Book review | Vijay Balan keeps the pace ticking in ‘The Swaraj Spy’

Vijay Balan’s fast-paced The Swaraj Spy tracks wartime borders, struggle and espionage

January 06, 2023 10:05 am | Updated 12:28 pm IST

Having disobeyed an order to disperse a group of women protesting the execution of Bhagat Singh, Jemadar Kumaran Nair of the Malabar Special Police is dismissed for insubordination. His next setback comes when his business to import cars fails due to the Great Depression. And then, just as he moves to Singapore to make a living, World War II begins.

This is not to say that it is all gloom and doom in Vijay Balan’s The Swaraj Spy. Based on the life of the author’s grand-uncle, T.P. Kumaran Nair — who was executed by the British under the provisions of the Enemy Agents Act — Balan keeps the pace ticking right through the book.

From working in the RAF to being a drill instructor in the Swaraj Academy to being sent to India on a rescue mission and captured by the British, tortured and finally sentenced to death, Kumar’s life takes several turns. The author keeps the reader engaged with vivid descriptions of people and places, though the focus always remains on the protagonist. Nair’s connection with his family and friends, and gentle romance with his wife Maalu, also offer a counterpoint to his life as a freedom fighter and spy.

The Swaraj Spy
 Vijay Balan

The fall of Singapore is explored in some detail, from the air raids, and the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, to the scramble to send families home to India. But Balan avoids mentioning the brutal repercussions of the Japanese occupation — of how Indian labourers died in railway camps and during their flight from Burma. I suppose one could argue that these were not directly relevant to Nair’s tale, but it does seem strange that a man as thoughtful as he is portrayed to be was not affected by what was happening around him. While the story ends with Nair’s hanging, Balan ties up the loose ends in the epilogue.

When we speak of India’s freedom struggle, we tend not to think of the many thousands who threw themselves into the fight. With this book, we have at least a fictionalised account of what it meant to be a foot soldier of the movement.

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