Month: June 2017

In Conversation with Pankaj Sekhsaria

In Conversation with Pankaj Sekhsaria

Pankaj Sekhsaria wears many hats. He is a scientist, a journalist, a writer, an environmentalist, a photographer.. the list goes on. He has been working in the field of environment for more than two decades. This kind of commitment to a cause is remarkable. I spoke to him to gain insight into his work, his philosophy.

Pankaj Sekhsaria
Pankaj Sekhsaria (right) at the release of his new book ‘Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar story’ in Delhi at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) with Shakti Sinha, former Chief Secretary of the A&N islands and currently, Director, NMML, and Air Marshal (Retd) AK Roy, former Commander in Chief, of the Defence Tri Command located in Port Blair.

Raj : Can you give us an introduction of the various activities that you are involved in?

Pankaj : I would say that a lot of work that I have done for a large number of years is around the field of environment and ecology. I work with this organization called Kalpavriksh where one of the key pillars of our work has been the issue of human rights and tribal rights, so in a sense it’s the intersection of work on the environment but also on the axis of environmental rights, human rights, social rights. And within that, very briefly, one of my main areas of interest for a long time has been the field communication, but broadly in the field of the environment. So I have been involved as a journalist, as a photographer, as a filmmaker, as an author. It’s not so much scientific communication although I do a little bit of that too. So that’s one broad area of work.

Within that there are two or three thematic areas of work. One has been the work in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – this is again done with Kalpavriksh and the other work has been in the line of communication. For the last twenty years the organization produces this little newsletter called the Protected Area Update, which is a compilation of existing news on wildlife in protected areas. I have been editing that for the almost two decades now. It goes out every two months, a 24 page newsletter that provides information for people who are interested in the areas of wildlife and conservation. The other body of work which also intersects at various levels is photography. It also connects with the writing and the communication work. I have been interested in photography for a long time, so wildlife photography and environmental photography has been one area of engagement.

The other broad area of engagement has been with the Hyderabad based NGO called Dastkar Andhra that works with traditional cotton handloom weavers in the united Andhra Pradesh or what is now Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. I have been, off and on, in an ad-hoc manner, working with that organization to do a photographic documentation of the weaver, of the handloom and of the weaving village. So this also I have doing for nearly twenty years now. It’s not been as intense and as consistent as the environment related work, but as and when I have gotten the opportunity I have traveled with members of this organization to document. Occasionally I have also written about those issues.

The really new area of work is related to my recently completed PhD which is in the field of science and technology studies or sometimes also called as science, technology and society studies, or STS in short. So these are basically sociological, anthropological, historical analyses of science and technology. So you look at science, the scientists, the technologists and the fields of science and technology but you investigate them, you analyse them, you study them with tools that come from the social sciences.

Raj : One thing that strikes me is that many of your activities are themed around environment, its protection and the consequences. So how did this engagement with environment start? What was the trigger?

Pankaj : Right. My younger brother had always been interested in wildlife and environment. I remember I used to kind of make fun of his interest…what is this bird that you are interested in? So those days we lived outside Poona, very close were farmlands, a small stream, a river that was not very far away and a good small patch of forest by the river. And even gardens. Gardens are great places for bird watching. I remember I went for bird watching once or twice and saw a couple of birds and kind of got hooked in some sense.

And by the time I was in class 10-12, I had developed an interest in wildlife but also interests in a more general and broader kind of – the broader environmental issues. So for instance, those days, the Narmada Bachao movement was at its prime – there was a lot of mobilization of people and the discussion in the media was also quite prominent. And I started to, in a very small way become part of the support of the Narmada Bachao movement in Poona. So that kind of interest started to pick up.

And in class 11, I think, if I remember right, there was this very interesting padayatra along the western ghats of the country. It was called the Paschim Ghat Bachao Mohim, the .. Paschim Ghat Bachao Yatra (The Save Western Ghats march). So these were a bunch of very diverse people including anthropologists, ecologists, activists, journalists, students who had come together because of the common interest in the Western Ghats. They decided to get a first hand account of what was happening and what better way than doing a march – a Yatra. So two groups of people started from the two extreme ends of the Western Ghats – one from the Maharashtra-Gujarat boarder in the North and one from the extreme southern tip of these Ghats. And they walked along the Western Ghats for 100 days from opposite directions.. basically getting a first hand sense of the ecological concerns, of the social concerns… And they met in Goa – roughly the middle point – after 100 days to have a kind of a conference and a discussion on what they had seen. And it was called a Yatra but it was also – taking a bus when required, taking a boat when required because you were crossing dam waters or rivers, whatever. And I had an opportunity then to be part of the march for 10 days. So I joined them in Mahabaleshwar for the march for about 10 days. And then I came home and again went to Goa to join the concluding meeting. And you can imagine, you know, for a class 11 student who is interested in these things, this had a huge impact on me, in terms of seeing what people can do, seeing what the issues are, seeing what the impact was on people and also seeing what the possibilities are. So that became quite an influence on me. That’s around the time when I decided that I definitely want to work in the field of the environment.

Now simultaneously around those days – I am talking of junior college and then my graduation – I also started to become interested in the process of writing and communication. So there was an interest and the commitment that developed towards environmental issues and I also started to like the process of writing and communicating and photography. So somewhere I kind of made up my mind that I will work at the intersection of these two. I want to work in the field of environment and I want to work in the field of communication but it will broadly be at the intersection. So after I did my engineering I did a course in communication in Delhi. So that’s how things panned out.

A full grown elephant in the timber hard of Hut Bay, Little Andaman Island which is the traditional home of the Onge tribal community. This is a 1998 picture. Logging that was started in the Andaman islands by the British over a century ago continues even today but is much reduced. Logging in Little Andaman was stopped about 20 years ago.

Raj : You have been involved in environment and your PhD is related to science and technology. And in many aspects you know, these two are sometimes contradictory. Wherever you have a new project for science and technology, there are some environmental concerns so what is your point of view of maintaining a balance between these two?

Pankaj : I think one saw the issues and one saw the kind of development happening, one saw the impact, with the people one was seeing, with the perspective that had developed, one clearly saw and felt that modern science and technology and industrial development is at the heart of the problem that we are facing. Now, that, in some sense, continues to be true. But as we grow older and understand more you realize that things are more complex. One realizes that it is not so straightforward, I mean the world is a lot more nuanced, there are many more areas of gray, there is more ambiguity in that sense.

It might well be very easy to criticize but I also started to realize that we are part of the problem and we can also be part of the solution. So, what I said in the beginning – the interest in wildlife, going into an environmental concern was also a journey into understanding the complexities and the power plays and the politics. And not politics in terms of party politics but politics in terms of power hierarchies – who takes the decision, who benefits and stuff like that. So, you know, its a very difficult question to answer straight off except to say that the inequities are very obvious. And in that sense the Narmada movement or the other movements raised those questions. Very basically, who benefits at whose cost because you know you are willing to sacrifice people and ecosystems and the environment in the name of the nation’s development. But who is this nation? What is this nation for? Is it not the environment, environmental and ecological context or livelihood? Is it not the person who has lost his livelihood, or even his life? Is that person not part of the nation? These questions have been central to the work that I have done and this is central to the work of Kalpavriksh and many other organizations. And obviously there is no black and white answer. And why I am saying this is because I don’t have an answer to your question in terms of A, B, C and the question for me has become – are we asking the right questions? Are we pointing to the right issues? Are we asking enough questions and enough kinds of questions?

So you have narratives of development, you have narratives of progress, you have narratives of economic growth which is all fine but I think environmental critics, even economic critics are now asking questions about those things. And I won’t deny that I am implicated in that larger process. But I think if you can ask questions, if you can challenge, then that’s one step towards perhaps finding solutions to some of the problems. Am I answering your question?

Raj : Yeah. Actually, when you said that there is no A, B, C that’s true. I mean because there is no black and white answer to that. So I just wanted to get your point of view since you are connected to both fields.

Pankaj : There is the issue of equities and inequities. Who is making the decisions, who has access… these are things that are very important to point out or to engage with to the extent that we can. That really is the point that I want to make. So what happens is this – in the middle class or upper middle class in urban India, we point fingers at one set of people as the source of the problem but increasingly I want to ask questions of this milieu and the communities that I am part of. So that is definitely an important thing that one needs to do.

Raj : Since you mentioned middle class, that sort of prompts me to go into the next question. What I see is that in general people are aware of the problems of environment – not in a deep sense but in general, through social media and news media, people are being made aware of it. But there is no clear-cut way to what they can do because everyone cannot be a full time activist. So what can a normal person do regarding these issues?

Pankaj : At one level, I am beginning to think if this is an issue of, I mean, is just knowing about it enough? We know, but what do we do? I think the real fundamental deep question is – how are we responsible? If we as individuals are able to engage with that question honestly, and ask for answers – how I am responsible for what is happening? Or is it a problem that somebody else creates and you are aware of it and do you want to do something about it? What happens if you are the person who has created the problem? I am basically asking for self-reflection, at whatever level because I see no point in me telling Rajendra – this is the problem and you have to do this. This is what you can do. I want to create a frame where you will ask the questions.

That’s the way I would want to do it. If I start to see how I am part of that whole thing then what I see as a larger problem or who I see as being responsible itself will change in the first case. Otherwise I can blame industrialists or I can blame the politicians or I can blame A, B, C, D whoever the person might be. So typically you will say, in a forest ecosystem, the tribal and local villager are responsible for wildlife decimation. In urban cities we are saying, you know, the political system is so corrupt – what’s the point? We can’t do anything about it so we are not responsible for anything as individuals. So in the city context for instance when I drive the vehicle I am creating a demand for road space or fuel for that matter, so I am also part of the problem. It’s not like the problem lies somewhere and I am a victim. I am not a victim alone; I am also part of creating the problem. I think if we need to see our own responsibility and understand what can be done about it. And how can I push that reality more? So can I use more public transport? Can I use less water? At one level it’s also about simplifying the life that we live. So you know, what will you simplify? What all will you give up, for instance, if it’s a question of giving up? But I think you will also realize that there is a difference in impact all of us have on the environment. So, what impact you and I may have is so much different than the impact of say, a person in rural India or a person in tribal community. Right? We can’t treat them all at par. So once you realize this kind of responsibility then the question may be – what can I do? How am I responsible? How can I try to do something about it? So that’s what I would urge people to do. So that’s how I have come around to looking at the issue now.

Konda Dora Tribal community
A member of the Konda Dora Tribal community in the Anantgiri Hills of current Andhra Pradesh.

Raj : I want to change the track a little bit. There are so many things that you are doing at the same time. You are involved in so many projects. Do you have a system for time management? How do you prioritize your tasks? So how can you achieve all this.. I mean it’s really amazing.  Do you have any tips?

Pankaj: Actually, quite kind of chaotic.. I mean I don’t have a set-out chart of the work that I do. I’ve never thought about this actually. So what I realize is I think, generally speaking, is I am doing little bit of different kinds of work at the same time.

Raj : Multitasking?

Pankaj : Yeah, so multitasking is one thing but it’s also like.. say if I have two or three major projects to do, then depending on the time of the day, I will spend one and a half hours, two hours doing this work. Then I leave it behind, leave it for another day and move on to some other work on some other project. And if there is time then I will kind of move on to the 3rd thing – polish up something else or finish something else on another project. Each piece of work, each project has also its own demands depending on where the project is located, what has to be delivered etc. Sometimes, of course, more priority or more attention is to be given to finishing one particular assignment and something else, kind of, gets left behind. That a very general kind of thing that is there.

So it’s about building upon things slowly over time, but consistently. That for me has been key. It might just suddenly look like this guy has done so much but it is actually the cumulative output of many years of work. So it looks like a lot of work, which it might be, but it also not that it has been done overnight or in two days or a year or whatever. It is a slow compilation and consolidation that then creates the larger body of work. It becomes visible. There could be multiple outputs, multiple products, multiple kinds of visibilities that the work then gets and it suddenly looks like a lot of work is happening. So there’s a kind of optimization, if I may use that word. I think the issue really is of engaging with something on a long term, with depth… This allows for two or three things – 1) you develop a newer understanding and a width of understanding and 2) You develop your own reputation, your own confidence in that particular area. The other thing is that when you have done so much work, then I think the investment that you need to make in terms of time or energy is only incremental but the results visible are of a substantially larger order. You know what I mean? So to get a book out does not take me as much time to write a new book because…

Raj : Because you have already done so much work, so it’s cumulative..

Pankaj : Yeah, it also allows you a flexibility. As a writer I can say that there is a requirement for certain discipline. Different people write differently, but I am referring to writing in an incremental kind of manner. You can’t write book in a day, it can take years. So here is a process where you have to engage daily to the extent that you can or engage on a regular basis – two hours or four hours a day depending on what’s available. So there’s kind of slow building up – brick by brick. For me writing works best in the early part of the day, early morning – before the world has really woken up. So I will try to the extent possible to work in the early part of the morning for one hour, two hours, three hours, depending on how much time I have that day and what else needs to be done. So that’s how the writing work happens. And then I leave it for the day. This is useful in the creative process too because I don’t get saturated with the idea. I can come back to it fresh the next day or two days later when I have the time. And for the rest of that day I am able to work on some other projects and commitments. And then suddenly after three years or four years one has completed three or four substantially interesting and different projects. And it looks like it’s a lot of work. I think that’s how it works for me.

Raj : Your new book, Islands in Flux, can you tell us what is it about?

Islands in Flux

Pankaj : So Islands in Flux – the subtitle of the book is The Andaman and Nicobar Story – is a book that tells the story of these islands along axes and intersections that are broadly unknown or broadly ignored in discussion, in the media and in policy planning.. And what do I mean when I say this? For instance, if you mention the Andaman and Nicobar islands to anybody there are four or five broad associations that come to mind. Today, increasingly, it’s a great place for tourism, a great place for a holiday. It has been associated with this tribal community known as the Jarawa for various interesting reasons. There is, of course, the 2004 tsunami that hit the islands very hard; that is when the islands became internationally prominent and then maybe the cellular jail and the association with the freedom struggle, particularly in the Poona context with Veer Savarkar because he was also imprisoned there. So this really is all we know about the Andamans. We don’t know much more about them. And even when you look at the four or five issues, there are many levels and layers of complexity and details which are not known in the contemporary context. I have been writing about those islands for twenty years. There is a certain depth and a certain width of issues in these writings that many people don’t know about. So that is what the Islands in Flux is. It’s a compilation of a selection of my writings, organized around three or four broad themes that want to tell the stories of the islands that are not being told or have been ignored and relegated to the margins. .

turtle tracks
The tracks left behind by a Giant Leatherback turtle female as she returns to the sea after laying her eggs, South Bay at the mouth of the River Galathea, Great Nicobar Island. A 2003 picture.

Raj : Final question. How do you see the future? I mean in the Indian context , the future of environmental related problems in India. Are you optimistic or do you prefer to be more realistic?

Pankaj : So you know the picture is bleak, no doubt about that. But having said that I think there is a lot of space for hope. In environmental work we always end up being doomsday and destruction kind of people, always telling stories of doom and end of the world. So there are two ways I would like to answer that question. You know issues, for eg., of gender rights becoming important which was never a concern. So on the one hand things are going bad and on the other there is also this thing that people are trying and fighting, there are new creative initiatives, and positive signs of hope or seeds of hope kind of thing. So it’s not like it’s only doomsday – there are lots of problems that people are trying to find solutions to – that’s one thing. The other is that the Indian context or the south Asia context is a very unique kind of context. It is both a challenge but also an opportunity. Because you know everybody is absolutely stunned at how India works as a country. If you look at the ecological diversity of this country, from the Himalayas to the oceans, the mangroves to the deserts, we have some of the most unique and richest ecosystems. These, in turn, support a huge amount of ecological wealth and biodiversity and different forms of life and on these are dependent a huge number of culturally, socially, politically different human communities. I mean the kind of diversity that we have in this country is phenomenal. And it has sustained itself. There are challenges of course.

So, you know, some very interesting mapping has been done – if you lay a map of India with say the mineral resources, on top of a map of forest India, and on that you overlay a map of say, tribal India, you will see that they will overlap. In our geography text books in school you will see significant parts of Central and Eastern India for instance, marked as the the mineral bank of India. Your best mining in terms of iron or bauxite or coal happen in that belt, right? Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, parts of Orissa, parts of Madhya Pradesh – it it here that we also find some of the best forests in India and this is also the land on which the tribal communities are still sustaining themselves. But they are all on one top of the other. Now, this is the main source for timber and increasingly for minerals that the modern state and the modern development are demanding. And also a very interesting thing is the so called red belt where the maoists have a very significant presence – it is roughly the same area. If you lay a map of what is called – I think – the red corridor is what it’s called, all of these things overlap. Mineral India, forest India, tribal India and say, the red corridor India – it’s a very, very interesting overlap that is happening. And we should ask why that is the case.

Raj : So that itself tells a story..

Pankaj : So you have today in India people living in multiple time frames – you have the nomadic hunting gatherer tribal communities in the forests, you also have subsistence agriculture around large parts of India, you have commercialized large scale agriculture in other parts, you have a very extensive industrial society, you also have what might be called post-industrial society, you know the tertiary activity society or economy with the IT industry, service industry etc. Anywhere else all this will actually be separated by so many generations, but in this landscape they all exist in parallel. And often they are in conflict over the same resources for different reasons. A forest dwelling community might require it for survival, but the industrial enterprise requires it for sending a rocket to the Moon or creating a missile or something of that kind.

Raj : Right..

Pankaj : The sociologist Shiv Visvanathan has articulated the concept of cognitive justice where, you know, we acknowledge and allow for what he calls the right to ‘ways of life’. How do we ensure that these conflicting ways of living, conflicting demands on resources on the planet – how are you going to reconcile that? That’s the challenge. That is our reality. The tribal section of India is a significant percentage of our population and if you look at the numbers, youi realize that that the numbers that are being marginalized in our country are more than the population of most countries on this planet.

Raj : That’s significant..

Pankaj : So I think the picture is grim and it’s becoming grimmer because of the ideas of what development are and the way we are pushing ourselves as a country. If our aspirations, our models are only western and if we believe that runaway economic growth is the solution to the problem, what we see is only the manifestation of that fundamental idea of growth and development and progress. And it’s not with just this government, it’s been happening for many years now. So it is a challenge. But on the other hand, as I mentioned, you have so many people resisting. There so many people saying we believe in a different way of living, that we have the right to think differently, the right to do things differently. That’s where the hope also comes because they are saying we don’t want a monoculture, there cannot be a monoculture. And India I think in some senses offers the best opportunity for fighting the idea of the monoculture. Diversity and resilience is key. Any system that has more modes of anchoring itself is going to be a more resilient system. So if all the people are only dependent on only one form of activity for livelihood, if that activity is for some reason destroyed then all these people are completely lost. But if that population has many kinds of livelihoods, and doing different things – it is a simple kind of analysis – then there is more security. If any one kind of activity is disturbed, it’s not that everybody loses a livelihood, even though the whole system is shaken up. A very simple example is of the Andamans,. In the Andamans, you know, tourism has been promoted as one of the main livelihoods and economic activities. And it’s like all the eggs are being laid in the tourism basket. But it’s a place that is hugely unstable in terms of geological activities – earthquakes, tsunamis, storms etc. and tourist arrivals can be significantly affected by that. Like in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004, the tourism industry collapsed almost completely and that is obvious because which tourist will want to come into such a disaster struck zone? So if all the livelihoods and all the economic activity rely only on one industry – tourism in this case, then they will be completely lost. So this diversity whether it’s the food being grown or eaten, the different ways that we do the things – all that matters and is very important. And it is this inherent diversity that we should value because this is what will help us, for various reasons – to survive and to thrive.

We are a country with a whole lot of problems, I mean cultural, social, political, ecological. Many of them are of our own making as societies and communities. But I mean it’s amazing how much diversity, wealth and knowledge we have. So that’s where the hope is in a sense. It’s in-built in some sense. How can we work with that, how can we mobilize that, I think these things are the opportunities. That is the challenge!

All images and captions kind courtesy of Pankaj. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Spy Narratives : From James Bond to Jason Bourne and Beyond

Spy Narratives : From James Bond to Jason Bourne and Beyond


My first encounter with spy stories on screen was, like many of us, with – Bond, James Bond. I liked Pierce Brosnan as Bond. He was charming, funny and had all the right ingredients to make a very impressive James Bond. I am aware that this is a very subjective. All Bond fans have their own favourite Bonds. Bond movies reflect the suaveness of the times they were made in and this is enhanced by the state of the art technology at the time. If you watch old Bond movies, they may seem outdated for a number of reasons, one of them being the breathtaking pace of advancing technology.

James Bond was the ultimate spy before the more realistic versions took over. He never had to worry about budget. He was always equipped with ultra-modern toys ranging from pen bombs to wallets that moonlight as X-ray scanners. Bond was perhaps what spies dreamed of before they joined the spy service. He was the demo version that the recruiters showed to the aspiring applicants. I have not read Ian Fleming’s novels but the movies were full of peppy dialogues – “shaken, not stirred” – and two Bond girls per movie, one of whom has to die. It was a very formulaic setting and yet quite entertaining.

Brosnan’s Die Another Day was grittier compared to the earlier Bond movies. Daniel Craig continued this trend in Casino Royale, which is one of the most unconventional Bond movies. James Bond is less a superhero and more human in this movie and effort has been made to break the mould. No Q for instance and hence no magical gadgets, though he returns in later movies. Daniel Craig brought a different energy to James Bond, made him more serious and less playful.

Mission Impossible was an amazing mix of brilliant direction of Brian De Palma, great theme music by Lalo Schifrin and the magnetic personality of Tom Cruise. I am in awe of Tom Cruise ever since I saw Top Gun for the first time. Tom in Top Gun was like the cool older brother that every guy wants to have. Mission Impossible was crafted with minute details. And the special effects – remember CGI was just a few years old at the time – were simply breathtaking. There was a lot of opposition to the climax scene where the helicopter chases the train in a tunnel. The alternative was to end the movie at the box car scene. “You can’t end Mission Impossible with people pulling masks off in a box car”, said De Palma and Tom agreed with him. Mission Impossible was a step closer to a more realistic spy. Ethan Hunt has to meticulously plan hacking into the CIA. James Bond would have just blasted through the roof or basement.

A watershed in spy movies was Jason Bourne, based on the novels of Robert Ludlum and played impeccably by the immensely talented Matt Daemon. I am forever fascinated by The Bourne Trilogy. Jason Bourne was unlike any other spy that came before him. Consider the first movie – The Bourne Identity. Here is a spy who has amnesia, who does not know who he is but all the skills that he has learned as a second nature are still with him. He can answer in languages that he does not know he can speak. When in a fight, his reflexes take over before he can even comprehend what has happened. I find this neurological paradox very intriguing. This is portrayed with such brilliance by Matt Daemon.

Okay, time to praise Matt Daemon. How often have you seen him with lots of prosthetic makeup? In most of his roles, his face is still the same. And yet, he manages to portray a totally different character every time. Consider for instance, Invictus where Matt plays the Rugby captain Francois Pienaar. He changed his hair and became stout and stocky like the Wall of China. He changed his accent to Afrikaans English. And he walked like a solid Rugby player. Contrast his walk in Invictus with that in The Bourne Trilogy.

I keep on – and will keep on – asking on this blog, ‘what is acting?’

Those two walks is acting.

In The Bourne Trilogy, Matt is agile and quick on his feet. He slips in and out like a ghost. You can always see his bran ticking – thinking, finding solutions. Bond rarely speaks anything other than English. Bourne speaks fluent Spanish, French, German and Russian. (How does he do it??) Jason Bourne brought spy craft to a more down-to-earth level. He does not work on unlimited budget like Bond. In fact, he does not even have a budget so he has to improvise. He uses everything in his surroundings either as a resource or as a weapon. On a high speed chase on rooftops in Tangerine, he quickly grabs two pieces of clothes that are hung to dry and wraps them on his hands as a protection from the glass pieces on the roof top borders. In The Bourne Identity, when he tries to escape from the US consulate, he snatches a map of the building from the wall – something which every action movie hero in an unknown building should do but rarely does. These are just two examples. Count the number of small things Jason Bourne does in a chase, the number of small details that he notices. You will be astounded. The aim of Jason Bourne is not saving the world but rather finding out who he really is. This is where he differs from all other spies. Left to himself, he would vanish in some remote corner of the world, never to surface again.

George Smiley, the celebrated British spy fathered by John le Carré, first appeared in literature in 1961. He has been portrayed on screen by many talented actors, including Sir Alec Guinness. My favourite performance is from 2011, where Gary Oldman played Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Gary is one of the most underrated actors of the present era. When I saw JFK for the first time, I was so impressed by Kevin Costner that I hardly paid any attention to Lee Harvey Oswald. It took me a long time to realize that Lee Harvey Oswald was played by the same actor who later played Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies. That was when I discovered Gary Oldman. I find it unbelievable that he has been ignored by both The Academy and The Golden Globes. The range of characters that he has portrayed over the years is breathtaking.

During WWII, the choice to remain on the correct side of history was pretty clear cut. The lines became blurred in the cold war era. It was no longer possible for a spy to work with a clear conscience. In his early novels, John le Carré paints a grim picture of declining moral values in post-war Britain.

The world le Carré portrays in his novels is very much different from other fictional spies. Most of the spy work involves tailing people, checking receipts, hotel ledgers, old newspaper clips and waiting. Waiting for a long, long time till the time is right. In a novel like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there are so many threads, so many connections that you have to re-read in order to understand what really happened. le Carré only gives you clues and hints. There is no last minute reveal and there are no clear cut answers. le Carré’s spies worry about their pensions and always work under intense international political pressures. Often, you are left with more questions and dilemmas after reading the last page of a John le Carré novel.

George Smiley is middle aged and quite high up in the British intelligence. His main weapon is his brain which he uses very effectively to outsmart the opposition. He is almost never involved in any high speed chases or breathtaking action scenes. In Smiley’s People for instance, the whole story revolves around efforts to defect a major KGB spymaster, Karla. When this does happen in the final pages, it happens in the most simple and straightforward manner. Karla, dressed as a labourer simply walks across a bridge that connects East and West Berlin. He drops a lighter that originally belonged to Smiley and carries on. To anyone watching this scene from a distance, it’s just a group of people walking – no action, no violence.

In recent times, there has been one person in the news who has often reminded me of George Smiley and that person is ex-FBI director James Comey. There is no similarity here in appearances or personalities but there is something in the way they respond to situations. For instance, after the first meeting with President Trump, Comey came out of the building, went straight to an FBI vehicle and started writing a memo of the meeting. I think this is exactly what George Smiley would have done.

John le Carré describes life of a spy in the most realistic manner imaginable. He himself was a spy for MI5/MI6 – often called as The Circus in Smiley novels – before he left the service and started working full time as a writer. For every novel, his field work is so impeccable that it reads almost like a reportage. But then he goes a step further. There is a lyrical quality to his descriptions that elevates the narrative to something much more. le Carré’s literary heroes include Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad and it shows.

Here’s an excerpt from Smiley’s People :

The fog outside the window made a grey wall…The streets were cobbled; the freezing air smelt of roast chestnuts and cigar..At the Nydegg Bridge he came to a halt, and stared into the river. So many nights, he thought. So many streets till here. He thought of Hesse: strange to wander in the fog . . . no tree knows another. The frozen mist curled low over the racing water; the weir burned creamy yellow.

I love the way le Carré adds just enough details to depict a mesmerizing scene and ends with a melancholy Hesse quote. What is Hermann Hesse doing in a spy novel? It is precisely references like these that put le Carré in a class of his own. He goes beyond the usual spy narrative and hints at much bigger and often unanswerable questions about the human condition.