Jonathan Spollen: lost in India


Did this young Irish journalist decide to retreat from the world, or has something more sinister happened since early February, when he told his mother he was going on a trek – and vanished?

Rishikesh, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas and coursed by the Ganges, can give the impression of a place out of time. In the hubbub of its streets, wide-eyed backpackers rub shoulders with ascetic holy men known as sadhus, their naked torsos and faces streaked with ash and red paint. In cafes and restaurants, the talk is of finding oneself or leaving an old life behind to begin anew.

It was here that Jonathan Spollen, a 28-year-old journalist from Dublin, arrived in January with plans to go trekking. He had left his job as a copy editor with the International Herald Tribune in Hong Kong last year and had also split from his girlfriend.

He told family and friends he wanted to spend time reflecting on the next chapter in a career that had taken him from the bustle of Cairo, where he had spent two years as a rookie reporter, to Abu Dhabi, where he had worked as assistant foreign editor at the National, an English-language daily newspaper launched in 2008, and then Hong Kong.

“He was at a juncture in his life,” says Spollen’s mother, Lynda, sitting in her living room in Clonskeagh, in Dublin, and sifting through snapshots of her son in the Middle East and Asia. “He had never taken that year out to travel, like many of his friends had. He went straight from college, at UCD, and then Soas” – the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London – “to work in Cairo, and from then on he had no break apart from a few weeks’ holiday here and there.

“He talked about how he was hitting 29 and felt it was the right moment to take some time out at his own pace. We even coined a word for it, whimming, in that he could decide he was going to change his mind on a whim.”

Before he left Hong Kong, Spollen arranged for his laptop and camera to be sent home. He travelled first to Nepal, where he was robbed in October, before flying from Kathmandu to Delhi in late November. He had a three-month Indian visa that was due to expire on February 21st. After spending time in the southern state of Kerala, he made his way to the sacred city of Varanasi, and from there north to Rishikesh.

In December Spollen had been diagnosed with kidney stones, but he did not tell his family. In mid-January he went on a two-week trek and returned to the town with a stomach bug and a slight limp he developed after a stumble on the trail.

LYNDA SPOLLEN last spoke to her son on February 3rd. She knew that he was to meet a friend in Delhi but that those plans had fallen through. “Jonathan decided that he didn’t want to spend his last weeks in India in smoggy Delhi when he could be out in nature. He called me early that morning to say he had changed his mind.”

He explained that he was about to set out on another trek, this time lasting two or three weeks. Mobile-phone coverage is poor in the densely forested areas he intended to travel in, but he promised he would send a text message whenever he could.

“I asked him if he was taking a guide, but he said he would do the trek alone. He was upbeat and told me not to worry. I said I would prefer if he had a guide, and he replied: ‘No, I want to do it on my own. It’s a spiritual thing.’ It was a throwaway comment, something he could have said to me if he was going to Glendalough. I certainly took it like that at the time.”

Since then, no one has heard from Jonathan Spollen. Every day his mother has raked that last conversation over in her mind, parsing it for any clues about what may have happened to him.

“The conversation was a straightforward one,” she says. “He planned to spend some time here at home in Dublin in March, so we were talking about creating a vegetable garden. It was like any other conversation we had ever had.”

In late February, Lynda and Spollen’s father, David Green, raised the alarm, contacting local authorities in India as well as the Irish Embassy. David, a Dublin-born teacher who now lives in New Zealand, spent several weeks in Rishikesh, co-ordinating with police and helping comb the surrounding area. He and other family members also organised a multilingual poster campaign that resulted in pictures of Jonathan’s bearded face being pinned on walls, noticeboards, buses and lamp posts across the region.

Then, on March 11th, came something of a breakthrough. Some of Spollen’s belongings, including a small backpack containing his passport, clothes and money, were found in a very secluded, almost inaccessible spot near a small waterfall about five kilometres from the popular Laxman Jhula district of Rishikesh. His sleeping bag and book were laid out neatly. Other documentation belonging to him, including medical forms, was discovered balled up about a kilometre away.

“You don’t get a sense from the place where his belongings were found, where he seemed to have been camping, that someone else had been there or had taken advantage of him,” says Green.

“I was very reassured when I saw it, because I felt then that he hadn’t come to any bad end. My hunches have changed on a daily basis because we’ve had to encounter so many different possibilities in the past couple of months. We can’t rule anything out, but we haven’t any evidence to suggest an assault or theft of any kind. Since he disappeared, no money has been taken from his account and his mobile phone has not been used.”

On February 27th, Green posted a message on IndiaMike, a web forum popular with travellers in India, appealing for information about his son. The thread on Jonathan’s disappearance had 120,000 hits in just over a month and has since grown to 92 pages containing almost 1,400 posts.

Some contributors offer assistance; others speculate about what might have happened. A common theory is that Spollen might have decided to embark on a spiritual quest that involved cutting almost all links with the outside world.

It’s an assumption some Indian authorities appear to share. A local newspaper said the case was “new proof of the phenomenon of individuals, mostly male, disappearing at the religious hotspots of India and from Laxman Jhula, even at the age of internet and the ubiquitous cell phone” and quoted a senior police officer who ascribed the trend to “renunciation fuelled by spiritual awakening”.

The district police chief, Neeru Garg, told The Irish Times she believes Spollen is alive and may be at one of the region’s numerous ashrams. “We are searching scores of ashrams in Rishikesh and also co-ordinating with police from the neighbouring district of Haridwar to expand our reach to ashrams there too,” she says. “He may have wanted to ‘disappear’, and to do so in the ashrams is easy.”

On the IndiaMike forum, a friend from Spollen’s university days writes of his “strong interest” in spirituality. “During the years we were close [it was] mostly Islamic/Jewish/ Christian, but it wouldn’t have surprised me a bit to learn that he had decided to live in an ashram for a period of time.”

Several contributors note other elements of Spollen’s story that appear to chime with this. It was not his first trip to India. He had met Prahlad Jani, an octogenarian yogi who claims he has not had any food or drink for more than 70 years, on a previous visit. Among the belongings found in March were a copy of the New Testament, some photocopied texts on spirituality, and Shantaram, a bestselling novel of reinvention and redemption set in India that has become as much a part of the backpacker experience there as the ubiquitous banana pancake.

“There is some evidence to suggest Jonathan was interested in a spiritual pathway,” says his father. “My trip to India shed a completely light on him for me. I have, at times, thought I was looking at somebody completely different to the son that I knew . . . To suddenly discover that there may be a whole spiritual aspect to his life that we hadn’t really touched on is astonishing.”

AN UPDATE FROM Spollen’s parents on the IndiaMike forum gives details about what they believe may be the last confirmed sighting. A woman named Lauren reported meeting him in the German bakery in Rishikesh around mid-February, two weeks after the phone call with his mother.

“They talked about the book, Shantaram, which they were both reading, and went on to discuss how the media (negatively?) affects society. He told her he was a writer and that he was coming from somewhere he didn’t like.”

Dermot Sheehan, from Dublin, and his friend Stefan Matthia, from Cashel in Co Tipperary, met Spollen in a Rishikesh cafe on February 1st. He introduced himself after hearing their Irish accents.

“We spoke for hours about travelling, family, work and football. My impression was of a guy who was on the ball,” says Sheehan. “Of course we discussed the whole spiritual thing – Rishikesh is like a spiritual supermarket – but Jonathan had been there for a month and he hadn’t bought anything in that sense. He asked me about my experience with meditation. He said meditation was always on his to-do list but he just wasn’t too sure how to find the right place.

“He was very interested in vipassana, which is a gruelling 10-day programme where you spend 10 days in silence, with 10 hours of meditation per day. I told him not to do it [in India]; it was too tough; he would be better off doing it in some retreat house in Cavan.”

Sheehan is not convinced by the hypothesis that Spollen’s disappearance is related to some sort of spiritual journey. “I didn’t get that impression from him. He talked of going on a trek and then on to Delhi,” he says. “I just find it hard to believe the man I met would go wandering off with sadhus. Of course it’s possible because it’s India.”

Others share his scepticism: “I think we are maybe getting too bogged down into this “spiritual walkabout” angle,” says one contributor on IndiaMike. “Where’s the evidence? You can’t just whisk away every disappearance there with ‘Oh, they’ve gone spiritual.’ ”

Another writes: “Most of us expecting him to be singing bhajans [devotional songs] and fasting in a cave or ashram . . . are ignoring the fact he might be lying in a jungle track ill and in pain . . . We are forgetting he could be in a villager’s house waiting to get medical treatment as he fails to communicate with the locals about his ailment . . . he might have had a fall and fractured his limb.”

Lynda Spollen says it just doesn’t add up. “Part of me would really love to believe that, yes, he went off and is happily living somewhere with a baba [sadhu], but it doesn’t sit right. It’s not Jonathan, insofar as I know he wouldn’t do it without telling me. It would be so out of character for him.”

The family fear that focusing so much on this possible explanation for Spollen’s disappearance could undermine the urgency of continuing the search for him, which they have now extended to hospitals, prisons and mental institutions in the region.

“A lot of Indian people and quite a few Europeans have said: ‘Well, he’s just gone off on his spiritual path and he will come back to you when he is ready,’ ” says Green. “It’s a very convenient way of feeling reassured about the situation, but the fact is if we take that line we may be waiting for the rest of our lives for some outcome.”

- Additional reporting by Rahul Bedi

Jonathan's diary: 'A taste for the simple life'

Jonathan Spollen maintained a personal website to showcase his journalism and photography. It features articles he had published in the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Guardian, the National in Abu Dhabi, the New Statesman and The Irish Times.

Among the most recent pieces of work is a two-part travel series from Kashmir published in the National in April 2010.

Some contributors to the IndiaMike web forum believe the Kashmir articles might suggest he was questioning the life he was leading at the time. The first article, which is headlined “Warm memories of Kashmiri hearths”, details his stay with a local family after his plans to go trekking had been scuppered by snow.

He noted that the family did not have a television. “Instead of staring at a screen, people spent their evenings like they spent their days, talking, playing cards, watching the children, drinking tea.

“As the hours passed in this way, the simplest things became fascinating: the grandmother making bread; the children wrestling on the carpet . . . I found myself becoming enthralled in their lives. And strangely, I felt part of it all.”

In the second article, which ran under the headline “A taste for the simple life in cosy Kashmir”, Spollen writes that life in the village of Narang “generally seemed pretty good” and says he admires the way children are reared there: “They seem to be taught from an early age an appreciation for what they have.” He talks of liking more and more the absence of television. “I wondered, perhaps with unintended arrogance, whether people here would be better off staying without it. Naranagians seemed to have everything they needed right there in their village, far away from the city, but the galaxy of alternative lives flashing out from the TV – faraway countries, city life, celebrities, excitement – would surely generate frustration and discontent, especially among the younger generation.”

He recounts “an awkward moment” when his host was looking through the photos on his camera. “He came to shots from the glitzy opening night party of the Middle East International Film Festival . . . and another set of myself and my girlfriend, all dressed up at a fancy restaurant in Lebanon. There was no point trying to explain to him that this was not an accurate depiction of my life, that I’m not a jetsetter and these were rare, special occasions. The impression was made.”

The tone of the article becomes more wistful when he writes how his guides, both city dwellers, bemoan the problems of village life.

“It didn’t seem to me that, on the whole, there were so many problems,” he writes. “A sustainable, healthy way of life, in beautiful, clean environs. I knew I was idealising – romanticising – life in Naranag, but the real benefits of living there were too great and too many to ignore.

“The whole experience, in fact, was as confounding to my world view as it was enjoyable, producing in me each day a lovely sort of confusion.”