The Swaraj Spy – A Novel by Vijay Balan

After more than a decade of concerted effort, Vijay Balan’s studies have culminated in a novel depicting his grand uncle’s life and times, published by Harper Collins as ‘The Swaraj Spy’ under the historic fiction genre. Without a doubt, Vijay’s painstaking research is evident from the meticulous unraveling of Nair’s life. The writing style is languid and easy, and the reader will soon find himself moving from Malabar to Singapore, through Burma and the jungles of Assam, ending up at what was once the great metropolis of Madras.

Vijay Balan has added meat and bone to the shadowy character of Nair and made him come alive in his 500-page book. I should, however, mention that while the book tends to skim over the cruel vagaries of war, as well as the stark violence and tragedy the Japanese left behind in Singapore, Malaya, and Burma, the book focuses mainly on the travails of Nair and the games fate played upon his life. And most importantly, the book ends leaving the reader on a positive note.

My own involvement in retelling the same story, albeit briefly as a blog post, was coincidental. Many years ago, the story of TP Kumaran Nair found me, while I was searching for something else. My close links with Calicut, the very city of Nair’s origin, made me search deeper for answers on the events surrounding his fate and the subsequent naming of an obscure road, after him. The story was touching, somewhat disheartening actually, and one which I felt that a larger audience should know.

As days went by and the characters became familiar to me through many other tales and events, I found more and more connections to them. Nedyam Raghavan, a prominent character and TP Kumaran Nair’s boss at the IIL, turned out to be a relative, and KP Keshava Menon, yet another from the Singapore of those days came back to Calicut and worked with A Karunakara Menon, my great grand uncle, at the Mathrubhumi. A.V. Lakshmi, a.k.a. Lakshmi Sehgal turned out to be the daughter of a neighbor and family friend at Chalappuram. As some of you may realize, while many of the aristocratic families toed the Congress line in Calicut, it was only Lakshmi who went the INA way.

Coming back to the book, while one agrees that the British in India were self-serving, especially during WW II, with the Americans just flitting by, the horrors of Japanese occupation, their treatment of the Tamils and many Malayalee laborers at the Death railway camps, should have found mention, so also the fate of the millions who had to flee Burma. This would have lent more sanctity and balance to Nair’s story. Another aspect I observed was the perpetually buoyant attitude of Nair as depicted, which may not have been a reality, since many of us know that as a second-class citizen in Singapore, a place exhibiting a high dose of white racism, Nair seems to display none of the reticent attitudes usually prevalent among Indians, then and now, in the prose.

But then I also realized at the end of the tale, that the breezy prose was deliberately left neutral, written without taking sides, with the reader sometimes feeling that even Nair may have been somewhat undecided on which side he was on – the British and the Japanese, and like millions of others, bobbed along as a victim of circumstances. As I read the book and got to know the character of Malu, Nair’s wife, I could not help but wonder – what if Vijay Balan had talked to her too, since she lived a long life and passed away only in 2002? What additional insight could the author have gleaned? Not very much I assume, for Vijay Balan has been meticulous. One other aspect though, I thought Vijay may have missed another side of an MSP man’s character, drilled into him by Hitchcock and other superiors at Malappuram – which is ruthlessness. We don’t get to see that in Nair’s persona. I also felt that some maps would have helped the reader trace Nair’s path, and a few pictures would have lent a better perspective.

One wonders what course Nair’s case at the Madras High Court would have taken if Justice Mack had been asked to review Nair’s actions, in 1944. I feel that Nair may have been sentenced differently, and while one cannot fault Justice Rao for following the rule of law, it is apparent that he may not have had the self-belief (as an Indian Judge toeing the British system) that somebody like Justice Elmar Mack had in abundance. Justice Mack exhibited humaneness in most of his cases with the dictum - Justice means justice shorn of all technicalities. And as some readers familiar with this case know, Mack used this logic to acquit many from the first batch of 20 tried by him during the same period. Unfortunately, Nair’s case was fated differently and decided by Rao.

I have also pondered at length on the fateful role played by another Calicut and Malabar bureaucrat, J. A. Thorne, who as home secretary, argued forcefully against the actions of these enemy combatants and upheld the rule that they should be given the most severe of punishments. He was the man behind strict censoring and the sternest sentences, and he argued for its applicability to the common man. Then again, he seems to have kept mum when bigwigs were involved, sparing many of them, if only to avoid a public censure of the British Raj.

INA enthusiasts may recall a 2015 article in The Hindu, written by Price Frederick, a journalist who came face to face with Kumaran Nair– All of us are in some form of shackles, self-imposed or otherwise....My own helplessness has made me an admirer of those who have shaken off their yokes. For one, I have been a witness to stirring expressions of love for the country, when it was under British yoke….. It surprises me no end how we forget our heroes – most of them, I mean. I got to see T. P. Kumaran Nair, when he was lodged in the Madras Central Jail in the early 1940s…... Nair worshipped Bose and he trained cadets in the Indian National Army. It’s a pity that except for a road in Nellicode, Kerala, that bears his name, T.P. Kumaran Nair remains largely forgotten.

As I have mentioned often, the many books on the INA and its work, published thus far are centered around its leader Subhas Chandra Bose, his life, vision, and strategies. Very few works cover in detail or even mention the selfless sacrifices of the thousands of Tamilians and Malayali laborers and entrepreneurs in Singapore, Malaya, and Burma. The Chettiars, the Malayalee Moplahs, and the others who gifted away their life’s savings to the INA cause are mentioned only in passing in those works. Therefore, the many who took up arms for Bose remained unseen and unnamed faces, their stories and sacrifices, hardly mentioned or told.

Vijay Balan’s book is one of the first books which takes you down to the life of that ordinary soldier, well below the titled rank and brass of the INA. It thus fills an important gap, covering the lives and sentiments of simple men like TP Kumaran Nair and Abdul Khader, who too fought for the concept of a United India before its conception and who were instrumental in shaping the huge patriotic rebellion of the Indian, against their colonial masters.  

It is well worth a read, and this book will take you to an India of the ’40s at the threshold of Independence, when many people fought wars for the benefit of their masters, but foreseeing only a faint result called Swaraj.

And when you are done, spare a thought for kindred souls like Kumaran Nair, who fought for that hard-won independence, and laid down their lives for that cause.

This brief review follows the perusal of a copy of the book provided by the author, acknowledged with many thanks. Those desiring more details may visit