Prabhakar Aloka

A riveting spy thriller by a former spy, Prabhakar Aloka’s Operation Haygreeva will keep the reader hooked till the last page. The novel follows the C3 unit of the Intelligence Bureau, its officer Ravi and his protégés as they uncover a plot  that threatens the very fabric of the country’s peace and stability.    Read the excerpts here and get yourself a copy to get lost in this page-turner. 

The Fort

Ravi spares no time for introductions or pleasantries and starts off with an unexpected question, ‘How many of you noticed me at the academy earlier?’

Some hands go up.

‘Good,’ Ravi remarks. ‘Who amongst you can tell me with certainty how long I have been watching all of you? Would you say it’s true that I’ve been around for the last two days? If you’re sure, keep your hands raised.’

The recruits are perplexed. They can’t be sure. Ravi scans the room. All hands have dropped down, except one.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Mihir Kaul, sir.’

Mihir is tall, well-built and wears a look of unusual seriousness. Ravi had already noticed him earlier in the day and is impressed by what he has seen so far.

‘Tell me, officer, when did I start watching all of you? Yesterday, the day before, a week ago?’

‘This morning, sir. You were at the training ground, and then you were also at the mess.’

‘How sure are you?’

‘Very sure, sir. I saw you driving in this morning.’

‘Yes, you saw me driving in this morning, but what you didn’t see is my driving in yesterday. I had gone out early in the morning, and returned later in the day, which is when you must have seen me.’

‘I don’t think so, sir. Your car was not here yesterday. I am certain of that.’

‘So, you do not trust me? You think I’m lying?’

‘Of course, I trust you, sir. But with all due respect, I think you are lying. I think you are just testing me.’ Ravi smiles. He is impressed by the boy’s spunk.

‘Well done. You may sit down. One of the most important demands of this job is the ability to keep your eyes and ears wide open at all times. You are at the academy now, and you are protected. But you must hone your senses, sharpen them as you would sharpen a pencil. Because the moment you step out on the field, you realize that most of the time, it is something as simple as keeping track of who’s coming and going, who’s meeting who that will offer the most valuable leads. There will always be attempts to deceive, attempts to create the impression of something else being the case, the simplest example of which is what I just tried to demonstrate through Mihir. If you have sincerely paid attention, you will not be fooled. It was easy this time to make out that I was lying because I had no malicious intent. I was just trying to test him, and he was quick enough to sense it. But that will not always be the case.

‘Deception on the field is a different ballgame altogether. The agenda will not be to test you but to break you. Failure to see through all of it will have disastrous consequences not just for you but for the citizens of this country. Even as I speak, vested interests are trying to infiltrate our country with the aim of disrupting the most cherished values of our constitutional and social fabric. We are a country united in our diversity—cultural, religious, social, linguistic, economic— and these elements are out to tear apart this unity. You have been recruited to take on the privileged responsibility of safeguarding this unity.’

Even as he speaks he looks at each face in the class, taking in their reactions. Some are copiously taking down notes, while others seem to effortlessly register everything mentally. Some just sit and stare, stifling yawns as they strain to appear as if they are following each word. After a brief pause, he continues, ‘But make no mistake, you are not alone in being assigned this enormous responsibility. You will be a small part of a massive network of individuals and organizations, each contributing in their own distinct way. I am here today to talk to you about exactly what will be expected of you, and what distinguishes your role from, say, the brave jawans guarding our borders.

‘I’m sure you have heard of the late Karam Singh, one of the most outstanding individuals to have served our country. He patrolled the Chinese border under the harshest conditions, out in the wilderness for months at a time, with no links to the outside world. His unit was ambushed by Chinese troops, and many of our jawans were martyred. They are our heroes, and we strive to emulate them. Their work is demanding and unforgivingly strenuous, but it is at the same time straight forward and the boundaries are clearly drawn. Their identities are well defined from the very beginning. But in our line of work, nothing is straightforward. You will be expected to switch identities and assume an entirely different persona. You must be prepared to let go of your roots and ground yourself in a different history and culture. Sometimes, you might even be expected to join hands with the enemy and be one with them.’

The audience is spellbound, though they are not sure of where Ravi’s talk is headed.

‘I can see that some of you are confused, which is all the more reason to pay careful attention to what I have to say. Let me tell you a story. This will make it easier to understand what I am driving at. A man is out to destroy a shop, let’s assume he is a disgruntled employee of the shop. He is really no match for the shop owner who wields more resources and might. But at the same time, the owner knows that the employee spells trouble and will not let him get anywhere close.

‘Nevertheless, the employee stands at a safe yet threatening distance, keeping close watch. Over a period of time, he cultivates a small army of flies and mosquitoes. Even though the shop owner continues to keep an eye on him with dedicated security guards round the clock, nobody understands what the employee is up to. As long as he does not come close to the shop, he is seen only as a passive threat. The man, too, is well aware of this. He knows that he will be driven away or killed if he goes anywhere close to the shop.

‘Then one day a bull is walking down the street unmindful of any of this. The staff at the store are used to feeding the bull every evening. They do not think of it even remotely as a threat. As the bull nears the shop, the man drives the flies towards the animal. They enter its ears. The bull, in a sudden fit of rage, goes charging into the shop and knocks down everything inside. Taken aback and desperate to protect the shop from further damage, the security guards start beating the bull. They try to chase it away. But this has the opposite effect, and the bull is further infuriated. It charges at the rest of the store in retaliation. The flies and mosquitoes have by now quietly buzzed away. The man did not have to come anywhere close to the shop. Through his flies, he gets the innocent bull to do his bidding.

‘What I’m trying to suggest is that the age of conventional warfare is slowly coming to an end. We are now faced with very distinct and increasingly treacherous modes of hostility from enemy interests. Knowing very well that they are no match for the sheer might of our armed forces, like the ex-employee knows he is no match for the shopkeeper, our enemies are now operating at a distance. While we continue to successfully keep them away physically, they nevertheless continue inflicting damage. They do so like the man in the story, who builds a network of flies and mosquitos to trick an innocent bull into charging into the shop. Let’s assume that you’ve been hired by the shop owner to investigate the bull’s attack and to come up with a plan to prevent such incidents in the future. Who would you focus your efforts on, most logically? The man, the bull, or the flies?’

The recruits are silent. A lone voice from the back responds, ‘The flies.’ Ravi asks him to stand up.

‘What is your name?’

‘Cyrus, sir.’

‘Cyrus what?’

‘Cyrus Bandookwallah, sir.’

There is a look of recognition on Ravi’s face.

‘So, Cyrus, tell me. Why do you think the man or the bull should not be targeted?’

Cyrus speaks with a calculated casualness, almost as if he is not intimidated by Ravi’s stature, ‘The man is at a distance and was never directly present at the scene of the incident. Even if it is clear that he is responsible for it, it would be beyond the legitimate authority of the shop owner to target him.’

Ravi nods attentively.

‘But why not the bull since the bull was at the scene of the incident and directly carried out the action that you are tasked with thwarting?’

‘If we punish the bull, we will have done nothing to prevent the man from getting his flies to get into the ears of some other bull, or cow, and lead them to do the same thing. Of course, now that the bull has its own score to settle, we cannot let it go either. But that will not fully solve the problem. We need to prevent the flies from getting into the ears of the next bull that walks past the store.’

Ravi walks around the hall, surveying each face closely as he listens to Cyrus. ‘Fair enough. But how would you go about doing that? Someone else, please.’

Eager to impress Ravi, many raise their hands. Ravi picks out one trainee at random, a young turbaned Inderpal Singh.

‘Fumigate the surroundings of the store so that no flies or mosquitoes will breed in the vicinity.’

Ravi shakes his head.

‘It does sound like a good solution on paper. But I can think of many operational hazards that would disqualify it from the very outset. The others who raised their hands, did you have anything else in mind?’

Nobody volunteers.

‘Okay. Can somebody in the room think of what the operational hazards might be? And yes, if you’re asked to speak, start by introducing yourself.’

A bespectacled boy of lean build raises his hand.

‘Jose Cherian, sir. Indiscriminate fumigation would be a disaster. Since the flies don’t always hover around and only enter the scene when the man instructs them to. Round-the-clock fumigation would make no sense. We need a more targeted strategy. One that would monitor the traffic of the flies very carefully and create barriers only in the routes that they are known to take. Indiscriminate fumigation would simply drive away all business prospects. Who would want to shop in an atmosphere that is constantly polluted by fumigants? Not only would it be unsafe, but by driving away customers we would have unwittingly helped the enemy achieve his goal of bringing the store down.’

Ravi is impressed and lets it show.

‘Very well put. Now can somebody translate this into the terms of our field, keeping in mind what I said earlier about the end of conventional warfare?’

Mihir and Cyrus raise their hands. Ravi waits to see if there are other hands, but nobody volunteers. He decides to speak up himself, ‘Since nobody else is volunteering, and these two have already spoken, let me say this myself. Our enemies now seek to sow seeds of distrust within the country, by exploiting our social and religious differences through carefully orchestrated propaganda. Something like the flies that get into the bull’s ears, leading the bull to turn against the hand that feeds it. But the story of the shop and the flies is only a metaphor, one that is far too simple to capture the messiness of real world intrigue. Here, there is no one single thing that we could compare with the flies. We are talking about tangible networks of human and material resources that are often camouflaged to the extent of being nearly invisible. Your job is to uncover these networks and disable them with as little collateral damage as possible.

‘Sometimes, these networks are intertwined with networks already engaged in organized crime, smuggling, and drug trafficking. But sometimes, they are neatly embedded in very ordinary streams of business and are nearly undetectable. Your job is to identify the conduits and sometimes become one of them. You cannot go in there with a gun to their head and expect to defeat the enemy. The goal is not to kill or arrest recklessly. It would be akin to punishing or killing the bull. Rather, the goal is to paralyse these strategies by creating barriers in the intermediary route between foreign controllers and domestic actors. And it will not be easy. You have joined an organization that prizes only those who are selfless in their service to the nation. You will be expected to work under extreme physical and mental duress.’