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This spy thriller set in Sri Lanka can give you the shivers

The novel opens in a grove in Sri Lanka’s North, peopled by Tamils who for three decades fought the Sinhala-dominated government for Eelam, their own version of a homeland. In this disconcerting patch of jungle with its dapple of leaf and shade, where trees festooned with creepers block out sunny skies, lies buried a secret that men of the Black Team have carried in their hearts for 30 years. Betrayal and deceit have been fellow travellers in the lives of the team and Nikhil Pradhan probes whether their dark deeds will go to the grave with them or send them to it in Yesterday’s Ghosts (Harper Collins).

Thrillers on war crimes and espionage set in an Indian context tend to be few and far between, so it is an unexpected pleasure that Yesterday’s Ghosts leads the reader into the rare, private world of intelligence gathering, clandestine activity and a lust to destroy any evidence.

Bengaluru-based Pradhan, 35, has dabbled in journalism, advertising and marketing and has been writing fiction since he was in Class VIII at Scindia School, Gwalior. “I started writing adult fiction in high school and even sent it to a couple of foreign publishers. I didn’t get published but the constructive criticism helped hone my writing. I’ve always loved to write gory stuff,” laughs Pradhan over the phone. “My first book Cold Truth, written in an epistolary format and likely to be a web series soon, explores the underbelly of Delhi when a girl goes missing. Yesterday’s Ghosts began as a story set in Bangladesh during the initial years of the Mukti Bahini. It was inspired by the many Bangla political thrillers. I later resuscitated it in the Sri Lankan context — throwing in the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam], IPKF [Indian Peace Keeping Force] and an Intelligence unit of the Indian Army.”

Yesterday’s Ghosts has the impartial perspective of an outsider on espionage but scores because the plotline is deeply informed. “I researched a lot online, considering espionage 30 years ago on a battlefield would have been way different,” says Pradhan, adding “There is a great deal of romance in old-world spies when compared to new-age ones. The second breed relies more on global surveillance and analyses. Espionage was probably more interesting back then. My earliest memory of what intelligence agents looked like was a man from RAW who worked in a building near where I lived in Sikkim. I passed him often on my way home. That, and the books from my father’s and grandfather’s library, which were a treasure trove of information on Operation Checkmate, IPKF’s anti-insurgency operation against the LTTE in June 1988, helped formulate strategies on ground and spycraft.”

Yesterday’s Ghosts is the story of Ranbir Jadon (Black King), Keshav Roy (Black Bishop), Zorawar Phuntsok (Black Rook), Ajaz Suri (Black Pawn) and the mysterious Black Knight who form Black Team, an Indian Army intelligence unit that was disbanded. The men, now in their 60s have not met since and wish to forget what went wrong. They are however forced to when they receive a message in a once-familiar code that summons them to the grove in Sri Lanka where all hell breaks loose. The ex-spies are interrogated by a Government agency and forced to reveal the secret forged in the heart of war. The novel is grey, its tone dour — set in a world when we knew the good boys from the bad.

Pradhan who graduated from Xavier Institute of Communications, Mumbai, says that “every writer has to be a reader. For inspiration I look towards horror and gaming”. His consummate prose lays bare the uneasy marriage between civil war, peace brokering and espionage. The pages of the novel swing between the pithy interrogation written in a question-answer format and the flashbacks told in descriptive prose. Pradhan takes the reader on an edgy, undulating walk where he builds the character study in the manner of a game of chess and the pace takes in the loneliness and decline of these spies as the novel hurtles towards an unexpected end.

The gripping plotline, the unusual form of storytelling, the little explored subject of Indian intelligence personnel fighting another nation’s enemy and the universality of the horrors these men carry within, unable to lay down the burden, is what the novel explores to the hilt. It should be read by anyone who wants to lead a double life.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 3:45:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/this-spy-thriller-set-in-sri-lanka-can-give-you-the-shivers/article33971615.ece

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