The original plan was to hike for three weeks along the India-China-Nepal border. Two former professional associates – Indian Special Forces officers – had agreed to take me. Technical climbing has never interested me, but I have been a lifelong hiker, going on weeks-long hikes over the years in the Alps, the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains in Alaska, the Pyrenees, the Cascades, the Rockies, the Burundi Highlands, the Southern Alps of New Zealand, the White Mountains north of my home… I had also arranged with yet another former Indian Special Forces officer friend to have a few speaking engagements in India prior to my “trekking,” as Indians refer to hiking. He is well plugged into the Indian power structure.
For months I poo-pooed my wife’s completely sensible admonitions that I was, well, old, overweight, out of shape, had had a heart attack, and always have felt the altitude from about 8,000 feet and above. “The clock is ticking for us all” was my mantra response, and “it ticks faster at 66” than it had in years past; so, no caviling. Off I would go.
An Unexpected Royal Welcome
I arrived in Mumbai during the last rainfall of the monsoon, driving through crashing rain and whipping windshield wipers in the dead of night and checked in to the Taj Mahal Palace, across a plaza from the Gateway of India, where Gandhi had returned to India from South Africa in 1915, and where the last British troops embarked to depart India after over 200 years’ presence and the Raj. A beautiful peacock made of lotus flowers greeted me in the hotel lobby. I had one day to acclimate myself and to walk around downtown Mumbai, where I passed an Indian Naval base and saw such signs as, “If you carry a weapon or linger, we may shoot you,” and “Do NOT spit here. Or there.”
And here things went…astray.
I received a call in my room the day after my arrival. “Mr. Glenn, welcome to India. No longer worry about your hotels. We have taken care of your stay. Your car is waiting downstairs.” What car? I wondered. Who had taken care of my hotel? Began three weeks in which I had been provided with a car, a driver (just about indispensable in India,) and two…er…guides, hand-holders, facilitators, minders, guards.
Travels Through North India
For the first time of many I asked myself, and even would expostulate to anyone I happened to be with at a given moment, What the hell is going on? Who are these people? I didn’t know and didn’t really find out until after perhaps a week or ten days of being shepherded from one VIP meeting to another across the country – in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Mussoorie… “They are close to the prime minister,” is what I was told, somewhat furtively, whenever I could reach my former Special Forces friend or get something out of anyone. “They are taking care of you. You are important,” he told me.
People posed for photographs with me. “Why?” I would ask. “Who do they think I am? I’m not anybody anymore.” “Oh, Mr. Glenn,” would come the reply, “but yes.” Mr. Glenn is so modest! Ho ho ho! At one point my driver dared to speak with me: “You,” he said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “Good looking.” I laughed and shook my head. “Me?” “Yes,” he nodded his head. “No,” I scoffed. “I am old and fat.” He looked in the mirror again. “Yes.”
My time became a whirlwind of engagements I had planned, such as speaking to the Indian Ministry of Defense’s strategic planning office (“China will be fine,” was their basic view; “China will continue to grow in power but has growing problems,” was my basic presentation,) or to an audience in IIT Gandhinagar in Gujarat (I spoke on India as a driver of global economic growth)…and a series of meetings I had not planned and did not know would happen – “Come. In car. Sit. We go now. Important. Yes,” (my minders’ English was approximate. “And your Hindi is non-existent,” my wife would archly rejoin when I told her the tale, lest a hint of the Raj inhabit my perspective) – meetings with chief strategists for the prime minister’s party, or with senior Islamic figures, or with the foreign ministry – What is going on? I kept asking.
At one point I had a meeting arranged with the leader of the Islamic Deobandi movement, something that no one in the CIA could ever arrange. It was like meeting with the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khameini. He canceled on me only a few hours before the meeting. “He thinks you are going to assassinate him,” my Special Forces friend told me. “He is afraid of the repercussions of meeting with a bogeyman CIA guy, that’s what he is afraid of,” I replied.
The next morning I was having tea with some journalists and government officials in a five-star hotel’s beautiful, arcaded café. “And so,” the journalist told me, “the Indian commander of India’s UN ‘peacekeepers’ never received any constructive guidance from the UN in Geneva. The situation was unsustainable. And so the government told him, ‘Act. Use ‘Indian rules of engagement.’ He used our Gurkhas that night – No guns. Just knives. No noise. Killed thousands of ‘rebels,’ in silence. No more troubles. Never made the media…”
What Lies Behind India’s Bold Bet on Kashmir?
I was digesting this little bit of – news?, bravado? – when someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” a man said, standing behind me, hands clasped, bending slightly. “Are you Mr. Glenn?” Who the hell knows me here? I wondered. This was a bit ridiculous. But they did. “We saw you on television.” That was possible (but still surprising,) as I do a bunch of commentating on foreign affairs for Indian and other non-American networks. “I am the hotel manager. My card.” He inclined his head. “Please allow me to give you a personal tour…” I gazed at him, and blinked once. Around we went. “And here is where Hillary dined.” Murals of the Hindu goddess Rati – the goddess of carnal desire – overlooked the table. He looked at me, “Perhaps soon you will dine here, too, with your wife?” I spent weeks feeling that somehow, I was benefitting from a case of mistaken identity.
I kept telling my minders that I was there to go hiking and had it all arranged. “Yes, yes. Trekking! Ha ha! We go, yes!” was the invariable response. And then they would drive me off to another meeting, or to a Hindu religious ceremony where, literally, I was one of (as far as I could see) two Westerners among one hundred thousand happy celebrants of, as best I could ascertain, the Yajna – the Hindu Fire Ceremony. Fire staves circled around all sides of my head as I sat on the banks of the Ganges, thousands upon thousands of arms and voices raised up as far as I could see or hear, chanting the oneness of the five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and space – and lotus leaves filled with flowers and fire swirled past me, flickering lights on the dark waters.
Later, my minder burst into the cell in the ashram they had put me in and said, “Come. Important. Must go now. Meet Swami.” A couple of days before I had hazarded that “I don’t think an ashram is really for me.” So, they put me in the prime minister’s ashram, of course. I could not refuse without creating…disharmony.
“What? Meet what swami?”
“Swami G.” He looked at me with a hint of contempt; how crude! “You must come now. A great honor.”
Oh, well, then; Swami G… Of course. It was a formal, highly protocol-driven affair, with small talk and official photographers. The business-suited majordomo silently pointed me to a small oriental visitor’s sitting mat, adjacent to the Swami’s larger alpha rug, and then receded into the shadows on the side of the audience chamber… Jesus Christ, I thought as I sat down cross-legged, trying not to fidget despite the ache in my bum hip (“Yeah,” said my doctor, “hockey player”), what the hell is going on? At which point the thought crossed my mind that expostulating “Jesus Christ!” and “What the hell?” created the wrong karma vibe. Swami “G” floated in, a small procession of factotums settling in the shadows behind. We rose in quiet deference. He sat and so did we.
The Mountains Prove Far Away
There was a moment of supposed repose, then he slowly turned his head towards me. “You will, of course, wish to attend our ceremony tomorrow evening.” He modulated his voice so that I had to lean towards him to discern his wisdom. “I’m afraid I will be leaving early in the morning to go trekking,” I said, hope triumphing over expectation. Swami G looked at me beatifically. “Yes, I am sure. But I believe you will wish to delay your departure.” The briefest pause. “Our ceremony is really quite special.” He gazed at me from his effortless lotus pose, hands on knees. “I do not doubt you will attend.” Of course I could not escape, lest I create disharmony, with the superiors of my minders, at the least. The photographer emerged and posed us this way and that as we namasted one another.
After this excruciating session, I was making my way back to my ashram cell, when my minder of course blocked me in the hallway: “Come. Now. Follow. We eat.” Well, okay, I thought, that can’t be so bad. Ashrams have communal cafeteria dining and I could at last relax and figure a few things out. But he took me through wending corridors to a small private dining room where I dined with…the ex-foreign minister of an Asian country. The minister and I sat in awkward silence for perhaps a minute, concentrating on the lentil paste on our aluminum trays, until I introduced myself. We spoke, astoundingly, of mutual friends, our eyebrows respectively raised that in an ashram’s private dining room in Rishikesh, India we had discovered that our lives had intertwined unseen and unknown over the decades.
I had long since concluded that there was no escape and after the private dinner with the ex-foreign minister I jotted a note to myself, “Go with flow, what a hoot vs dammitall!” “Rishikesh, the yoga’s Mecca” an American Hindu monk in saffron had told me over yogurt the previous morning.
The following morning I once again enjoined my minder, “The trek?” He looked at me and smiled. “Get in car. Yes, yes. Trek, trek! Ha ha ha! Trek! We go now!” And he had me driven off to other non-trek events, adventures, meetings. We rafted down the Ganges, the smoke from burning corpses rising on both riverbanks and sometimes enveloping us. Mourners before the pyres slowly poured libations of their incinerated loved ones’ ashes mixed with cow’s milk into the river as we passed mid-river. The water was a fathomless vortex of grays and browns.
My raftmates were all giddy and jumped overboard for a swim. “You jump. You swim, yes?” my minder urged. “I am not swimming in that,” I replied to the prolonged dismay of my raftmates, Indians all. “But, here” I said, to recover the moment, “I’ll teach you how to sing ‘Dip, Dip, and Swing,’ an old American Indian canoeing song,” (well, close enough, I thought,) that I had learned in 1965 as a boy in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We erratically paddled down the Ganges shouting-singing in dissonant enthusiasm, “DIP, dip and swing and BACK! Flash-ing like SIL-VER! Faster than the WILD GOOSE flight. DIP, dip, and swing!” I became quite popular on the raft.
The “trek” lay somewhere far above, in the far-distant and unseen peaks where only, it seems, swamis sometimes tread.
I never met up with my two former Indian Special Forces officers. They awaited me in the foothills of the Himalayas, wondering, I learned, what had become of their American trekking partner? I never saw, I literally never saw, the Himalayas.
The Hindu Universe
It became clear, and I learned eventually, that some elements close to the government had decided (erroneously, I kept saying) that I was a VIP, and wanted me to leave with a good impression – “You will write of India, perhaps. Whatever you feel. The New York Times and The Washington Post do not understand India as I am sure you do…” and that to them I was too old and too out of shape (not true!) to risk allowing me to wander around the Himalayas “trekking.” If I stumbled or had a problem, my minders would have been in trouble.
But in India, in the Hindu universe, time circles upon itself, there is no simply linear progress, our avatars live variations of our lives sometimes in sight of our own and it is unclear ever “what is going on?”, for we should know from my heroine, Michelle Yeo, that everything happens everywhere all at once, and meaning is multiple and disjointed even as it is profound and important. The Himalayas were all around me even when they were beyond my reach, my body-guard minders with broken English were perhaps my gurus if I had the wisdom to see them properly, to find serendipity in chaos and meaning in absurdity, and all my meetings were important even when I did not know they would happen or even who I was meeting or why, or even if they were preposterous, or even if they never happened.
And I was important and influential and insignificant, of course I was, and like the lotus leaves carrying flowers and flames down the Ganges during the yajna, I swirled and turned and glowed and sputtered and was lost in the flow of confusing days, a kaleidoscope of broken but glittering images before my eyes, disjointed and of shapes I could not make out, all full of meaning and nothingness, if only I could see, at least full of meaning in this particular reality, so long as it, so long as I, exist. A hike, a trek, might not ever reach the hills, and what is a trail, anyway?
Such have been the past five years. Such have been the past forty-five. Trekking, yes! Ha ha!
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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