Let Bhutto Eat Grass. Shaunak Agarkhedkar. White Falcon Publishing. 2020. Rs 350. Pages 208.
Shaunak Agarkhedkar's first novel 'Let Bhutto Eat Grass' is an espionage thriller revolving around the early days of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program of the 1970s and is set in India, Pakistan and Europe.
The year is 1971. Captain Sablok, a sapper in the Indian army, is injured in a land mine explosion in Bangladesh. Doctors tell him that he would have to work behind a desk for the rest of his life.
But the game isn't over for him yet as he finds himself working as an analyst for the Pakistan section of "The Wing" (referring to India's intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing), albeit desk-bound. After two years of filing mundane reports, Sablok finds an interesting cable that points towards a potential Pakistani spy leaking nuclear weapons technology.
Pakistan is desperate to get its nuke game going, especially after India's 1974 nuke test, but their scientists are a long way from making any substantial breakthroughs. Sablok has a theory that a Pakistani diplomat could be leaking sensitive information on nuclear tech to the ISI, but his own station chief isn't convinced. His lack of experience and penchant for whisky did not seem to work in his favour.
Sablok turns to his friend, a washed-up case officer in The Wing and alcoholic like himself. The two of them manage to convince the chief of a different section of The Wing to mount an operation to gather intel.
And thus, the story takes us on a roller coaster ride from New Delhi to Europe and back, as Sablok and Co. race against time to put the brakes on Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.
Agarkhedkar's style of description involves attention to detail and frictionless word structure. The reader is quickly assimilated into the situation at hand. The surroundings in real life seem to disappear, and all one feels is the intense heartbeat of a frightened soul walking cautiously down a European street on a cold winter night, or the perspiration accumulating on one's forehead on a summer afternoon in an old and creaky office in New Delhi.
The book just pulls you into the spy's world. Every event, every action, every conversation keeps you at the edge of your seat, but the reader is so acclimatised to the situation that it somehow seems familiar, like this was how it was meant to be.
The conversations between members of the intelligence community are as authentic as it can get. Every word spoken by every character blends into the situation perfectly. Situations unfold in just the manner it would in an Indian setup.
No cringe-worthy dialogues. No joke seems out of place. There's no immortal hero who is the constant centre of attention. Everyone has a role to play. Very unlike most (if not all) Bollywood wannabe-espionage-so-called-thriller scripts.
The weight of responsibility and expectations faced by a normal citizen when thrust into the world of espionage is well depicted.
Descriptions of standard espionage procedures of the pre-smartphone/internet era are not too lengthy that it sounds like a field manual for a rookie spy, and not too short that they seem irrelevant.
Author makes sure that the reader's attention isn't diverted from the plot with too much mumbo jumbo about the make and model of guns and audio recorders, but also ensures that there aren't any blank spots in the imagination, giving the reader a clear enough picture of any relevant objects in each scene.
I personally liked how the spies and their assets aren't invulnerable to danger and their abilities to handle them are realistic; especially for those who have never been on the field.
There are far too many spy novels and movies where the agents navigate through enemy territory like they were invincible, making me feel like I was playing an FPS game with cheat codes. At one point, Sablok interestingly calls his field missions as 'Dissertations on discomfort'. And even in the office, life was anything but smooth and silky for Monsieur le Capitaine.
The unique tone that embodies typical Indian sarcasm is captured extremely well, and this makes the reading experience all the more relatable, especially to a reader who is familiar with the elements of everyday Indian humour.
There are multiple occasions where the author gives a good insight into the pains and gains of running a spy network on foreign soil and the excruciating efforts even the top brass of the intelligence community has to go through to get mission approval from their political masters.
Intelligence gathering is anything but a piece of cake. Agarkhedkar has done a good job of shining a light on the challenges involved in getting mission critical information even with ample resources. It's not always a happy ending. And things can get pretty ugly if you're not lucky or even slightly careless.
Normally in an espionage thriller, one would expect the protagonist to be an agent in the field or an analyst, or maybe even a rogue asset or occasionally a veteran in the organisation. But in this novel, as is the case in a real intelligence operation, we see each one of them had an equally pivotal role that led the plot to its outcome. The protagonist of 'Let Bhutto Eat Grass' is the Wing itself.
A true thriller novel isn't one that hands the thrilling element to the reader on a platter. No, to be true, absolutely and honestly true to itself, the thrill should arise out of the reader's imagination. Create that perfect connection with the reader and then surprisingly, several details not mentioned about various characters and their surroundings, the tension in the atmosphere, even human senses, they all start flowing into the basin of the reader's mind to enhance the reading experience and get that heart to beat with the story. It's as if your mind is on autopilot. And this book (or two of them rather) achieves just that. It gives the reader a true thrill.
No logical flaws. Well crafted espionage tactics. Never felt like any details were missed out. Not one detail too many. The novel accelerates with each page, and if one is reading the paperback version, papercuts are likely to be an imminent and constant threat.
I strongly recommend 'Let Bhutto Eat Grass' to anyone who likes espionage thrillers filled with authenticity and entertainment and also for those who would like to get a semblance of what life was like a few decades ago for the Indian spy.
If you're reading the Kindle version, you might want to keep your eyes peeled for a change of scene. Lack of line spacing or symbols at the end of a scene leaves the reader a little bit off balance, especially with the fast pace of the plot.
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