A fine story to tell my son some day. But first, we went out to Mayur Vihar Phase-1
Extension yesterday to look at the apartment. We liked it and decided to take it.
So today I went out there to investigate gyms. Before going I did some research
on-line and made a list of about five possible places. Having no access to a printer,
I couldn’t print the Google map, so I drew one of my own on a piece of notebook
paper, marking where the various gyms were. It was a fairly crude outline map of
the enclave and its surrounding area.
Due to delays on the metro it took me about two hours to get Mayur Vihar from Safdarjung,
where we were staying until we could move into the apartment. The first gym I went
to check out was called Riverside Club, which on-line gave the impression of being
an exclusive businessman’s club, but I figured it was worth a look. I hired a cycle
to ride me down there, about half a kilometer. A guard outside the fairly hideous
multi-story compound stopped me to enquire of my business. “The gym,” I said. “Gym
closed,” he replied. So I said, “office,” and I signed my name and time, etc. in
the ledger and made my way in, up a lift to the second floor, where a fat woman
in a crude concrete office scowled at me and directed me to a man in a cubicle behind
her. This man asked for my good name and bade me sit down. He asked what I wanted.
I asked about the gym. He confirmed that there was a gym on the premises. I asked
how one went about using it. “We never entertain guests,” he said. “You have to
be a member.” “How do I become a member?” I asked. “You cannot become a member,”
he replied. I stood up, thanked him, and promptly went on my way. None of this is
the story I want to tell, but it sets the scene and establishes the themes.
After a couple of aloo parathas and a chai in the shade of the trees beside the
market near the apartment complex we would soon be moving into, I set out to look
for the other gyms on my map. Heading up the street, I found myself in a throng
of school children in blue uniforms leaving school, hundreds of them, coming my
way down the street. It was a nice sight, confirming for me that this was a pleasant
neighborhood and that I had made the right choice choosing this apartment so far
from the expat enclaves of South Delhi. At the end of the block I reached the entrance
to the school compound out of which all the children were streaming. A tree-lined
road led off to the left. I asked a boy if this was Queen Mary School. He seemed
to say yes, but I couldn’t be sure. I was wearing my tan hiking pants, a light blue
T-shirt, my white tennis cap, and sandals. My brown bag was over my shoulder. These
details are perhaps relevant to the events about to unfold.
I walked a little way down the side of the street then noticed that there didn’t
seem to be any intersections so I turned around, intending to backtrack and try
a different route. Just then my mobile phone rang. I took it out of my bag and answered
it. As far as I could tell from the barely intelligible voice, it was someone responding
to one of the apartment queries I had posted on-line. I told him I had already found
a place and hung up. This seemingly chance occurrence is also not without signficance.
I started back the way I had come. I had my map out, trying to get my bearings.
The children were still all around me, exuberant to be out of school, curious about
the lost-looking foreigner in their midst. I noticed a man in a yellow shirt and
tan slacks, standing near a school bus, monitoring the children. He seemed to be
observing me intently. I approached him for directions. I showed him my map and
told him that I was looking for some gyms in the area, naming a few of them, but
he didn’t seem to know English. Nor did he seem very friendly. Something about the
map, about me, appeared to be troubling him. We went back and forth, me trying to
explain that I was looking for gyms, him seeming to question the validity of my
very existence. Seeing we were getting nowhere, I decided to forget it and head
on my way. But as soon as I moved to leave he reached out and grabbed the map. He
began tugging at it in the direction of the school. I tried to walk away but he
grabbed my wrist pretty hard and pulled me, moving toward the school. I was thinking,
maybe he’s just an irate guy, and he wants to take me in to someone who speaks English
and can help me out. So I gave up resistance, let go of the map, and followed him
back to the entrance of the school compound and into a building near the gate.
Upon entering the building, he handed the map to a man there, the principle perhaps,
and immediately began telling him in Hindi about me having this map. I was able
to make out that he was also telling him that I had been talking on my mobile phone.
Suddenly there were about twelve people around me, men and women alike, all of them
suspicious and a bit hostile. The principal, who spoke a certain amount of English,
asked me what I was doing with this map. I said, “I live here, in Kala Vihar apartments,”
and that I was looking for some gyms. I tried to point out the names of the gyms
I had written on the map: Extreme Fitness, Energie, Hercules, etc. I thought it
would easily be cleared up with someone who spoke English. But the mob that had
formed around me kept peppering me with the same questions. Who are you? What are
you doing here? Why do you have this map? Where have you come from? Where are you
staying? All my answers seemed to pass through their brains completely uncomprehended.
They were all speaking over each other now. The fact is, they weren’t interested
in the answers I was giving. They had already made up their minds. The man in the
yellow shirt had come in with a narrative that already contained the answers. His
story was that I had been out there drawing this map, using a mobile phone. He had
already tainted the jury.
I started getting frustrated, sensing that I had just been sucked into Kafkaland.
I was guilty. My mounting agitation only reinforced it. One man asked me my name,
and I told him. Sarcastically he said, “James Headley,” in reference to the American
terror accomplice David Headley, recently on the news on the eve of Obama’s visit,
scheduled for November 7th. I had to chuckle at that — the sheer absurdity of how
I was being viewed in their eyes, through the prism of terrorism. There were broader
reasons for this. The Commonwealth Games had just ended and Delhi had been in mass
paranoia security mode to insure that no terrorism marred them, a real enough threat.
Then, apparently, the previous week some guy had been picked up somewhere and turned
out to be an ISI spy. The papers were full of stuff surrounding Obama’s visit, including
heightened security at scores of markets nowhere near the venue. Then there was
the ever present threat of children getting kidnapped. Delhi in general is a security
permeated zone, with machine gun bunkers permanently positioned in the Metro stations,
screening of all bags, metal detectors, guards at every apartment building and well-to-do
home, guards in every shop in the mall, etc. All of this, and of course my foreignness,
stacked the cards against me. Apparently, it was inconceivable to them that I could
actually be a guy who had drawn a map of the area so he could find some gyms. In
their world that would never happen. People don’t draw maps in India. They ask rickshaw
wallahs where they are. One guy, who seemed to really be relishing his conviction
that I was a terrorist, accused me of being an engineer, a complimentary reference
to the precision of my drawing. A younger man, who knew good English, was given
a chance to ask me some questions. He seemed to believe me, but none of the others
did. Finally the principal decided to take me off to a higher authority. The young
guy told me just to comply, tell them my story, and I would be fine. So I was escorted
out the door, with a good number of the entourage in tow.
Just adjacent to the school was a wide security gate manned by two soldiers with
machine guns slung over their shoulders. The principal spoke to the soldier, and
the soldier opened the gate and escorted him to a nearby building inside the compound.
Meanwhile I waited outside the gate with some of the people from the school. While
I was waiting I had the presence of mind to call Vrinda Makvana, the lady who had
shown us the apartment the day before. Luckily I had put her number on my mobile
phone. I called her and said, “I’m in an interesting situation,” and explained what
was happening. I was then made to end my call as I was escorted into the compound.
I waited by one of the soldier’s checkpoints while the rest of the entourage went
in. I seemed to be on the edge of a very large sector of dirt, nothing built up
on it, stretching off into the visible distance. The only manmade structure, beside
the nearby building, was a huge satellite dish a hundred meters away. A military
jeep approached from within and was let out. The soldier checked my bag and gave
it back to me. I appreciated his apparent lack of interest.
In time I was escorted into the office of a plain clothes official who had already
been fed the narrative by the people from the school. I was relieved when I heard
good English coming from his mouth, thinking that this well-educated man would surely
see that it was all a ridiculous misunderstanding. But even before either of us
had taken a seat at his desk, he asked me, “Why do you have this map?” and without
waiting for an answer, he added, “this is very unusual.” So I told him. It was just
he and I now, maybe one of his own functionaries hovering in the background. He
started in with the questions. What was my full name? Why was I here? What country
was I from? Where was I staying? At that moment my mind went blank on Radiant Apartments
in Safdarjung, as I was nervous with adrenaline. Knowing this would be bad if I
couldn’t even remember where I was staying, I fiddled with the mobile phone and
asked for a second, as if I were occupied with something else, until it came to
me. Why was I in Mayur Vihar if I was staying in Safdarjung? I explained again that
I was on a reconnaisance mission looking for gyms. Even to me nothing I was saying
made much sense. My story was unbelievable. He asked for my I.D., my passport. I
didn’t have it on me. I never carry it, fearing the hassles that would ensue if
I lost it. I told him it was in the apartment in Safdarjung. He asked my profession.
Writer, I said. The most farfetched response yet. He was writing all my answers
down on the back of the map in red ink.
Now I let out some of my own annoyance, with quips like: “Is it illegal to have
a map in India?” At one point he said, “What would happen in your country if I was
seen with a map like this?” apparently believing that such paranoia was universal.
“Nothing,” I shot back. I was getting defensive, as I do, whenever I am questioned,
particularly by authority. “So I can’t draw a map,” I said. “What’s the difference
if I had just printed it out from Google?” He explained that he was just going off
what the people from the school had told him, that I was drawing this map outside
the school. “I wasn’t drawing it there,” I said, exasperated. “I made it before
I came.” Back and forth we went.
Finally I asked him if he would like to speak to my landlady. He assented. I dialed
Vrinda and handed the phone over to him. They talked for a while in Hindi. When
they were finished he said she was coming down there. I don’t recall what transpired
in the interim, but she only lived two minutes up the road. At some point, when
he told me he would have to confiscate the map, I told him I would just draw another
one and come back tomorrow.
Upon her arrival Vrinda and the official began to speak in Hindi. I could make out
the key points about Deana, my wife, having an appointment at Delhi University,
etc. As luck would have it, while they were speaking, Deana called to tell me she
was thinking of heading off with Marlowe to the textile exhibit at the Indira Gandhi
Centre. I made a humorous quip about presently being detained by intelligence services
over my hand-drawn map of Mayur Vihar, and that Vrinda was with me sorting it out.
At last I was allowed to leave. As we left the building, the agent shook hands with
the entourage from the school, thanking each of them for their good work. That disgusted
me a bit. All those guys were patting each other on the back, still convinced that
they had done their patriotic duty to protect the Motherland from suspicious foreigners,
rather than having forcibly detained a guy looking for a gym. No apologies to me
from anyone. I was still under suspicion.
Sure enough, while I was out with Vrinda’s driver (she had generously offered to
have him drive me around to the gyms I was seeking), she called and told me these
Intelligence people had called her and were pestering her for copies of my passport,
etc. She was now implicated in it. Her thoughts, naturally enough, turned to protecting
herself. She certainly didn’t want to be roped into some trouble with the Indian
security establishment. I’d be surprised if it didn’t cross her mind at least once
that maybe I actually was a terrorist. It certainly crossed my own mind. Then again,
I would have to have been a completely idiotic terrorist to be standing outside
an Indian Intelligence compound drawing a map. And how, physically, could I be drawing
an aerial view map of several kilometers radius from ground level?
But every cloud has a silver lining. I ended up finding my gyms much faster than
I would have had I not been detained, for the area I had drawn on the map was much
bigger than I had realized. I had never been anywhere near the gym I was looking
I felt a bit disheartened on my long Metro ride back to Safdarjung, standing nose
to nose amidst all the young Indian men in long-sleeve business shirts and slacks,
no familiar face around, feeling the alien, wishing for the comforts and familiarity
of home. Knowing as well that the feeling would pass. On balance, I think it was
mainly an unlikely confluence of circumstances, a misinterpretation of certain symbols:
foreigner, hand-drawn map, mobile phone, location, current events, that conspired
to trap me in a false narrative.
I found out later that the organization where I was interrogated was the Research
and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the Indian Intelligence Services. Wikipedia describes
it thus: “The primary mission of RAW includes aggressive intelligence collection
via espionage, psychological warfare, subversion and sabotage.” The entry stated
that they had intercepted mobile phone calls from the 26/11 terrorists enroute to
the Taj Hotel and had passed it on but it wasn’t acted on. I suppose they were determined
not to repeat the mistake.