Last week, while enjoying a pleasant Sunday afternoon, I unknowingly threatened India’s military security and set off an international incident. As a result of this offense, I was detained and held against my will at an Indian Air Force base. How did this happen? Did I sell nuclear secrets to Pakistan? Did I orchestrate an attack on a major metropolitan area? Did I somehow exaggerate the turbulence in Kashmir? No, it was none of those things. My crime was a five-minute bike ride through what happened to be a restricted area.
It started with a simple trip to the bike shop. My tire had gone flat twice in two days, and I was wondering whether I needed to get it replaced. The man at the shop told me it was fine, so I decided to take a quick ride around the neighborhood and make the most of my mobility. It felt good just to be alive and outside in the Indian air. I passed boys playing cricket in sandy lots, stray dogs poking through garbage, and cows lazily settled in the middle of the road.
When I found myself on new terrain, I decided to explore a bit and take an alternate route home. I knew I was near Golf Course Ground, which isn’t a golf course so much as a somewhat clear stretch of desert where country club members supposedly play golf. I can’t imagine how they manage to finish a round. The entire thing is a sand trap.
Beyond the golf course, I took a right and passed through a gate labeled “Air Force.” Now might be a good time to mention some essential details in this story:
- Jodhpur has a neighborhood called Air Force Area that’s near the Air Force Base and entirely accessible to the public.
- Many neighborhoods in Jodhpur have large decorative gates that do not serve any security-related purpose.
- The area I was entering was not Air Force Area. It was the residential area of the Air Force Base. Apparently, there’s a huge difference.
- The gate I went through definitely served a security-related purpose (but didn’t do too great a job at it).
For a few minutes, I enjoyed a quiet bike ride through the area inside the gate, which looked more or less like the area outside the gate. It had schools, shops, and not a single person in uniform. Then I reached another gate, and this one was closed. A few men on motorcycles were waiting there, so I asked one of them when the gate would open. He seemed both surprised and amused to see me.
“Where have you come from?” he asked.
“I came from High Court Colony.”
“And before that? From which country have you come to India?”
“From America. USA.”
“So what are you doing in this area?”
“I’m riding my cycle.”
“And why have you ridden your cycle here?”
“Because it looked like a nice place.”
“A nice place… How did you get in?”
“Through the main gate back there.”
He was getting agitated, and I started to figure out that something was wrong, but I didn’t yet realize that I had become an international terrorist.
The man directed me to two armed guards, the first people in uniform I’d seen all day. I asked them how to get to MBM College, a nearby landmark. Instead of answering, they began to argue with each other in Hindi, angrily.
At that point, I decided to get out of there. I headed towards the gate, but the man on the motorcycle called me back.
“You have entered into a restricted area,” he said. “You should cooperate with us.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know it was restricted. Can I just leave?”
“No, it is best if you cooperate with us.”
I decided to cooperate. Not because of the man on the motorcycle but because of the guards, or more specifically, because of the rifles the guards carried on their shoulders. It’s never a good idea to disobey people who can shoot you and call it national defense.
I had no idea that the process of cooperation would last for the next three hours. The first step in cooperating involved leaving behind my bike and getting into a jeep with the guards. They took me back to the gate, where more guards came out. When these guards saw me, their eyes opened wide and their mouths hung slightly agape. An expression that in all cultures means “Damn, someone really messed up.”
After waiting there for a while, I was taken to another office to meet with the security officer. I didn’t go into the office, though. I had to sit outside under a tree, because they didn’t want me to see any top-secret military business.
The security officer was a small, thin-mustached man in a wide-brimmed baseball cap and a blue jumpsuit. He looked more like a high school gym teacher than a disciplined military leader. Before I could go, he told me, I would need to call one of my co-workers. So I did. I dialed the number, cheerfully greeted my co-worker, and then handed over the phone. It wasn’t until after the security officer hung up that he said my co-worker needed to come in person.
My ring of accomplices had grown. Now my co-workers were in on the act, potentially covering up my treachery and espionage. In order to accept my identity as a hapless bicyclist, the security officer needed face-to-face contact with my associates and official documentation. As I waited in the shade for my co-worker, various air force officials asked for my residential address, my work address, and my phone number. I must have been asked at least ten times. Eventually, I just pointed to the notepad where the previous official had written down the information.
When a car finally arrived, it was not the co-worker I had called but one of the founders of the organization. I was mortified. Obviously, word of my troubles had spread to multiple people at my office, and they had to decide who would come and retrieve me. Now I know what it feels like to get bailed out of prison.
The security officer asked the founder to complete some paperwork. She had to write a report and show some documents verifying that GRAVIS was a real organization. Another officer wrote a statement in English for me to sign. I have no idea why I couldn’t have prepared my own statement in the hours I spent waiting. Eager to finally leave, I signed the statement without much complaint. I’ll admit that my supposed testimony wasn’t entirely true.
For instance, it said that I was “caught” by the guards. That’s definitely not the right word. It suggests that I was somehow trying to evade detection and that the guards were somehow competent. A better term would be “serendipitously encountered.”
The most irritating part of the statement was a single sentence: “I am not very much familiar with the ways of Jodhpur.” In fact, I have very good sense of direction and a decent knowledge of Jodhpur’s streets. When I checked my route on Google Maps several days later, I found that I had been going in exactly the right direction. I just didn’t know it was a restricted zone. A more accurate statement would be “I am not very much familiar with which ways of Jodhpur go through arbitrary and poorly guarded air force residential areas.”
Eventually, the security officer accepted that I was not actually a terrorist and allowed me to leave, warning me to be more careful. After graciously thanking the founder of my organization several times, I headed home.
As I rode my bike out of the air force compound, I felt it sink slightly beneath me. The back tire, my initial reason for setting out, had gone flat again. I only needed to cover a short distance, and I really wanted to get out of there, so I kept going. The ride was bumpy and slow, but I made it back. Deflated in air and in spirit, I was, nonetheless, a free man.