A Life In Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN NambiarGautam Pemmaraju, Editor, reviews A Life In Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar, A Forgotten Anti-Colonial Warrior

I was drawn to Mr. Balachandran’s book for two immediate reasons. Firstly, it was an untold story about a very significant historical figure in Indian political history. Nambiar may have lived his life away from Indian shores, but his contribution to the independence movement and to the cause of anti-colonialism was prominent, at the very least. He was an intriguing character and his life was shrouded in mystery. The little knowledge about him in the public domain and in records was sparse and often enough he was characterized incorrectly for a variety of motivations. Secondly, I was drawn to Mr. Balachandran’s own ownership of the story and his role. He, as a senior intelligence officer in a significant station in Western Europe, was linked to Nambiar in a fascinating manner. It was on official instructions directly from the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that he first met Nambiar. Their association however, was anything but official; it transformed into a personal friendship and had no other shades to it for the most part.Except things are not so simple. Nearly two decades after Nambiar’s passing, Mr. Balachandran began to find details about his former older friend’s life that were staggering. A complex tapestry of mystery and intrigue began to reveal itself. Nambiar’s life began to emerge from the opaque shadows of the past.

The architecture of the composite story to me was primarily that of Nambiar and then of Mr. Balachandran’s involvement. It struck me often, right from the very first instance of hearing the story from the author, that there was a classic espionage tale there. One very much like that penned by the likes of John Le Carre, or more so Graham Greene. So when I began initial conversations with Mr. Balachandran and Priya Kapoor, I spoke of how there ought to be more of the narrator’s presence in the book. It seemed essential to me. There was a parallel narrative of subterfuge, secrecy and risky intelligence gathering, which nimbly intertwined with the eventful life of the mostly retired Nambiar living in Zurich at the time. Following my second reading of the manuscript, I compiled a document of edit notes that included structural and tonal changes and suggested newer material. Thereafter, Mr. Balachandran and I had a serious of intensive meetings where we would discuss the several edit points and work out the best strategy. I was simultaneously perusing all the source material that Mr. Balachandran had acquired. From Nambiar’s oral transcript that was made on the insistence of the author on the former’s return to India in 1984, Nambiar’s dispatches to The Hindu as its Berlin correspondent, the Bombay Special Branch intercepts of private correspondence between Nambiar and his then estranged wife, the British Intelligence records, to several other accounts, there was a significant amount of source material that needed to be looked through. The fact checking process was laborious and there were issues with conflicting historical dates in the different sources that needed to be resolved. Some additional research was required for this and I made a trip to the NMML to peruse one document and several letters. Over time, in consultation with Mr. Balachandran a few other sources made their way into the book. This entire process took nearly two years.Needless to say, Mr. Balachandran’s openness, patience and keen insights made this process immensely enjoyable.

I became quite entangled with the story and continue to do so. I was particularly drawn to the early years of Nambair’s former wife Suhasini Chattopadhyaya’s return to Bombay. The author and I discussed this at great length since there was very little material in hand besides the surveillance records. Drawing from a variety of sources, including accounts of prominent British communist Lester Hutchinson, stories of Somerset Maugham, writings of MN Roy and an accounton the life of the radical activist Virendranath Chattopadhaya (Nambiar’s brother-in-law), this part of the book became quite a lot more robust, layered and interesting. I made a few visits to places of significance in Bombay in relation to this section.

Cancellation of the look-out notice for A.C.N. Nambiar dated 25 March 1938. Photo courtesy Mumbai Special Branch.

Nambiar’s ancestral House: ‘Big Kapparatty House’ now ‘Meshar College’. Prakash, from the Nambiar family can be seen here with a nun. Photo by the author

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter to A.C.N. Nambiar, 27 June 1950

Mr. Balachandran’s source material was fabulous to begin with. It was truly a labour of love that he had created over more than a decade. He had brought an impressive and diverse set of sources into the narrative and had doggedly pursued the story despite the sparse information. This included secret records that had never been utilized. He sought out several people who may have had a connection, even if tenuous, and made detailed notes. One of most interesting details of this book is that Mr. Balachandran’s reading of intelligence records has the stamp of aninsider. There are nuances in the narrative that would not have been there if it were written by a journalist or a professional historian. It is truly to the author’s credit that he pursued the story in the manner he did, with perseverance, passion, and dare I say, the sharp intelligence that marks his outlook and is abundantly found in his journalistic columns and other writing. The book is truly Mr. Balachandran’s; it is his voice that speaks, and I am privileged to have made a contribution to it.

Hotel Kaiserhof, Berlin 1942. Nambiar is addressing a gathering on the occasion of the founding of the pro-Axis provisional government of Free India, 1942. Photo Courtesy Harilal Rajgopal, Chief Sub- editor, Mathrubhumi, Kozhikode.

Lastly, it is an important book for our times. Its scope is broad, encompassing a large swathe of 20th century history, and its subject is of interest to not just Indian readers, but to those who are interested in 20th century world history. As a UK based publisher commented, the book also brings to light new details of India’s espionage history.There is one very distinct and admirable element to the book, ironically in what has not been revealed. The author could have very easily used details in what is available in letters and secret documents for mischievous, polemical effect and thereby, publicity. In a time where mendacious, opportunistic extrapolation of historical fact is all too common, Mr. Balachandran’s judicious restraint is exemplary. Adding to all this, there is also a melancholic and tragic feel to the story. It is indeed, to put it quite simply, a very human story of great turbulence and shattered dreams.

I would strongly urge others to buy this book. It is money very well spent.

2 years ago

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