- For his debut novel, retired aerospace engineer Vijay Balan draws inspiration from the accounts of his grand-uncle who was a member of Indian National Army's espionage wing during World War II.
If you are into Indian Independence history, particularly that of the exploits of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, at times a critic of Mahatma Gandhi but a patriot and a freedom fighter nonetheless, this book is for you. Published by Harper Collins India, “The Swaraj Spy” is the debut novel by Vijay Balan, an Atlanta-based and a long-time former Minneapolis resident who is now a retired aerospace engineer. I met Balan at a People’s Organic when he was visiting his old haunt Minneapolis and had a chance to talk to him about his debut novel. The book is a fictional account of a true story – piecing together his father’s talks about this legendary grand-uncle and research, Vijay produces a true historical fiction that captivates!
I received the book in the mail a few days later and was immediately engrossed. It is an easy read, and it grabs your imagination and spikes your curiosity immediately. What also caught my eye was the glowing review by Sashi Tharoor on the back cover. “The Swaraj Spy is an engrossing story that delves into a place and time that writers and historians have unjustly overlooked for a long time,” Tharoor writes. And what better way to mark the 78th year of Netaji’s passing than by revisiting his extraordinary effort during India’s freedom struggle. The fact that he adopted measures that went against certain principles at that time — visiting Germany during Hitler’s rise and helping the imperialist Japanese army in Southeast Asia. Whether we agree or disagree with his Indian National Army (INA) and his philosophies, Bose was and will remain a big part of the fabric of India’s freedom struggle for times to come.
First about the author. Vijay Balan grew up in Ooty, India and worked as an aerospace engineer up until his retirement. Now settled in Atlanta, Georgia, he is an avid history buff who enjoys weaving insights and nuances from his wide travels and readings into storytelling. His debut novel, “The Swaraj Spy,” is based on the experiences of his grand-uncle Jemadar Kumaran Nair, a member of the INA’s espionage wing in World War II. “The story of the INA, and its secret espionage wing is relatively unknown. My purpose in authoring this book is to let the world know of the extraordinary unsung sacrifices of men like my grand-uncle as they navigated a shadowy hall-of-mirrors with blurred lines between friend and foe, while hastening the end of Britain’s Indian Empire 75 years ago,” he says.
The book challenges accepted notions of the “good” and “bad” sides in World War II. It is also the story of how global events beyond his control transform an energetic enforcer of colonial rule to a thoughtful soul reflecting on the human condition.
The book itself is about the little-known story of the espionage wing of the INA, an army that was created during World War II, by Japanese Intelligence and Indian freedom activists by convincing Indian soldiers fighting for Britain (about two million Indians fought for Britain in WWII), to switch sides. The protagonist, Kumar Nair, is dismissed from a colonial paramilitary unit for refusing to disperse unarmed women agitating for India’s independence.
When the Great Depression destroys his fledgling business, Nair moves to Singapore for a fresh start, but World War II breaks out. After Singapore falls, he joins a secret spy school, created by the Japanese intelligence and the rebel Indian National Army to defeat the British and free India. When a double agent betrays several cadets, Kumar is sent on a rescue mission, but with conflicting instructions due to tensions between the Japanese and the INA — the Japanese tell him to continue the mission with surviving agents, while the Indians tell him to save the remaining agents and hide until the war ends. Caught in a hall of mirrors, can he cross wartime borders, rescue captured agents and return to his young wife in Malabar?
The book challenges accepted notions of the “good” and “bad” sides in World War II. It is also the story of how global events beyond his control transform an energetic enforcer of colonial rule to a thoughtful soul reflecting on the human condition. As well, it is the tale of a wife dealing in her own unique way with the fear and loneliness of a husband lost in a war zone.
The book has already garnered some rave reviews ever since its launch in India. The Hindu remarks that “Vijay Balan keeps the pace ticking in The Swaraj Spy.” And the Frontlist says “The Swaraj Spy is not just a wartime struggle but also a story of compassion, love, emotions, and transformation. Give this heart-warming book a read and discover a new narrative to wartime accounts.” Swati Daftuar, Executive Editor, HarperCollins India says, the book “brings together so much – history, adventure, intrigue – and is such a moving, compelling story set against turbulent times. It captures perfectly both human emotions and political turmoil and gives us a story that stays with us long after the last page is turned.”
Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, and social issues fascinate and roil her into action. She volunteers her time with certain political and community organizations.