India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) is in the news again, not because of an ex-spy having been released by our not-so-friendly neighbour, but because of a work of fiction penned by a former R&AW officer, Amar Bhushan. Escape to Nowhere, the patchily written novel is based on the real-life incident of a long drawn out counter-intelligence operation to nab Rabinder Singh, a CIA mole in the R&AW, who escaped to the US in 2004. More than a thriller, the novel is tragedy: a mole discovered by R&AW, and they couldn’t nab him after almost hundred days of tailing him.
The author, who retired from service in 2005, a few months after the failed counter-intelligence operation, which he headed, had stayed silent all these years. Now he has come up with a work of fiction that leaves nothing to the imagination, as it is clearly about Major Rabinder Singh who comes across as a pathetic, slimy creature betraying the country, one photocopy at a time. Why did Bhushan feel the need to speak up now after all these years? In his own words, another officer faulted his judgement and felt that instead of apprehending Rabinder Singh, it would have been better to counsel him. To Bhushan it seemed that the officer was suggesting “subversion of officers would be tolerated and contained as a matter of policy, while a country’s secrets made their way to unauthorized hands.”
Escape to Nowhere therefore is a detailed step-by-step disclosure of the counter-intelligence measures undertaken to bring in a rogue spy, one who comes across as a smooth talking weasel. Like the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot, other characters come and go, apparently not doing much other than drinking endless cups of tea and lime juice, and gossiping. This is one spy novel where the only racy stuff is the cache of pornographic material found during a surprise check of bags conducted on the staff. I can well imagine IAS and IFS officers sniggering while reading this. Would they laugh just as hard if similar checks are carried out in embassies and ministries?
The spy catchers and spies of the R&AW in the novel appear amateurish and somewhat boring. To those of us brought up on a diet of post-Cold War spy thrillers penned by Forsyth, Ludlum, Baldacci, Vince Flynn, Tom Clancy, Jack Higgins and Daniel Silva, it is frustrating to read that our spies could be bogged by stodgy rules. The characters here fumble with the most basic of equipment, make obvious mistakes, and sound sarkari and dreary. There are neither any car chases nor fisticuffs, not even verbal duels. Bhushan, it seems, deliberately did not sex up his novel. He probably wanted to stay as close to facts as possible, without violating the Official Secrets Act.
We all know that R&AW doesn’t possess swashbuckling officers who look like Salman Khan. And now the novel tells us that they are ordinary men (and hopefully women too, though there is mention of only one woman officer in the novel) who have backaches, nagging wives, no retirement plans, boring paper work, dull meetings, sleep disorders and bitchy colleagues.
Many former spies have chronicled their lives, which are far from the glamorous depiction in novels and films. Their work is mostly monotonous, and largely unappreciated. They trust with difficulty, sometimes not even their own family, induce betrayals, bribe and tempt people from other countries to commit treason but are fiercely patriotic.
No film or novel has come as close to the truth about life of an R&AW officer as Escape to Nowhere and even here, one only gets but a glimpse. Though this is officially a work of fiction, some of the frustrations seem too close to reality: the intra-service rivalry, lack of discipline, inability to develop a service culture of its own, as compared to the Intelligence Bureau, which has both political backing as well as a definite structure.
R&AW officers are not given to talking or writing about themselves and their lives. Anonymity is their armour. In any social gathering, an R&AW officer will be the silent one, listening rather than talking. They stay clear of journalists, only developing sources, which means they interact either to plant stories or to garner information. Even negative stories against R&AW are usually met with a “no comment” response. In the cloak and dagger world of intelligence and counter-intelligence, Bhushan has shelved that anonymity forever.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash