A spymaster recounts his life in the shadows

New Delhi: Two things make a memoir riveting – memorable anecdotes and sharp comments about well-known people. When the author is a spook, as he calls himself after a lifetime in the Intelligence Bureau culminating as head of R&AW, you come across stories and people you otherwise would never find out about. This is what makes A. S. Dulat’s ‘A Life in the Shadows’ such fun.

In the 1980s Dulat was the security liaison officer for dignitaries visiting Delhi. One of them was Prince Charles. Indira Gandhi invited the Prince to lunch. It didn’t go off well. “Charles exited the Prime Minister’s residence looking like he’d been caned!” writes Dulat. ‘How did the lunch go, Your Highness?’ ‘Don’t ask’, Charles said getting into the car with an air of relief. ‘That lady can freeze you. You know I have met leaders all over the world, but this woman doesn’t speak a word!’ ”

Margaret Thatcher left a different impression. The Iron Lady turned out to be a caring boss. Dulat writes of Thatcher’s response when she discovered Gordon Cawthorne, her security officer, was planning to spend a night in the cold outside her room. “ ‘Gordon are you serious about spending the night here?’ Thatcher asked. ‘Yes Ma’am. Of course, I am.’ ‘Then’ said the Prime Minister, ‘wait a minute. It’s cold out here. Let me get you one of Denis’s sweaters.’ ”

During that trip Thatcher’s car was caught in a traffic jam. Looking out of the window she saw Cawthorne “jogging alongside”. She asked Dulat, who was in the front seat beside the driver, if they could give him a lift. Dulat agreed and opened the door to let him in. “ ‘No, no, you can’t be uncomfortable’ Thatcher quickly said. ‘He’ll sit with us at the back’. ” Dulat adds: “I hadn’t ever seen anything quite like it. The Prime Minister of Britain was willing to squeeze three into a back seat rather than inconveniencing her security officer.”

Many of Dulat’s anecdotes are about Giani Zail Singh. He writes “I accompanied Giani on every trip he took abroad from 1982 to 1987.” It seems the fun happened when the President wasn’t around. “Whenever we landed in a new country, if Romesh Bhandari was the secretary travelling with the President, he would tell me ‘The party’s in my room.’ ” During a brief stop in Hong Kong, whilst returning from Honolulu, “we were all so exhausted that the idea of a nice massage seemed heavenly … I asked the front desk at the hotel if there was a massage parlour nearby … I lost no time in rushing off only to find N. K. P. Salve, the minister-in-waiting and a fun guy himself, had got there before me!”

The insights into the important people Dulat got to know are revealing. In 1984, as Sikhs were being killed, Dulat met Arjun Singh. “I suggested that as chief minister, he meet with the Sikhs in Bhopal to allay their worries … he refused point-blank … the message that he implicitly conveyed was that the state – and the Government of India – was making its point clear, and that the Sikhs were, if anything, supposed to feel insecure at this juncture.”

Of his former colleagues Dulat writes about Ajit Doval, the present National Security Advisor. They first met “in the parking lot of the IB office in North Block.” Doval was young and three years junior. “What I saw in him right from those days convinced me that here was a man who was going to rise to the very top of his career. He was everyone’s friend and nobody’s friend at the same time, a line that is vastly difficult for most of us to walk on an everyday basis.”

However, Dulat believes Doval has changed. The young Doval was an admirer of L. K. Advani and willing to talk to the Pakistanis. Now, “he wants nothing to do with talking, with accommodation. His focus is on toughness, on ruthlessness, on ensuring that targets are met … the Doval I knew in the old days was never focussed on Narendra Modi. His attention was on Advani, whose favourite he was.”

“I have many more stories about Ajit, mostly complimentary”, Dulat adds. I guess he’s saving them for a sequel. I’m not sure what Doval would make of that but I can’t wait to read it.


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