Book Review | Too many frivolous details spoil a cleverly conceptualised spy thriller
Deccan Chronicle.| Shuma Raha
Cover photo of 'The Portrait of a Secret' by Tarun Mehrishi. (Photo by arrangement)
Tarun Mehrishi’s debut novel The Portrait of a Secret is a page-turning spy thriller that spans a wide arc of history — from the early years of the 20th century right up to 2010. Weaving fact with fiction, Mehrishi writes a quick-paced tale of ruthless international intrigue, at the centre of which, is, what else, the abiding tussle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
Moles, spies, double agents, terror groups, Dawood Ibrahim, the R&AW, the ISI, the CIA — name it, and this story has it. We learn early on that a senior officer in India’s premier intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), has turned traitor and has been passing on strategic information to the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). What’s more, at the behest of his American masters, he has not only engineered the execution of the leader of the newly-liberated Bangladesh, but also murdered India’s Prime Minister in Tashkent in 1976. Though he apparently died of a heart attack, it was the mole’s diabolic hand that did it — he administered an untraceable poison to the PM that mimicked a natural cardiac arrest.
Mehrishi is clearly making a fictive play around the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri which took place while the then Indian PM was on a visit to Tashkent in 1966. He does the same around the assassination of Bangladesh’s founder and first Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Needless to say, the real names of those who figured in these events are not taken. However, the author has different rules for different historical figures. For example, the romance and marriage between Devika Rani, Indian cinema’s beauteous leading lady in the 1930s and 1940s, to Russian-Indian painter Svetoslav Roerich actually happened, and Mehrishi doesn’t bother to mask their names.
Svetoslav and his family were Indophiles who settled in this country after fleeing from the Russian Revolution. They are long dead, of course. But he and his father Nicholas play a pivotal role in the fact-fiction mix of Mehrishi’s book. The author writes that at the time of Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947, the Raja of Kashmir had given his trusted friend Nicholas Roerich an envelope for safekeeping. Nicholas was told that it contained an explosive piece of document, executed in the presence of Lord Mounten (sic) and no one could know where it was. Nicholas hid the envelope well, and though both India and Pakistan knew about the existence of a document which could settle the Kashmir question once and for all, neither had any idea of its whereabouts.
Cut to 2010. Abbas Ali, a famous art dealer, with roots in Pakistan, brings two paintings by Svetoslav Roerich to Sotheby’s in London. Valued at upwards of 20 million pounds each, the paintings are all set to be auctioned, when checks into their provenance reveal that until recently they had been housed in an agricultural institute in a small town in north India's hills, where the Roerichs once had their family home. Sotheby’s gets in touch with the Indian authorities, and a quick-footed bureaucrat finds out that the precious paintings, gifted to the institute by Svetoslav himself, were stolen and replaced with two others, with no one being any the wiser.
Once India lays claim to the paintings, alleging that they are stolen goods, the auction is halted. Soon, the R&AW is in the picture. The chief of Indian intelligence — who has been tipped off by a mole in the Pakistani intelligence that terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad was about to launch a multi-country terror attack — suspects that art dealer Abbas Ali has links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and that the eye-popping amounts of money that the paintings would have sold for was meant for funding the attacks.
Meanwhile, Sotheby’s discovers an envelope hidden in the frame of one of the paintings. Yes, dear reader, you have guessed right. It is the same envelope bearing the allegedly earth-shaking information that the Raja of Kashmir had given Nicholas Roerich to hide away.
And so begins the desperate race to retrieve the envelope — spies and operatives of both India and Pakistan embark on a deadly cat-and-mouse game to lay their hands on the secret which, once out, could have far-reaching geo-political consequences.
Mehrishi does a good job of bringing all the strands of the story together at the end, and throws in a bonus surprise as well. However, the constant jump-cuts between timelines in the narrative can be a bit jarring, and one does wish that he had not devoted so many pages to the rather tedious (and imaginary) details of the meeting and courtship between Svetoslav Roerich and Devika Rani. They do not add to the chills and thrills — although they certainly add to the book’s girth.
The Portrait of a Secret
By Tarun Mehrishi
Penguin Ebury Press
pp. 288, Rs.299
The reviewer is a journalist and author