“Where’s the nearest mall?” I asked the duty manager at the Taj Deccan hotel in Hyderabad. “I need to buy a SIM card.”
“Sir, the City Centre Mall is close by, but I deeply regret to inform you that you will not be able to buy a SIM card there. You must go to the mobile provider shop.”
I didn’t bother asking about the marketing logic of restricting SIM card sales to specific outlets, presumably with limited opening hours. This is my sixth visit to India since 2003 and I’m used to regulations and bureaucracy for which the rationale is often elusive.
“OK, please give me the addresses,” I said. The travel assistant wrote down three. “You could walk but in this heat, I’d advise taking a tuk-tuk [the three wheel motorized auto rickshaw that is common throughout India].” I selected Airtel, whose address was listed as Road No. 12, Banjara Hills. It seemed a bit imprecise, but I assumed the driver would know where to go.
The duty manager approached me again. “Do you have a copy of your passport face page and visa, also a passport picture?” he asked. “I really need all that?” I answered, but with almost rhetorical resignation. “Yes, and you will need a letter from the hotel stating that this is your local address. I’ll be pleased to write it.”
After assembling all the paperwork, I set off in a tuk-tuk. We turned off the main road onto Road No. 12, the driver dodging and weaving between the buses and trucks as we went up a hill. After a few minutes, I remembered the travel assistant’s remark that I could have walked to the store if the weather had not been so hot. I would not have walked this far, even if the temperature had been 20 degrees lower. We were now moving out of the commercial area, passing a hospital, villas and the gardens of the Income Tax Department guest house (where I’d like to say that weekly rates are negotiable).
“I don’t think it’s this far,” I told the driver.
“Where is it you want sir? This is Road No. 12.”
“The Airtel mobile shop.”
“You can buy recharge at many places.”
“No, I need a SIM card, not a recharge. Please turn around.”
Eventually we did, and then sat in a traffic jam for 15 minutes as we edged slowly towards the main road. The Airtel store was near the junction and the detour had cost me almost 30 minutes. I joined a line of customers. The sales assistant carefully studied my passport and visa page copies. I was half expecting him to ask for a certified copy, but he didn’t. His only comment was on the passport picture, which was too large for the box allocated on the registration form. “Feel free to cut it down,” I told him.
I asked when my SIM card would be activated. “Sir, tomorrow is a holiday. It will take three days.” He could sense my displeasure. “But of course you can go to the Airtel head office and they can activate by this evening.” I asked for the address. It was, at least, reasonably precise: Splendid Towers, near Begumpet police station.
“Yes, sir, I know it well,” said my new tuk-tuk driver. It turned out that he didn’t. We stopped several times on our way across the city so that he could ask for directions, and once so he could buy a coconut milk. But we got there eventually. “I wait for you, sir?” he asked. I said no. I had no idea how long the transaction would take.
The application form for a SIM card is a page long with many boxes to complete. The sales assistant said he could fill out most of the questions from the information on my passport and visa, but needed additional data. “What is the name of your father?” he asked. I wondered briefly about questioning the relevance of this item, considering that my father died 30 years ago, but thought better of it. The assistant was just following instructions.
“I also need the names, addresses and mobile numbers for two people in Hyderabad.” I listed the numbers of two colleagues from the University of Hyderabad, but this time felt justified in asking why their mobile numbers were needed. What if I didn’t know anyone in the city?
“So we can notify them by text when your SIM card is activated.”
“Why can’t you text me on my number?”
“No, sir, we are not allowed to do this. Please inform them they will receive a text.”
I was about to ask how I was supposed to do this if I did not have a working mobile phone, but decided to just go with the flow.
“Now you must sign,” said the assistant. I signed in three places on the application form, and also on the copies of the passport and visa.
“I’d like to buy some time while I’m here,” I added.
“We cannot sell you time until your phone is activated,” the assistant replied.
He did not see the irony. “You will go online to Airtel. There you will find most attractive data packages,” he said.
Half an hour later, I was back at the hotel. The expedition had taken more than two hours, and all I had to show for it was a 25 rupee (40 cent) SIM card with no credit. I had spent almost 700 rupees ($10) on circuitous tuk-tuk rides, but at least collected a few travel notes along the way.
Airtel would not accept my credit card. Over dinner, one of my university colleagues said he would add credit and I could pay him back. I received a text later saying that 500 rupees had been added, followed by another text saying my credit was under 5 rupees and I could not make any calls or send texts. I gave up and went to bed. This morning, the credit had been activated. I felt newly empowered.