The plasticky feel of the file feels weird. The tie chokes my unspoken words. Sweat pours down my temples and the stiff collar of my shirt happily absorbs the marching drops. My boss, head of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), R.N. Kao, cool as a cucumber, glances at me as we stand in the corridor outside the Prime Minister’s office.
“You can face the enemy guns, but fret to meet the PM!” he smirks.
“Sir, it’s Morarji Desai! His belligerence towards RAW is legendary, and what with the 40% budgetary cuts, we’re asking him to go against the very grain of his Gandhian nature,” I splutter, fidgeting with the accursed tie.
“Arrey, the safety of our motherland trumps every slight, every hatred, son. India’s secured borders are way higher than any personal grudges. I’m confident he’ll say yes to our mission.”
Desai, dressed in a starched white kurta, leans against the hardback chair as Kao sir explains the situation and seeks permission to initiate the bombing of the said premises. His serene expression doesn’t change even when he opens his eyes and says, “No,” in the softest of voices, interrupting sir’s speech.
Mr. Kao tilts his head, quizzical, “No, sir?”
“We’re not bombing Pakistan. With or without Israel’s help. So, yes, it’s a no,” is his firm response.
His entire face morphs into a no, reminding me of the painting The Scream. That barely whispered ‘No’ grows in a crescendo until it’s all I can hear. Every breath, every pulse, every heartbeat yells ‘No!’ and like a snake, it coils around my neck. This time around, the voice screaming ‘No!’ is louder. Hoarser.
I wake up with a start, drenched in sweat. I realise I’m the one screaming. My granddaughter, Laxmi, rushes in. “All okay, nanu?” Her lilting voice soothes my frayed nerves as I desperately seek the breath my body needs.
Tired, I nod.
“Same nightmare, haan? They’re getting worse. Let me give you a sedative, it will help you sleep.”
How do I tell her that the upcoming anniversary may have exacerbated the nightmares, but they’re never far from my waking thoughts? I give in to the blackness.
The next morning, my hands tremble as I raise the cup to my lips. The coffee is scalding hot just as I like it, but isn’t enough. I blow over the cup’s rim and the coffee ripples. I watch the steam trail into nothingness and wish my memories would also slip into nothingness. But the nature of the job, I am— was — doesn’t permit one to forget easily. If at all.
I had once read a quote where the words leapt across and slapped me on my sunken, unshaven cheeks. The problem with surviving was that you ended up with the ghosts of everyone you’d ever left behind, riding on your shoulders.
The trouble with survivor’s guilt is — every breath you take in, treacherously reminds you that you’re still breathing while your mates are long gone, probably tortured before they succumbed to their injuries. Or worse.
I shuffle on the bed, adjusting the dastardly diaper. Flipping my trusty notebook open, I chronicle the events as I remember them. Writing today’s date, 29th February 2004, I smirk at my seventy years around the sun and still alive to tell the tale despite the all-consuming colon cancer.
Then my pen runs over the pages as if chasing the tails of the past. The past…
Kahuta. A small, sleepy town in Rawalpindi. Where the team of undercover RAW agents had been grappling with failure as each passing day held its pompous victory over our collective heads. As VP of RAW, my fieldwork days were over, but this operation was sensitive enough for me to rope in my best guys and lead from the front. Into the enemies’ territories and extract information that was so elusive that it felt like a pipe dream — searching for Pakistan’s nuclear laboratory. A Schrodinger’s workshop.
The worn-down jute blinds couldn’t stop the blinding sun from turning the tiny barbershop into a smouldering kiln as we sat slumped, fanning ourselves with frantic movements.
“Janab, we should close the shop early today, I don’t think anyone will be foolish enough to step out of their houses to get a haircut,” moaned the helper boy, Wasim.
“As-Salam-Alaikum,” boomed a voice as a man entered our shop. It was him.
“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam!” chorused Wasim and I. Wasim jumped to his feet. Using the chequered cloth from his shoulders, he cleaned the seat before beckoning the man to sit.
I brushed my hands on my pyjama and muttered, “The usual, janab?”
The man nodded. Wasim busied himself in tying a green cape around his shoulders and I fetched the scissors.
“Aman janab, should I get tea for you?” asked Wasim.
Aman shook his head. “It’s too hot for tea, Wasim. I’d like buttermilk.”
At my nod, Wasim rushed out to the neighbouring shop, leaving me alone with my quarry.
How do I broach the nuclear topic? HOW? How?
“You seem quieter than usual,” Aman commented, meeting my eyes in the smudged mirror.
I grunted; my hands expertly moving over Aman’s head. One swipe and he is dead. But dead men don’t spill secrets. My fingers gripped the scissors till my knuckles turned white.
If I don’t get any information, there’ll be a delay of another month till he comes for his next haircut. Think, you, imbecile.
“Sab khairiyat?” Aman, garrulous as always, tried again.
“All good, janab. It’s too hot for conversation.”
Laughter escaped Aman’s lips, and I waited for him to stop shaking before resuming. “By that standard, it’s always hot as hell in your world, going by your talking rate! Aren’t barbers supposed to be talkative?”
Well, not if they’ve been tracking your movements for the last two months and failing to get an iota of information. How do I get him to open up?
I offered him a rare smile, and I continued to snip away. Tufts of wet hair fell on my arm as I pirouetted around him. It’s lucky for us that his hair growth is so good.
Wasim returned with the cool, sweating buttermilk tumbler. Aman, in his greed, accepted the glass, and a few stray hair strands fell into the glass.
“Ugh! It has become dirty, Wasim. How can I drink it? Hair is so unhygienic. Get me another one,” Aman ordered, his grimace growing every second.
Wasim looked at the fiery sun outside and inwardly sighed as he accepted the proffered glass.
Hair is so unhygienic but… it’s an indicator. It IS an indicator. Oh, God. I’ve got it!
My mien competed with that of the sun, and Aman glanced at me in surprise. “What has made you so happy?”
“I’m always happy to see you, janab. You are so knowledgeable and I hope some of it can rub off on me,” I replied.
Aman, pleased, grinned, a wide, toothy smile. “Well, it’s not that easy to be a scientist. Pouring over the table, hoping for things to work out, and using your intelligence to make them work, require a lot of brain power. Just the other day, I was telling Jalil…”
Wasim’s presence with a fresh glass made him break off, and this time, I had finished while he gulped greedily. The buttermilk left foamy clouds on his moustache that Aman wiped with the green cape.
I dipped a muslin cloth in water and began to clean Aman’s neck and sideburns. Wiping away the hair stuck to his face.
“Ah! After the buttermilk, this feels good. You missed a spot here.” Aman pointed to his forehead as I brushed off the offending hair and removed the cape. “All done!” He stood up, straightened his blue shirt and dusted his pants, and dug into his pocket to drop a few notes on the table. “See you, next month.”
As he exited, I snatched the broom from Wasim’s hand. “Buy yourself something cool. It’s too hot.”
Pleasure coloured Wasim’s fair face, and he skipped out before I could change my mind.
Using the broom, I carefully collected the residual hair fallen onto the floor into a pile. Fetching an envelope from a drawer, I gently transferred them into it and shoved it in the hidden pocket in my pyjama as I resumed my position and fanned myself. My brain whirred with ideas.
Can we extract the information from the hair samples? Will the analysis be done on time? Will it contain uranium?
That night, my body hummed with excitement as my mind drove repeatedly over the reasons that had brought me to Kahuta.
In the late seventies, Pakistan had burned with uncontrollable jealousy about India’s fledgling nuclear prowess. Their Prime Minister, Zia-ul-Haq, pestered the French until they agreed to partner with Pakistan–helping the country to get a nuclear arsenal. The RAW grapevine vibrated with the news of the secret pact between the two countries and, on orders, our guys were sniffing out its location.
Zooming into Kahuta, the undercover agents had the nuclear scientists under surveillance but the nerds were holding all their cards, not just close, but practically inside their chests! Kao sir never complained when I reported nothing week on week, but his disappointed sighs cut deep. We knew the facility was somewhere around here, but we weren’t sure if the enemy was working on uranium or plutonium. Or if the intel was wrong and Pakistan had dropped the idea. It was a mirrors-and-smoke situation.
From the time we started spying, we had stumbled upon the knowledge that France had washed its hands off an unhinged Pakistan and withdrawn its support. This led to the Pakistanis getting warier, and an already tough job became harder. The agents and I had been here for three months in various places, in and around Kahuta, doing odd jobs. I opened a barbershop, but now the act of cutting hair was getting… blunt.
I knew if we didn’t show results soon, the mission could… would be culled, and then…
No. The hair samples will fetch us results. It has to! And that’s going to be our ticket out of here.
The next morning, with great skill, I human-couriered the envelope to Kao sir. With a prayer on my lips, I entered the barbershop where Wasim was sweeping the floor. The scrawny kid — a true blue Pakistani — had no idea about our mission. He was a hardworking chap, good-natured and sweet as they come.
The common man rarely is devious enough to warrant a second look, and I hate to involve him in this mess, but well, with God’s grace, we will be out of here soon. And the biggest loss to Wasim would be the loss of income. With his qualities, he will make it up soon.
The week passed in a haze, with my cynical heart in an atheist’s garb, knocking on a silent God’s door. Hoping and seeking help and alternatively laughing at my naïve self.
Such is the life of an undercover agent. You don’t believe in the existence of a higher being, yet you’re willing to accede to its existence if it can help you with the mission. For nothing is greater than the country.
Friday night was my weekly follow-up call with Kao sir and while he mentioned that the hair sample report hadn’t come out, he had some disquieting news.
Morarji Desai, in his simplicity, had fallen under the spell woven by Zia-ul-Haq. Apparently, the two leaders spoke every day where Zia-ul-Haq sucked up to Desai, referring to him as ‘elder brother’, and sought knowledge about the urine therapy that Desai practiced. When it came to the enemy, one always had to stay on one’s toes and the Desai-Zia-ul-Haq’s burgeoning friendship could portend only disaster.
What’s that got to do with the price of onions? When we reveal their true face, Desai will recoil and go with the advised plan!
“The barber is here, nanu.” Laxmi breaks into my thought as she ushers the man inside, who quickly wraps a cape around me and snips.
It’s funny how the past can mimic the present. Or is it the present mimicking the past?
At night, I write feverishly, ignoring Laxmi’s advice to rest. I feel the end is upon me and I want to write as fast as I can about the betrayal. The betrayal marked the end for many. The drying up of intelligence.
Once I wrap up, my train of self-driven thoughts meanders to where the knot unravelled. That Friday when I was so happy that I could barely contain myself, not knowing the happiness was going to be short-lived.
That Friday, Kao sir whistled with repressed excitement. “We did it. Your team did it! We’ve found traces of plutonium in the hair samples! The presence of a nuclear laboratory is confirmed and I’ve informed the Mossad chief. He’s preparing the attack plan as we speak.”
“Wow! So, the building that Aman visits is the laboratory! We’ve got the location and blueprints too, sir.”
“Good job, but listen, I need you to be here in Delhi. We must brief the PM and, as it, is your job in Kahuta is done.”
I felt my insides crush even amidst the happiness. “What’s my ETD?”
The next morning, I grappled with how to break the news to Wasim when the light bulb got turned on. I wove a story about going to Rawalpindi’s major market to buy the latest scissors. Patting him on the head and pulling his ears, I walked out of Kahuta.
In Delhi, briefing the suspicious PM, who had no love lost for the RAW, I felt the first flicker of unease. When Desai launched into a long winding explanation of ‘how India interfering into our neighbour’s internal business was very un-Gandhian.’ My stomach churned and bile rose into my mouth, and I retched internally.
Even when Kao sir explained that a nuclear arsenal for Pakistan will be akin to the Sword of Damocles for us, Desai didn’t budge. Honesty and upfront feelings were his trademark — an antithesis to our work at RAW.
“As Indians, it’s our responsibility to be open with Pakistan. It’s the only way we can heal the wounds of the past,” he lectured. “In fact, why delay the goodwill?”
He picked up the receiver of the black rotary phone and spoke into it. “Get me, Zia-ul-Haq, now.”
“But sir,” spluttered Kao sir. “Sir, we’ve got our agents in Pakistan. We cannot jeopardize their safety. Sir, please, listen to me.”
Desai turned a deaf ear to his pleas and spoke into the phone. “Bhaijaan, I’ve got some news for you. I’d like to first congratulate you on joining India as a nuclear nation. My intelligence division informs me…”
I couldn’t help it. I vomited into the dustbin next to the table, heaving and cramping till I was empty. A foul odour spread in the room. My eyes met that of Kao sir’s. He shook his head.
The aftermath was fast, furious, and bloody. Pakistan ISI descended upon Kahuta, sealing everything, and all our undercover RAW guys — my teammates — were identified and imprisoned. Even innocent Wasim was taken in as an accomplice. His body was never recovered.
When the betrayal comes from within, its relentless sweep is wide.
Those days, I felt as if an unyielding hand had grasped my arm, never to let go. It was a weird sensation.
Who’s clutching my arm?
The past merges into the present, and I realise it’s Laxmi. She is checking my blood pressure and the cuff around my arm pumps air. When the air whooshes out, Laxmi frowns.
“Your BP is higher than my spectacles number.” Her eyes, through her glasses, glare at me. “You’re not sleeping at night again. I saw you scribbling in your notebook. What are you writing that doesn’t let you sleep?”
“I’m describing your beauty.”
Laxmi mock-punches my arm, careful of the cannula in my wrist, and laughs. “Yeah, yeah. Go to sleep, nanu.”
I lean back on the fluffed pillow and close my eyes. There won’t be any more sleepless nights for me, for I’ve said all I wanted to in my books. And the rest I leave to Laxmi. I gave a lot to my country, and very little to my family, but the best gift was given to me by my wife —- our daughter. When my granddaughter, Laxmi, was born, I felt at peace.
Laxmi has my blood in her veins and isn’t a RAW agent, but a Public Prosecutor. She has the weight of good propelling her forward. She is my salvation. A Hindu version of a Hail Mary. After the sudden death of her parents, she has been taking care of me and I’ve addressed my notebooks to her — they detail everything that happened during the 1977 fiasco and it’s upon her to do what she feels right. I know it’s unfair of me to pass on my chips onto her able shoulders, but that’s the only choice left to me.
The truth must prevail. I look at the black notebooks. My job here is done. I’ve done my duty and I want to rest, maybe mingle with the ghosts. Even Kao sir is waiting for me on the other side and the cancer is eating from this side. I think it’s time to stop cheating death and to welcome it with open arms. No more diapers. My life wasn’t my decision, but how I end it, is mine.
That afternoon, Laxmi peeps into my room. “You’re looking peaked, nanu. Let’s put an IV saline on you. It’s a good thing I’ve learnt how to do it!”
She helps me into position and hangs the saline bag on the stand. “I’ve set it to low, so I’ll be here later to check on you.” Handing the paper to me, she said. “Read the newspapers.”
The headlines scream of a cloudburst in Ladakh and how the water has washed away towns. The word ‘cloudburst’ triggers a thought in my mind, hiding in the corner of my mind. But I can’t reach out to it.
NOW my memory decides to act coy, I mutter.
Reading the article, the neglected thought regains its supremacy by revealing itself. Air embolism. When air bubbles enter the bloodstream, they’re fatal, leading to a stroke. What can I remember about it? I place the paper on my chest and let my mind wander. My eyes fall upon the cannula on my wrist and trace their way up to the IV bag.
Air bubbles, eh? A fortuitous escape from a life of pain.
I grin and at that inopportune time, Laxmi enters the room and on seeing my smiling face, “What has made you so happy?”
“I’m always happy to see you, Laxmi. Though I feel I’m holding you back from living your life. You should be out partying, not attending to an old man!”
Laxmi pats my hand. “Who says I’m not living my life? Maybe I enjoy spending time with my cranky grandpa.”
We hug and I kiss her on the forehead. Ensuring the coast is clear, I rise with some difficulty and increase the drip level to maximum, remove the bottle from its stand and settle down with it. I watch each drop as it makes its way into me.
Each drop carries the shadow of my past — the faces of my team. I still remember the day I had to face their wives, mothers, fathers, and children while I lied to them about how their loved ones had died.
In the spy universe, truth is rarely uttered. Everyone lies to everyone. Families never know, and that’s the harsh truth of our profession. Our hearts belong to our countries, but the stretch of the umbilical cord is tenuous at best. And times, when it’s snapped, it’s usually game over. And for my team, they weren’t just throttled. It was with the blessing of our motherland who let the dogs onto us.
Motherland who killed us. That’s the price we pay for love. The price of love for India,
Within thirty minutes, the bag is empty. I gaze one last time at the picture of my Laxmi. I think my flawed decision will release her from her duties and thrust new ones.
“Sorry, Laxmi. I had no other choice.” I whisper as with every bit of strength I possess; I squeeze the bag and air rushes into me.
I lie back, my hands busy. The ghosts on my shoulders crowd around me and watch as a sharp, stabbing pain builds up from my heart, spreading to the rest of my body. They come closer until they’re choking me and I can barely distinguish their faces. They are mouthing something, but I cannot concentrate on it. My body convulses and the saline bag drops on the floor.
It’s time to meet the ghosts. To be one.
Dhamo Rasksati Raksitah.
- Dhamo Rasksati Raksitah: (Sanskrit) RAW Motto. Law protects, when it is protected.
- Haan: (Hindi) Yes.
- Janaab: (Urdu) Sir.
- Ji: (Hindi) A mark of respect.
- Sab Khairiyat: (Urdu) Is everything okay?
- Pyjama: (Hindi) Loose pants-like garment.
- Nanu: (Hindi) Nana. Maternal Grandfather.
- Zia-ul-Haq: Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq: Pakistani President during the ‘70s.
- Morarji Desai: India’s first non-Congress Prime Minister. He led the Janata Party.
29th February is Morarji Desai’s birthday.
The premise is based on Operation Kahuta, where India collaborated with Israel. Mossad had sought permission to refuel at Jamnagar before proceeding to destroy the Pakistan nuclear lab. The request was denied by Morarji Desai.
For the information he passed to the Pakistani PM, Zia-ul-Haq awarded Desai, the Nishan-e-Pakistan medal, the highest civilian order for service to Pakistan, which Desai, against advice, accepted in a private ceremony in Bombay in 1990.
The betrayal led to a collapse of the Indian intelligence network in Pakistan, and after IK Gujral’s fatal blow of further demolishing the RAW chapter in Pakistan, the aftermath of no intelligence resulted in the Kargil war.
I quote a line that succinctly sums it up: The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies.
First published on Penmancy.com