Spy tales are always riveting. The thrill of the chase, the action, intrigue and the speed of the narrative make them unputdownable, barring stray occasions when they are sloppy and poorly crafted.
The novel "Calling Sehmat" by Harinder S. Sikka is a thrilling saga of a spy who gave all of herself in the service of the nation.
It is the story of a Kashmiri woman who married a Pakistani army officer to provide Indian intelligence with information during the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Sehmat devised unique ways to get closer to the military brass in Pakistan. She saved the lives of scores of Indian soldiers by warning them about enemy positions, troop movement and the strike blueprints being drawn across the border.
The story is about the spirit of Kashmir, a land of humble, tough and war-scarred survivors who can lay down their lives for the nation they belong to - India.
Sehmat is no modern-day Mata Hari - but a woman of exceptional courage and patriotic fervour, who chose her country above the dictates of her heart and traditions. She is reminiscent of Noor Inayat Khan, the feisty Allied Indian agent in the French Resistance during the World War II, who was shot dead by the Gestapo for defending England and France at the war.
The 231-page novel published by New Delhi-based Konark Publishers is rich in detail and emotions, though at times the crisp prose gives away to loosely structured sentences, putting a brake on the pace.
It is a typical specimen of Indo-Anglican writing that at times unconsciously reflects the language in which the author plots his storyline. It could be Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil or Marathi.
But the novel makes for its linguistic flaws with the author's knowledge of the armed forces, the way of life along the borders and the mores of the ranks. The novel begins with the death of the heroine, Sehmat Khan. The beautiful woman dies in her sleep at her "imposing white" bungalow in Maler Kotla, a fiefdom somewhere between Ludhiana and Jammu.
Sehmat's mother Tej Khan, the only other permanent resident of the bungalow, picks up the telephone to break the news of her daughter's death to her grandson Samar Khan, a captain in the Indian army. The young man takes off for Maler Kotla, a princely state that was carved out in 1454 AD when the then governor of Lahore and Sarhind, Sheikh Sadruddin Sadr-i-Jahan married the daughter of Bahbul Khan Lodhi and was given a cluster of villages in dowry.
Here the author weaves history into his story - which gives it a complex layer that probes the historical evolution of the conflict between the two nations, putting it in the perspective of the local demography, cross-cultural influences and the cracks that developed over the centuries.
The author portrays Sehmat as a symbol of secularism - who makes room for Allah, Jesus, Krishna and the Wahe Guru in her sanctorum. Through her, he drives a simple message - religion does not matter. Only faith and service count.