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 for.
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.