David Mitchell once mentioned that ‘all defectors have a complex relationship with truth’ and if the spy in question happens to be the one chronicled by Mihir Bose in his new book, The Indian Spy, then the term ‘complex’ would be an understatement.
The story of Bhagat Ram Talwar, the only quintuple spy of World War II working for Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan and the USSR, is more than just a true story of a remarkable secret agent. In the hands of Mihir Bose, who first came across Talwar in the mid-1970s while researching for his biography of Netaji Subhas Bose (The Lost Hero), it becomes a mesmerising tale of espionage and also an account of how actions of nameless men and women alter the course of history.
Based on decades of research in previously classified files of the Indian, British, Russian and other governments, The Indian Spy is the impressive and very real account of the man who smuggled Netaji out of India under the nose of the British and even organised his trip to Berlin. This is also the story of how a pawn outplayed five masters, including the British handler, Peter Fleming (the brother of the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming), who gave him his code name: Silver.
In the intriguing world of spying and counter-spying, Talwar/Silver stands out for not only the sheer audacity of what he managed but also how he got away with it. He spied for both Germans and Italians but neither got to know that he was a Communist, his spymaster Fleming had no idea about his loyalties to the Russians and while the British believed that Silver was being used to counter the activities of the Germans and Italians on India’s western borders, Silver, the master of deception, merrily pitted five or six countries against each other.
The Germans even awarded him the Iron Cross, their highest military decoration, besides giving him £2.5 million in today’s money. Silver was a Hindu Pathan from the North-West Frontier Province and metamorphosed into a rebel of sorts after the execution of his elder brother, Hari Kishan, by the British in 1931 for a failed assassination attempt on the then Governor of Punjab.
Replete with some wonderful anecdotes and insightful accounts that made Silver unique—he once served a suspect who might have blown his cover in Kabul a curry mixed with tiger’s whiskers and the sharp bristles caused internal bleeding—Bose’s writing, thanks to his journalistic background, is both fascinating and paints a much larger picture of the choices that the men and many governments made, that in a way, changed the destiny of India.
At the heart of The Indian Spy is the relationship that Talwar/Silver shared with the two men who shaped the course of his life—Netaji Bose and Peter Fleming. Talwar’s interaction with Netaji right from the first meeting where he was selected by Achhar Singh Cheena, the leader of Kirti Party, to be his guide and till the time Fleming used him to feed information to the Germans and the Japanese regarding Netaji’s movement show how Silver transformed.
He went from being a curious young man that joined Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan’s Red Shirts and learnt about political ideologies while imprisoned as a 22-year-old to a lifelong Communist who became one of the greatest deceivers in history. Besides telling how Bhagat Ram Talwar, the incredible spy who played them all, Mihir Bose’s The Indian Spy also sheds some light on how India secured its freedom. In the epilogue, Bose writes—“There is increasing evidence that many Indians no longer believe that Gandhi just waved his wand of non-violence and the British fled.”