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Updated: May 4, 2013 15:48 IST

Spooks in the Baloch wheel

SHREEKUMAR VARMA
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The Indus Intercept. In the badlands of Balochistan, every step is a minefield. Author: Aruna Gill
Special Arrangement The Indus Intercept. In the badlands of Balochistan, every step is a minefield. Author: Aruna Gill

A satisfying thriller that delves into the sticky stories that lie behind the macabre headlines in newspapers.

Fiction not only looks back, it can also be eerily prescient. Right in the lap of our time, and controversies churned out by decapitated soldiers, that sticky matter regarding spooks in our intelligence agencies, and bribes in arms-and-equipment deals comes a thriller set a decade ago in the towns and mountains of Baluchistan.

It sets an unexpected context for macabre headlines from our nearest battle-grounds — questions of border brutality, culpability and punishment of terrorists, and the role of enforcement, investigative and intelligence agencies. We’re used to making standard classifications when we read such reports, apportioning motive and blame to nations, groups and agencies; but here we see individuals, personal equations and the innumerable cogs that work behind the scenes. We see the pressures and little deals that add up to the big picture. It’s serendipitous or shameful that the same headlines find currency then and now.

Aruna Gill’s The Indus Intercept is a thriller. The story starts running along with the panting little boy in the opening page and doesn’t stop until after he finally does. The boy’s father and brother are dragged from home by the army and killed on the first day of Ramzan even as the family is preparing to break their fast. The boy watches their burial, trembling with guilt and vengeance.

He grows up, becomes the leader of a separatist group, Sobani Balochistan, and has his vengeance. He comes to be known as the Mir, a feared, mysterious man who buries his own emotional traumas and lives for the cause. The Mir glowers and fades like a watermark over the story, a striking figure who appears rarely but holds the plot together.

The characters and their relationships have great potential. There’s Alejo Covas, an undercover agent working as a tour guide for the Bolan Tourist Agency, transplanted from his “nondescript California home town” to the inflammable streets of Quetta. There’s Adiva, come home from the U.S., researching Baloch folklore with her boyfriend Dante. Adiva’s uncle is an archaeologist, and there’s more to this than we can see. There’s Fred, an American to whom Alejo reports. Between them they consume a lot of whisky and paint a background to the Pak-U.S.-Afghanistan-India equations.

There are other intense and interesting characters like Nusayba and Raheem, lovers in the midst of stealthy conflict. She works as a prostitute but is actually a mole for the cause and Raheem is waiting for the day the Mir will release her. There’s a mysterious coded message that everyone’s trying to decode (though too many things have already happened by the time it finally is). And then there’s the kidnapping of A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. In fact, there are so many seeds waiting to sprout in this novel that it soon becomes a minefield of expectation.

But then, Aruna Gill’s The Indus Intercept is a thriller. And we’ve seen from where it started running. These characters live on in our heads and probably depend on us to come to fruition. The novel itself speeds through mountain passes and market streets, through hotel rooms and safe houses, through mistaken killings and discreet border crossings (the Mir crosses into India to meet Krishna, a RAW official with a personal score to settle). The chases are ripe for cinema. The characters are powerful enough to provoke world events. But either because of the genre or the length of the novel, it emerges like someone at a fancy dress party forced to remain in character till the end, masking or at best containing all personal emotion. We would have liked to get further beneath the skin of the Mir, to mine the thoughts of Nusayba-Raheem, to get Alejo-Adiva to pause a little, for the novel to shake itself away from the need to conform to the pace of a thriller.

Yet The Indus Intercept is satisfying and complete. It reads real and natural, and celebrates the continuing journey of Indian writers exploring shores beyond their familiar backyards.

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