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Updated: March 26, 2014 14:38 IST

Thriller in the hills

Sankar Radhakrishnan
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The Rataban Betrayal; Stephen Alter, Penguin, Rs.299.
Special Arrangement The Rataban Betrayal; Stephen Alter, Penguin, Rs.299.

With great mastery, Stephen Alter weaves another racy read.

About 50 pages into The Rataban Betrayal, I felt a little lost. I’d encountered over half-a-dozen characters, yet it wasn’t very clear who they were and what they had to do with the plot. It felt a bit like being in the midst of a bunch of threads floating in the wind.

And then, with great mastery, Stephen Alter started weaving all those strands in the wind into an interesting story and it all began to make sense. Well, almost; for like all good thrillers, the book saves a twist or two for the end. Weaving tales is, of course, what Alter does rather well. He’s the author of 14 books, including five works of non-fiction.

Much of the action in The Rataban Betrayal is in Mussoorie and its satellite neighbourhood Landour. The murder of an American missionary who is also a CIA agent and the killing of a couple of Indian guards on the border with Tibet stir things up in the town. Both the Indian and the U.S. intelligence establishments are sufficiently perturbed to send undercover operatives to Mussoorie to investigate.

The Indian and American agents eventually join forces under the direction of the wheelchair-bound Colonel Imtiaz Afridi. Retired army officer, former mountaineer, strategic affairs expert and spy master, Afridi oversees the covert investigation from his high-tech HQ — the shadowy, army-run Himalayan Research Institute. Together, the two agents and Afridi discover that the murders are part of a larger conspiracy with links to the Colonel’s past.

Alter has lived in Mussoorie for years and his insider’s view adds heft to the book. What also comes through is his knowledge of and deep affection for the Garhwal Himalayas and the people who live there.

The plot moves quickly, like a fast car with an expert driver who knows just where he wants to go. The writing flows and is evocative and descriptive for the most, with the occasional dash of humour. I was especially taken by the description of the chauffer-driven, grey Ambassador with James Bond-ish accessories in which ‘Bogart’, a Delhi-based American spook, travels.

The extent to which a work of fiction reflects reality is flexible. As Alter writes in the ‘author’s note’, while many of the historical and cultural references are based on reality, the narrative is not a factual rendering of events or contextual details. Yet, two things about the plot nagged me.

First, the Himalayan Research Institute comes across as a sort of Indian equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency, able to keep an electronic eye on India’s northern borders. While it’s safe to assume that India’s electronic intelligence expertise has blossomed in recent years, the institute’s all-seeing capabilities seem a bit much. Second, Alter talks about how the Dalai Lama is protected by the SPG. My understanding is that India’s Special Protection Group (SPG) only protects the Prime Minister, former Prime Ministers and their immediate families.

Of course, these are relatively minor quibbles. More problematic is the characterisation of the Indian and American operatives. While I understand that both agents are primarily supposed to be intelligence analysts, I wondered why they were chosen for field ops given the rather elementary mistakes they made. In fact, during the denouement in the hills, the two almost muck it up. What saves the day is Colonel Afridi’s foresight. Afridi is, in fact, the book’s high point, its real hero — wise, decisive, loyal, hard as nails, but with his heart in the right place. So much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a sequel in the works. I know I’d love to read another Afridi adventure and so I suspect, would most readers.

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