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V. Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.

True fiction: The best spies are really quite boring

Nancy Wake (Left) & Stella Rimington (Right)

ome Indian newspapers have prominently published the news of 98-year-old Nancy Wake's death. World War II heroine and spy, Wake was born in New Zealand but migrated to Australia. She took part in the French Resistance after her marriage. The Gestapo called her "The White Mouse". When Germany occupied France, she escaped to England and joined Churchill's Special Operations Executive (SOE) to wage covert war against the Nazis. On retirement, she alternated between Australia and England. Since 2001 she was living in London where she died on 7 August.

Why do we get entranced with the spy world? What motivates anybody to join that profession? Is it our innate curiosity to peep into an unknown, shadowy world? There are indications that the founding English spymasters deliberately tried to create an aura of mystery: Vernon Kell, founder of MI-5 (1909) would insist that his "boys" should have the ability to make notes on shirt cuffs while riding horses and that his "girls should have good legs". Stella Rimington, the first woman MI-5 chief recounts a traditional joke in Open Secret: "You would know which was the Director General because he was the one who always wore his dark glasses indoors so that he would not be recognised." She, however, says: "Ian Fleming and John Le Carré in their different ways have done the intelligence world few favours." She disappoints us further: "The best and most successful spies are the quiet, apparently boring and dull people who go on doing the same thing in an unostentatious way year after year and the best counter-espionage officers are those who match them for perseverance." It is for the same reason why Allen Dulles, the father of modern American intelligence, refused to include the "heroic" Mata Hari in his compilation Great True Spy Stories (1968), since "it is doubtful that the information she elicited from her admirers was worth the paper it was written on".

Somerset Maugham tells us in The Summing Up why he joined the British intelligence for a short period: "Now with a clear conscience I wasted long hours at estaminets in idle chatter... The work appealed both to my sense of romance and my sense of ridiculous."

augham had to handle only two main operations, one of which had an Indian connection. He gives its fictionalised account in two stories ("A trip to Paris" and "Giulia Lazzari") in Ashenden. He was to entice to the French-Swiss border an Indian subversive, "Chandra Lal", who had fallen in love with an Italian dancer, Giulia Lazzari. Chandra consumes poison and dies when apprehended. The story ends with Giulia telling Ashenden that she knew that Chandra always carried poison as "The English should never take him alive". The hunted outwitted the hunter. However, the real Chandra, who was watched by Maugham, did not die like that. The late A.C.N. Nambiar, a close associate of Netaji Subhas Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru and who was kept under watch by the British in Berlin, had told me that that "Chandra Lal" was none other than his brother-in-law Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, alias, Chatto, Sarojini Naidu's brother. Chatto's life story is stranger than Maugham's fiction. In Berlin he changed his identity to Hussain Ali Khan and hobnobbed with leading anarchists like philosopher Rudolph Rocker, revolutionary socialist Emma Goldman, American militant trade union leader Alexander Berkman and Alexi Borghi, Mussolini's associate, when he was a socialist and joint editor with him of Avanti, the socialist paper. Agnes Smedley, the American revolutionary, described by some Western agencies as a "triple agent" (quadruple?), allegedly working for the Soviets, KMT and

Chinese Communists as well as American Gen. Stilwell while in Shanghai, stayed with him in Berlin (1921 to 1928). Viren migrated to the Soviet Union in 1933.

According to Dr Lydia Karunovskaya, his last wife, he was arrested in 1937. Other accounts said that he was a victim of Stalin's purge against M.N. Kirov. He died mysteriously. Agnes Smedley, who met him in Moscow in 1933, said, "He was at last growing old, his body thin and frail, his hair rapidly turning white. The desire to return to India obsessed him, but the British would trust him only if he were dust on a funeral pyre."

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