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Master spy extraordinaire

The Indian Spy, Mihir Bose, Aleph Book Company; Rs. 599, Pages 350

This is a remarkable tale of a remarkable man who went by several names, was trained in espionage by the brother of the celebrated writer Ian Fleming and who undertook, among other things, the safekeeping and travels of Subhas Chandra Bose as a fugitive.

The life of Bhagat Ram Talwar, alias Silver was formed and sculpted by extraordinary macro-political events that the second Great War and the new balance of power accompanying the rise of the Axis powers and of the Soviet Union came to embody. The Indian Spy: The True Story of the Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II is as much the wondrous tale of an unlikely master spy as it is of the turbulent events of the 1940s associated with wartime diplomacy, socialist and nationalist aspirations that made possible a convoluted network of espionage, gun running and information gathering.

It is to the author’s credit that he has mined a rich volume of archival material to tell a compelling story that isn’t simply gripping, but presents aspects of the history of the war that have remained obscure. Its only drawback is that it is overwritten and dense, a quality that occasionally makes it impossible for the reader to quite tether Silver the spy in his/her impressions.

It would be unfair to give away the results of Silver’s espionage — how he double and triple crossed everyone who came his way, or how he was able to extract substantial sums of money from the Germans whose espionage seems to have been strangely incompetent and inefficient. What this review will do therefore is to highlight the extraordinary milieu that unfolded in the period when a phenomenon like Silver became possible, to reflect on the various points that connected Afghanistan with India and how wartime diplomacy of the European powers intersected with the aspirations of Indian socialist revolutionary groups, thus setting the stage for figures like Silver to offer a range of services.

The exploits of Bhagat Ram Talwar, spy extraordinaire, are set in the backdrop of the 1940s, when European powers Italy, Germany, England and Russia competed to extract strategic information and relied on a network of spies and transport contractors in Afghanistan. Silver (aka Talwar) and Rahmat Khan arrived on the scene escorting Bose, the fugitive revolutionary whom he accompanied on a perilous march across Afghanistan wanting to make his way to Berlin.

This book charts the early life of Talwar, his family background, the story of his siblings and his extraordinary skills and confidence that enabled him to excel in what was an unconventional career choice. What stands out in the early sections of the book is the story of Hindu Pathan landlords, the influence and appeal of organisations such as the Kirti party, the adroitness of Talwar in working as small-time informer and then as a confident spy, and his first major operation of escorting Bose after the latter’s clandestine exit from Calcutta.

Thereafter, he became a quadruple agent in the Kabul intelligence game, his actions resisting any easy analysis for the future historian. Equally ingenious were Silver’s lies that became evident after the great game was over and he constructed a carefully worded book that sought to reclaim his prestige and to keep intact the waning prestige of the Communist party and its paltry contribution to the independence effort.

The epilogue to the book documents the afterlife not so much of Silver’s as of his narratives, and makes for good reading and serves as a useful basis for thinking about memory, veracity and history.

Trawling through the secret documents of the British government, the author has produced an important biography of an engaging spy and in the process, unearthed a complex history of the Great War and its fallout on national and transnational networks of espionage and circulation. It was in the cracks of these transnational networks that men like Bhagat Ram Talwar found their occupation, and it was their unusual felicity with language and social communications that made them masters of their craft.

The book is an excellent illustration of what historians call connected or integrated histories built around the theme of espionage and networks of sophisticated intelligence organisations. It offers an entirely unexpected set of insights on the Great War and its local ramifications in a surprising location such as Afghanistan that drew in European powers which despite their arrogance and authority, were often outmanoeuvred by local men such as Talwar.

Lakshmi subramanian

(The Book Review, December 2017)


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