‘It’s not like James Bond’: Former Intelligence officer Prabhakar Aloka on his new espionage novel

Prabhakar Aloka

Prabhakar Aloka

According to Prabhakar Aloka, there is not an awful lot of glamour in real-life espionage. No vodka martinis, shaken or stirred. No fancy cars. No cool gadgets. No women wearing dresses with plunging necklines and thigh-high slits. No gambling. In other words, real-life espionage is far from what we see in Bond films.

Aloka knows this because he has served the Intelligence Bureau for over three decades. When he retired two years ago, he wanted to tell people what happens in the lives of real spies. So he wrote a spy-thriller, Operation Haygreeva ( Penguin Random House), based on the actual cases he has worked on and his experience in espionage. The book is about how Ravi Kumar and his team in the Intelligence Bureau try to neutralise a threat from a terrorist organisation.

“Spying is an enigma, which people view in different ways — as a cloak-and-dagger operation, as Big Brother watching, or as an activity of rogue elements,” says Aloka. “Spies are shown as cold and calculative, but they are also human, with emotions and conflicts. I wanted to convey this.”

Why a spy thriller instead of a memoir, where he could have directly talked about his experiences? With most of his work being classified, Aloka could not have spoken about it in detail. “Also, non-fiction cannot bring out the psychology of a spy who lives a faceless life. He is a part of society but has to put on a different persona. And that persona sometimes can be psychologically disruptive. For instance, we have all been taught not to lie and deceive. A spy has to do these things. These aspects come out better in fiction.”

Writers of espionage fiction usually find research as challenging, if not more, as developing a plot. In Aloka’s case, research was almost unnecessary. Constructing a story, he admits, was challenging. He was into Hindi literature in school and college and a fan of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s works; English literature was more of an acquired taste. He started writing only towards the end of his career. Despite having all the details, it took him about two years to come up with a story. He began the book in 2019 and wrote through the pandemic before completing it this year.

“I wanted to describe the psychological conflicts of a spy. People think spying is just about intelligence and information. However, many external pulls and pressures can derail the work of a spy. Even if they succeed, there is no public recognition. If they fail, everybody talks about an intelligence failure. The only thing that keeps them going is the commitment to mitigate suffering.

“In a way, spying is like a dangerous game of chess. Each move has a series of social, political, and diplomatic ramifications. To put all of these things into the right words took some time.”

Technological advancements, he says, have made the job of a spy more complex. “The Internet is a cobweb; you do not know where it ends or begins. So, it is tougher to unearth information now.”

One of the things that high-octane Hollywood espionage thrillers do not show is desk work, which, Aloka says, is as thrilling as fieldwork. “You are solving puzzles at the desk all the time. Often, you do not have all the pieces. Yet you have to make sense of things with whatever is available. If I have to reduce it to the basics, the job of a spy is to unravel deliberately hidden facts. So, one enjoys doing that. Desk work is never boring.”

Operation Haygreeva ‘s protagonist, Ravi, has two sons and a dog, just like Aloka. Is Ravi just an alias of Aloka? “No,” he says with a laugh. “He has a bit of me, my coworkers and the qualities I believe an ideal spy should possess. Ravi is more like my alter-ego.”

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2022 7:55:40 pm |