By Himadri Ghosh Oct. 03, 2016
Recruiting a spy is a heart-in-mouth moment. Often, a spy turns out to be a double agent. Mahesh’s job was making sure that this did not happen.
Mahesh K would have been the sixth guy to say no to me.
I had tried to convince five men from India’s top intelligence agency to meet with me, but all of them had turned me down. They seemed fairly committed to secrecy. I finally track Mahesh down through a common friend, and to my utter surprise, he agrees to meet me.
The meeting is set up after several warnings that even though he has retired, he is still bound by the Official Secrets Act, which he had signed almost 35 years ago. I wouldn’t be getting any gritty details on covert operations, organisational structure, and specifics on travels. I didn’t care. I just wanted to meet a secret agent. Too many films had promised me that spies were fantastically powered creatures who could fly helicopters upside down and who drove DB10s with rear flamethrowers. I needed to find out.
Several misconceptions get cleared, as soon as I meet the stout, graying man dressed in a simple kurta pyjama. First, the name of the man, I am so ardently pursuing, isn’t actually Mahesh, and second, he isn’t a spy. Mahesh (his real name was never revealed to me) was actually a high-ranking former intelligence officer and he assures me that his world was far away from “shaken, not stirred” martinis and weaponised Aston Martins. Once I get that out of the way and quickly reorganise my world view, Mahesh and I get down to talking.
The 60-year-old gentleman with a trimmed beard and smiling eyes, sits on a leather couch in his living room with folded hands, mildly amused by my curiosity. In a crowd, he’d probably go unnoticed. That, he says, is the idea. “You have to be a nobody. You have to blend in and not catch people’s attention. You walk into a room full of people, talk to a dozen, but when you walk out none of them should recall a thing about you.”
Mahesh had been walking in and out of such rooms with great aplomb for 35 years, carrying out covert and potentially dangerous operations for India. He has lived a double life in unfriendly foreign climes, mostly Pakistan and China; his real identity and purpose were concealed behind a designation that simply said “diplomat”.
Unlike Agent Vinod who travelled to 15 countries during a three-hour movie, Indian intelligence agencies rarely look beyond the ring of neighbouring countries. What happens in Syria is only of peripheral interest. But what happens in Pakistan and China, he says, is dire.
Mahesh has spent most of his career gathering intelligence, but intel officers do not have the licence to kill. What they do have the licence to do is recruit spies and train them for active duty. Training involves familiarising with the security system, the process of infiltrating enemy ranks, learning to mingle with the crowd, gaining the trust of the enemy, and how to target likely sources.
Recruiting a spy is a heart-in-mouth moment. Often, an individual picked up and groomed to be a spy turns out to be a double agent working for an enemy. Mahesh’s job was, making sure that this did not happen. “Somebody who gives information about Pakistan is invariably an ISI agent,” he says. “Spies are recruited only after thorough background checks, and after scrutinising their psychological traits. And even then, you can never be sure.”
The first and the most testing lesson Mahesh learnt on the job, was to maintain secrecy. Talking about work outside your service is forbidden, but it’s easier said than done.
What Mahesh did on most days was pour over paper. In addition to field reports, communication intercepts, his team would constantly monitor happenings, political, social, and economic events, which would have bearings on the homeland. Mahesh spent long hours at the desk, going through a heap of files and papers over and over again, connecting dots, anticipating the future, and always hoping to catch a clue that may have missed his eye. A missed clue can lead to a catastrophe, he says, his face changing colour, as he remembers moments in his career that gave him sleepless nights. It is stuff that he cannot talk about to anybody – neither to his family and friends, nor a shrink. He will take the secrets of botched operations, missed clues, near wars, and diplomatic disasters to his grave.
The weight of 35 years worth of national secrets bears down on Mahesh. He has the look of a man who has lived several lives in one.
At 23, hailing from one of the southern states of India with a middle-class family background, Mahesh’s only ambition was to make a decent living. A fresh science graduate, he was skimming through the morning papers, when his eyes fell on a tiny advertisement for a vacancy in the home ministry. In the 1960s, the prospect of a government job was an exciting one. He applied for the post hoping that he would become a diplomat. Unbeknownst to him, he was actually in the process of becoming an officer in one of India’s top intelligence agencies.
In retrospect, he thinks that the rather mysterious and complex recruitment process should have given him a clue. The interviews were grinding; they lasted for hours where Mahesh was questioned about everything from his parents to his political alignment. Questions ranged from international history to national politics, from technical details of ammunitions to the history of books and personalities. Following the interviews, psychotic and psychosomatic tests were conducted to analyse the mental strength of the candidates. At the end of it all, after almost a month-long process, the agency knew everything there was to know about him and then some. From his medical history to his personal relationships, from the places he frequented to the sports he played, right up to the size of the beater he wore under his shirt. The 23-year-old had no clue why a government job required such rigour. A few days later, he received a letter saying that he had bagged the job.
The first day in office was as mysterious as the interview. Mahesh was sitting on a chair assigned to him by a hard-nosed, stiff-lipped woman who rarely smiled. He was fidgeting with a paperweight, when a tall, dark man walked up to him and asked in a gruff voice, “Do you watch football?” A tongue-tied young Mahesh could barely manage a yes.
“There is match at 4 o’clock, let’s go, and watch the game,” said the man, who Mahesh learnt later would be his boss. That was Mahesh’s first official meeting. And, 35 years later, there’s no record of any meeting or a scrap of a paper to show that he was ever an intelligence officer.
The first and the most testing lesson Mahesh learnt on the job, was to maintain secrecy. Talking about work outside your service is forbidden, but it’s easier said than done. How do you keep such an enormous secret from your family and friends? Who do you tell about your day at work? Most Indian spies break this foremost rule and tell their families, though perhaps not the extended family or friends.
“In the 35 years that I spent in service, I never told a single soul that I am an intelligence officer,” says Mahesh, with an emphasis on the word “single”. “For the world, I worked as a bureaucrat in the home ministry. My daughter was 16 and my son 12, when I told them about my line of work.” What was their reaction, I ask him.
“Very much like yours,” he grins. “They wanted to know all about my work and what I did. I couldn’t tell them. All I could say was that I was safe.”
And he was safe on most days. Mahesh recalls one eventful night during his posting in Pakistan. He was living alone and barely had friends, but was invited to dinner by a colleague in the Indian consulate. He was driving when he spotted a car tailing him. It took him only a few seconds to realise that it was the ISI. The ISI and the Indian intelligence officers were familiar with each other, given how often they trailed each other. This particular man had been on Mahesh’s tail ever since he’d landed in Islamabad, four months ago.
“Speeding through the narrow lanes of the city, I tried my best to lose him. But when I cut speed, the ISI driver followed suit. When I accelerated, he too put his foot down hard. The car was six-feet away, flashing its bright headlights,” Mahesh recalls.
Mahesh was close to his destination. But the speed breakers at a crossing forced him to slow down. The ISI vehicle rammed into his car.
For some reason, that flipped Mahesh. He was incensed at how his harmless social outing in months was being sabotaged. He stepped out of the car and walked up to the notorious driver. “Kya ho raha hai? Aap log hamesha peecha karte ho. Aaj kya ho gaya,” he screamed, grabbing the car keys.
A towering man alighted from the car and confronted Mahesh. Both men were yelling and a mob gathered. The mob quickly sensed the underlying Indo-Pak tension and a man from the crowd started shouting, “Yeh jasoos hai, Indian jasoos.” The allegation outraged the mob even further. “They believed Indian spies were everywhere, which was partly true since my job in Pakistan was to recruit them.”
That night Mahesh thought was the end of him. The public in Pakistan, like back home in India, can be unforgiving. He was being heckled and pushed around by the mob. They punched and kicked him and he was down on the ground, when he spotted four officials from the Indian consulate passing by.
They were returning from a badminton game when they saw the mob. One of them noticed the car’s registration number and alerted the others. “They charged at the mob, swinging their rackets, like avenging heroes. The crowd ran helter-skelter and I was spared,” recalls Mahesh.
His phone beeps. It’s the fifth call that has come in. He smiles, as he puts the phone on silent. “This phone thing is something I’m getting used to. We were never allowed to use Android or iOS while on duty. There were simply too many security risks involved.”
I wonder who’s calling Mahesh. I wonder what he does now. That’s my last question to him before he disappears into the crowd. After a life lived at the centre of epic national events, how does he reconcile to retirement? What does he do with his time?
“Read the papers like any other senior citizens, and crib about pensions. What else?” he says, with a glint in his eyes.