmerless swimming pool, inviting and a vivid Caribbean blue because of the blue tile, did not open until 4.
“Is being cleaned.”
Closed until 4:00
Well, no. It wasn’t. It rippled invitingly just below my open room window. It hadn’t been. No one had touched it. It was as clean as it was going to be.
“Four o’clock,” he said. “Sorry.”
Vikhram was a pleasant, soft-spoken man. I explained the SIM issue. He took the passport copy from me, winced and returned it to Gotsurya with a frown.
Gotsurya had perhaps not understood, he said. He had little English.
“Come,” Vikhram said. “I drive to shop.”
That was nice. He was being helpful.
We arrived in 20 minutes. It was another hot day. The manager explained the SIM procedure to Vikhram. I handed over my passport.
“Your document?” Vikhram said, holding out his hand. “He need residence document for SIM card.”
I had a bit of tangerine fiber caught between two teeth. I freed it with my tongue-tip. Outside, a straight-backed woman passed with a large laundry bucket on her head balanced with one arm; I breathed through my nose; a lorry, dressed as for Carnival, chugged out a cloud of diesel fumes.
Well, I said… I went over it again. I had no document. That was the reason for the discussion with Gotsurya after he misunderstood directions in Marathi from this man. I needed the document from the hotel, to get a SIM card. That was why we had come, to deliver the document. From the hotel.
Had someone put LSD in my tea? No, the restaurant at the Club couldn’t make tea, which was why I had to walk two kilometers to the main road to find a tea wallah…
Of course, of course. Vikhram seemed to see a spark in my eye. I could get a SIM card at any shop. No problem. We would go back now. Buy the phone, he instructed. Avoid another trip.
I bought it, though a mobile without a SIM card is a fish with no gills, a fan with no blades, a desk-clerk without a brain, an Indian restaurant without tea.
I stayed in town, walking, communicating adequately with people who spoke no English at all. I bought a billfold, a new watchband, and I had lunch in Bustee town from a roast-corn wallah, picking up my piping hot ear from the embers with the clean husks, using a lemon slice to lift salt from a small white saucer and rub it on the ear, delicious, and went back to the Club in time to shower for my four o’clock swim.
The roast corn was tasty
Vikhram, sitting now in the sports facility office beside the gym, searched fruitlessly for a towel for the pool. Perhaps I was its first human swimmer? Never mind, I said, I’ll dry in the sun. And, he added, replacing the stack of papers under which a towel could have been, “Problem with SIM card.”
The hotel, he regretted, could not provide such a document. Reliance required a residence, a document from someone which would verify I lived somewhere. In India. An employer, probably. Hotel was helpless.
Perhaps, I should speak to the manager, I said. I knew countless tourists with Indian SIM cards. I had sat beside a Japanese woman just the other day in Pune when she recharged hers. She was not working. She was a meditator, on vacation.
“Pune,” he said enigmatically. “Manager not here.”
I swam briskly in the odd 25-meter pool, three feet deep at one end, five at the other, surrounded by treacherous slick marble, not designed by a swimmer. Emerging, I found a large blue and white towel beside my shorts and flip-flops.
Day three. The Swirl/Guru is fine. Charged, it lights up. I had something like it 10 years ago. It is familiar. Samsung products are reliable. The manager is not available.
Does he work today?
Gotsurya. Later. Come back in half hour.
Does the man work at all (to myself)? Vikhram appears. Is the manager a grand raja? I wonder aloud, too grand for mere guests? Phone conversation. Return at 11. Manager will see you then.
Mr. Shetty was courtly: a portly man in his early 40s dressed in dark slacks and a white, pin-striped shirt. We said hello in the lobby and retired to his tiny office. He understood my problem. Some miscommunication had occurred. He was sorry, but the hotel, a “club,” owned by a “foundation,” a corporation, could not provide the SIM document. That was done by employer. And was there a problem with coffee in the morning? He had heard something. He did not eat in the restaurant, because the waiters all surrounded him, the manager, and ignored the guests. Manpower was difficult in Baramati, but he greatly wanted feedback from a foreign guest.
The hotel was lovely, I said, though I was puzzled that the sheets on my bed didn’t cover the mattress. They tended to ride up as I slept, leaving me on the bare mattress. It was true, too, that the toilet seat was loose, dangerously so, some other things, the pool…. It seemed…unusual…that the hotel had such a fine outdoor pool but forbade the guests to use it. Perhaps I had misunderstood? In any case, my room was comfortable, and the hotel was very clean(ish)… Of course, the WiFi didn’t work. Often. And it wasn’t coffee, but tea. I had waited and waited and decided finally that India had run out of tea.
He appreciated my good joke. Chuckle. No, India had tea.
The pool, he said. Baramati Club was a club, not exactly a hotel, and the Foundation made the rules… It was beyond his reach. Sheets. Yes. He had been manager for just a year and a half, and the previous manager had bought sheets badly.
The sheets were short. But why?
He bought sheets that were too short? Didn’t he complain when he opened the package?
It is a problem, Mr. Shetty said.
Note: Explore sheet issue. The Baramati Club is the fourth or fifth hotel this trip with cut-off sheets. Am I selecting hotels badly? Do the managers get a kick-back for saving cotton? Does no one notice? Might it just be a talented, silver-tongued, award-winning sheet salesman, a former news anchor?
And the WiFi. Google tries to climb from its dark cupboard, the blue access bar flickers and then goes out in a gust of bad breath from Indian technicians.
But we were straying from the SIM card.
I shook my head clear and invoked the wisdom of my guide Indu, in Pune: “In India, there is always an alternative…”
The hotel would pay for the phone, Mr. Shetty said. He understood my frustration. They would give it to a worker.
A mobile would be useful for me, I said, calm now, manager to manager, as it was for other tourists. Communication. Particularly, I repeated, as he had made no note the first time, as the hotel’s WiFi seemed to be broken much of the time, making communication difficult.
“I will work on it,” he said.
Mr. Shetty working on it
That evening, a technician banged on my door and linked my computer to the hotel’s landline system. It worked wonderfully (until that system, too, blinked off.) (“It is company, sir,” the front desk said. “Repair 20 minutes only.”) Twelve hours later, it was still down.
Perspective, perspective. Indian Army helicopters, now 50 and 60 years old, crash regularly because of maintenance deficiencies. I was traveling in a different culture. Was I expecting too much, that sheets cover the mattress, that the toilet seat in a luxury hotel didn’t pitch you off onto the murky floor? That I could make Guru speak?
Day four. The manager had made arrangements. Phone calls had been made. A great effort on my behalf. We would go now, sir, Vikhram said, please to Idea shop for SIM card. Passport necessary, to combat terrorism.
The Idea shop was 10 minutes north in Vikhram’s little Honda and the procedure was quick. In an hour, without displaying any proof of residence (Mr. Shetty was a wizard!), I had five pages of documents to sign, filled out painstakingly by Vikhram and the shop manager. “Father good name?”
“Father? Good name!?”
The manager was skeptical of my passport. It had no street address. Was it a real passport? I had a Michigan driver’s license with my street address. He examined it carefully, both sides. That would do.
Though I waggled my eyebrows at her, a young woman in the photo shop next door aimed a big Canon at me unsmilingly, and I got six skeptical-looking, washed-out shots for Rs 50. One got stapled to the documents. I paid Rs. 250 ($3.78). The manager, bored by the familiar, unceremoniously lifted a frayed box of small yellow envelopes from his drawer, each with a ten-digit all-India phone number on the outside and a SIM card within. I got to choose.
“Any number you like,” Vikhram said.
My number would be “activated” within 24 hours. 968-953-3954 (though the Indian presentation is without hyphens).
Need I do anything?
Automatic. It would activate before 24 hours. Tomorrow.
We returned to the hotel. I thanked Vikhram for his help. “It is my duty, sir,” he said.
Day 5 Thirty-five hours had passed. Blaze was still inert, but lightable, with the appearance of life, as a pink-cheeked corpse at viewing. I had made English my language. I had made Vikhram my first contact. I had used the calculator to tabulate how fast my bank account was draining.
I carried the inert phone into town and back early in the day, suddenly insecure without a mobile. Everyone had a mobile. I had made five previous trips to India without a phone, the first four without any device, but I was nervous, now, with a phone that didn’t work. I pulled it out periodically in town, turned it on and poked out Vikhram’s number on the tiny keys. Nothing. Not automatically activated at all. But to all appearances, I was as connected as everyone else. It comforted me.
9 p.m. The phone played a Bollywood air. It was ringing! It had been activated! “Hello? Hello?” I knew how Alexander Graham Bell had felt. It was from home. On the other side of the world. I had sent my new number in an email, and it worked. Guru was fine…
I called Vikhram. I wanted to thank him again. It didn’t buzz. I got a long message in Marathi, something about “balance.” I tried again. “Balance.”
Day 6. An assistant manager whose name I never learned, the same man who had hooked me to the hotel’s broken Internet, listened to my balance message. Yes, you have no balance. Must buy talk time. Any shop. No problem. Not so much money. And must call within 30 days, even short time, or not activate. Talk time!
I didn’t understand.
Mr. Shetty was clearer. He listened to my balance message and said I had no balance. I needed to buy talk time. Any shop. It wouldn’t cost much. He called a national help center in Bangalore, perhaps in the same bunker as those so helpful to Americans with various digital issues. Yes I had no balance. He tapped out numbers on my phone, which I had begun to call Slash. Yes, there it was. No balance. Just Rs 197.50 for incoming.
I had understood it was all automatic… I said this forcelessly, worn down, easy prey now for the tangerine/banana wallah (bad wallahs try to slip in yesterday’s bananas and too-soft, sun-ruined tangerines; one must be alert). The store said I had a balance of Rs 197.50…
“Talk Time! Buy Talk Time,” Mr. Shetty instructed, something in his manner hinting he was tiring of my mobile issues. However, I was grateful that my toilet seat was tighter. Not secure, exactly; it required stillness; but it was less perilous than it had been.) Also, a waiter had banged on my door with a cup of tea, the same milk tea in a dirty glass with sugar and cinnamon that is India’s coffee and doughnuts. Perhaps I should post a list of grievances on my door each morning.
Talk time, I said.
I walked across my suburban Serengeti to the nearest phone shop, a kilometer or so toward the main road.. He had said Any Shop. No, they said.
“Talk Time,”I said, “talk Time! Talktime!”
No, they said. No one there spoke English, and they were surly, as they had a right to be, working for peanuts in a stifling phone shop with litter piled in the corners.
OK. I’d return to the Idea shop. I began the trek. A motorcycle screeched to a stop beside me. It was a waiter from the Baramati Club restaurant. Ride? He knew where the Idea shop was, and in two minutes I was there. It was 10 o’clock. The shop opened, the neatly-printed legend on the door said, at 9:30. It was closed. A crowd stood outside on the trash-strewn pavement in the withering sun.
It wasn’t locked. I pushed in. The cleaning lady was whisking. She snarled at me and motioned me back outside. I sat down. Thank you, I would wait.
At 10:15, a clerk arrived, a puffy-eyed young woman in a sweater, prepared for her hours beneath the frigid AC. “Stand!” she told me. Why didn’t she leave her sweater on her chair, or bring it in a bag? Outside was an Oklahoma summer day, with masala instead of armadillo jerky. Stand. The cleaning lady needed to whisk. Fifteen minutes later, my clerk arrived, the store manager.
He was a skilled technician and spoke to his screen rather than to me. I did not need talk time, he said. He had told me that I had a balance of Rs 197.50, he reminded me, and I still had that balance. I had paid. It just hadn’t shifted yet from the inactive. It was automatic. First, the card was activated. Then, after another day, the outgoing call was activated and the balance would show. “Do nothing,” he said. “Automatic. Just 20 minute only.” He copied my new number onto his newspaper.
It was interesting. The activation worked in two stages. First, after a day, incoming calls were allowed; then, after another day, outgoing…
He had said nothing about the delay after the initial delay. Why? I wondered. Why wouldn’t he have mentioned that?
“I must do nothing? Pay no more?”
“Nothing!” he said. (Idiot!) He was patient. The interview was at an end. He had customers. Twenty minutes.
I returned to the club and went to my room, stretching my toes and keeping an eye on Slash. At 11:30, the house phone rang. Gotsurya. “You check out when?”
Must go. Hotel full. Check out now.
Check-out time was noon.
I found Vikhram. He interrogated Gotsurya and returned to where I leaned, gazing at the empty pool. “He told you yesterday we had no room.”
I had practiced restraint. Making a scene leaves bad feelings. “That,” I said softly, nearly in a whisper, “is not correct.”
Vikhram returned to the front desk and leaned over Gotsurya, shaking his head affirmatively. He returned. “It is correct,” he said. “He not tell you.”
But he told you he did?
“He lie. He tell me he lie.”
He would rearrange the reservations, and he would speak to Gotsurya. The hotel had manpower problems.
At five o’clock, the yang side of my SIM card came to life, as promised.
I called Vikhram, who was standing beside me. I had been thanking him for not tossing me out on the street. His phone shrilled a jingle. We talked. “Hello?” “Hello?” Hello, hello.
Slash, et al
Day 7. Leaving. The Internet was not being repaired, and I had called ahead to the Hotel Jeet Paradise in Phaltan. Yes, the man there said, they had a good WiFi. Count on it.
I saw Vikhram with Mr. Shetty in the lobby. I thanked them again for their help. Should I mention that I had noticed my sheet now covered the mattress? That was good. Gotsurya was at the desk studying hospitality memos. Should I crack his head with Slash? My mobile is broken! No. Stay focused. “My phone works!” I said proudly.
No problem, sir. It is our duty.