Vijay Balan grew up in picturesque Ooty in Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu and moved to the United States for college. He began his career in aerospace, including working on the Space Shuttle propulsion system. A rocket scientist who is an avid history buff, widely travelled and captivating storyteller, he enjoys using the written and spoken word to make arcane concepts easily understood. ‘The Swaraj Spy’ is his compelling debut historical fiction spy thriller based on his granduncle’s real life in the colonial era and the Indian freedom struggle, narrated through Kumar Nair, sent on a rescue mission as a spy.
Vijay Balan’s nearly 500 pages novel, printed in 2022 by Harper Collins Publishers India, is priced at Rs 599 and dedicated to his granduncle and the men who were trained with him in August 1942 by the Indian Swaraj Institute (ISI) established clandestinely in Penang, Malaya.
The book, though a work of fiction, is based on the actual historical events revolving around the author’s grand uncle Kumar who, as a young well, informed man, served as the direct entry Jemadar in Malabar Special Police (MSP) and was dismissed from service for not dispersing unarmed Indian women agitating for India’s independence from the British colonial rule and some other men trained along with him at the ISI. After his dismissal from MSP Kumar tried his hand at starting an automobile business which he had to shut down with Great Depression engulfed the world over.
He moved to Singapore to try his fortunes, but with the onset of World War II, falls to the Japanese. He, with other Indian friends, joined the Japanese Spy School run by the Japanese Intelligence agency and Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, training rebel Indians dreaming Swaraj by freeing India from British colonial rule by sending several trained agents to gather intelligence about the allied troops deployed in Malaya, Burma and India. These Japanese trained and motivated Indian agents, after induction, were captured by the betrayal of a double agent, and Kumar was sent for a rescue cum intelligence gathering mission to India via Mizo hills bordering Burma. Kumar faced numerous difficulties traversing through the hostile jungle and mountainous terrain with no roads and tracks, developed means of communication and numerous rivers to cross, underfed and overstretched by both physical and mental fatigue, only hoping to reach Calicut and be with his young wife Maalu whom he loved immensely.
Kumar also realised that the Japanese dreamt of defeating the Britishers and ruling India and how far it was desirable to get rid of the Britisher’s colonial rule over the Japanese hegemony, and Swaraj for India was the only answer. Swapping the Japanese for the British was no different from the system in India. His journey on foot, boats, tongas, trains and trucks towards India always made him feel like getting closer to Calicut and Maalu.
He was finally captured along the Indo-Burmese border and suffered a badly injured knee in gunfire by the local British unit of Chins operating the region. In fact, all the Japanese trained intelligence gathering cadets launched in India were apprehended by Britishers with fake Indian currency provided by the Japanese trainers that let Britishers doubt them as the trained Indian agents planted by the Japanese to cross over India in different war zones to gather allied troops intelligence, carry out acts of counter-intelligence, espionage, sabotage and subversion. The big lacunae in their launching were providing them with fake Indian currency to sustain. Interestingly, in the war zone, in fact, the recovery of fake Indian currency with matching numbers with their arrests was the root cause of the Britishers’ suspecting them as the larger part of the trained Japanese intelligence network.
Vijay Balan, the author of his debut book, has described life in Malabar, Singapore and Kumar’s journey through hostile terrain from Singapore to Malaya, Burma, Manipur and Lushai Hills, his medical treatment and recovery and interrogation and trial in Delhi or Madras let Britishers in deep suspicion on his clandestine involvement as the Japanese spy involved in Swaraj movement.
The author is at his best in describing human emotions under adverse hopeless situations in kaleidoscopic terrain and people that Kumar had come across in colonial and slave India. Kumar was a very balanced human being who felt torture in India was commonplace and brutal, which he experienced as a British captive in the northeast, Calcutta, Delhi and Madras from where his long journey began a dozen years ago. During his trial and tribulations, the savagery of war, fascinating terrain and third-degree interrogation, he always remembered his young wife Maalu and the family. The British masters were always suspicious of his dismissal from MSP and the Japanese linkages in Singapore and finally executed him.
An interesting novel, though historical fiction, gives an insight view of World War II as fought along Northeastern India and Southeast Asia in Burma, Malaya and Singapore between the allies and the Japanese and the impending Swaraj in our country along with the glimpses of the role of Subhash Chandra Bose’s the Indian National Army (INA). It’s a bit long but absorbing to read, indeed and commented as an engrossing story by Shashi Tharoor.