What is this book about?
The Swaraj Spy, based on true events in the life of the author’s granduncle, challenges accepted notions of wartime loyalty through the transformation of one man from loyal servant of the British Empire to rebel spy. Kumar Nair is dismissed from a British para-military unit for refusing to disperse unarmed women agitating for India’s independence from colonial rule. He moves to Singapore just before the outbreak of World War 2 after the Great Depression destroys his fledgling business. After the fall of Singapore, he joins a secret espionage school set up by Japanese Intelligence and the rebel Indian National Army in Penang, Malaya, to defeat the British and free India. When several cadets trained at the school are betrayed by a double-agent, and captured by the British, Kumar is sent on a rescue mission with conflicting instructions. The Japanese want Kumar to continue the espionage mission with surviving agents. Indian leaders, not trusting Japanese intentions, ask Kumar to save as many agents as possible and hunker down until the end of the war. Caught in a hall of mirrors, can Kumar succeed in his desperate quest to cross wartime borders, rescue his fellow trainees, and return to his young wife in Malabar?
The Swaraj Spy is a tale of three interwoven journeys: Kumar’s physical journey through a rich visual arc from Malabar paddies through the Anglo-Chinese mosaic of Singapore, pagoda-strewn Rangoon, and the jungles of Burma; the transformation of an impetuous man to a thoughtful soul in the midst of shifting boundaries between friend and foe; and the backdrop of India’s tumultuous march to independence.
Suggested Topics for Discussion
- Was Kumar right in refusing Kane’s order to disperse women demonstrators? Can Kumar claim that Kane’s was not a ‘legal order’? Here’s a link to a definition of a ‘legal order’, albeit from a US military perspective. (https://www.army.mil/article/47175/breaking_ranks_dissent_and_the_military_professional )
- Was it the restlessness caused by his ‘adrenalin addiction’ (as Raman calls it) that leads Kumar to the road-building and getting all castes to dine together? Or were those actions guided by an innate sense of right and wrong?
- Discuss Raman’s and Kumar’s different approaches to dealing with the British Empire- accept its dominance and quietly work from within to effect change, or pro-actively subvert its mechanisms of control? Which approach had a better chance of working, if (and that is a big if) World War 2 had not intervened?
- Discuss Maalu’s and Kumar’s different approaches to life’s challenges- her meditative calmness versus his throwing himself into work. Did they complement each other? Did they understand each other? How do you see Maalu- strong, detached, vulnerable but self-protective or something else?
- Would you defend Kalyani’s actions in arranging a job for Kumar in Singapore?
- Discuss the pecking order in which passengers boarded the RMS Rajula- was it dictated by race, class, wealth, or something else? Is it a metaphor for the hierarchy within the British Empire? Coming to today’s world, how have things changed, if at all?
- Should Kumar have returned to India right away after he learned about the reality of his Singapore job?
- Discuss the British belief in their ‘Fortress Singapore’ strategy. Was their thinking outmoded or was it that they did not credit the Japanese with the ability to defeat a European force through superior tactics?
- Discuss the Farrer Park event, particularly in the context of a large force switching command loyalties. Was there a ‘swaraj spark’ within each soldier that burst through once the British were no longer in control?
- Discuss the trainees at the Indian Swaraj Institute. What were their motivations? Strengths? Weaknesses?
- What do you think Iwakuro wanted to achieve through the Indian Swaraj Institute? Was he on the same page as Raghavan and the other Indian leaders? How so, or not?
- Do you think the Iwakuro Kikan was incompetent or were they playing a different game altogether as is hinted at in the book’s Epilogue?
- When do you think Kumar’s personal transformation began- all the way back at Marina Beach or at some point later in the tale? Why do you think so? What were some other trigger points in the journey? How did they affect him?
- Discuss how Maalu handled herself throughout the tale. Should she have approached her situation differently? How so?
- Was Kumar right in the way he dealt with Maalu’s letters- keep in mind the personal dilemma he was facing?
- What do you think of the British colonial justice system? Argue your point both from the point of view of an empire at war with the enemy at the gates, and a colonized people fighting for independence.
- How much of a role do you think the Indian National Army (INA) played in freeing India from colonial rule?
- If Japan had succeeded and defeated the British, would India have merely exchanged one imperial power for another? Would the INA have had to fight its Japanese collaborators?