Book Review: Calling Sehmat

Book: Calling Sehmat by Harinder S. Sikka

Calling Sehmet
Calling Sehmat

In 1971, as the tensions between India and Pakistan were rising, the college girl Sehmat Khan agrees to marry a Pakistani Army officer to spy for India. It was a career chosen out of necessity, but she ends up being so good at it that she saved INS Vikrant from destruction. This is not fiction, but the story of a real life patriotic Indian, whose life was so extraordinary, that you would think it’s all made up. As she goes through her journey from a simple college girl to a spy who lived with the sole purpose of safeguarding India, you will find yourself in awe. She was the most beautiful Indian spy who single-handedly ravaged Pakistan’s security system.

The best part of the book is that it gives a well rounded portrayal of Sehmat as she goes through various phases of her life. A quarter of the book is about her college life which shows initial glimpses of her determination and passion. She got selected for a dance competition in which she was to portray Meerabai. She had seen her mother pray to Meerabai and for being the character, she spent hours in the college library, reading all about her. She danced with such intensity and absorption that she did not notice that her legs were bleeding.

Her transformation from college girl to a spy was to honor the wishes of her dying father who had instilled patriotism in her. Her philosophy was “there is no greater reward than to live and die for your country”, a lesson she got from her father. He had told her that there is nothing more disgraceful than being disloyal to the motherland. As a businessman who traveled across the border, he was instrumental in setting up a spy network in Pakistan.

Then you see another Sehmat, who sacrifices her college lover and moves to Pakistan. Her down to earth demeanor and good intentions earn her the trust of her immediate family, her father-in-law and her husband. It was due to her cleverness that they got promoted in their jobs and had career advances. It was during one scan of her father-in-laws office that she found the files which suggested that Pakistani submarines were targeting INS Vikrant.

Living behind enemy lines is not easy. The intelligence gathering techniques of 1971 could not be done remotely; it required acts of courage. The intricacies of these techniques and dangers it entails are covered well. There were many times she could have been exposed and she triumphs over those circumstances with her quick thinking. She even miraculously escaped including a bomb attack. She was a person who planned two steps ahead all the time and that saved her.

Eventually when she settled back in India, the pictures on her house demonstrated her beliefs. Her house had pictures of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Ram Prasad Bismil and Khudiram Bose. In her private space she worshipped Allah, Ganesha, Krishna, Jesus and Wahe Guru. She was fascinated by Meerabai’s hymns.

I finished the book only because it’s inspiring to read about such unknown heroes. The book explores her fortitude and unwavering loyalty to India during a time of war. The initial part of the book about Sehmat’s simple life, her marriage and her activities in Pakistan are paced very well. The writing itself is really plain and starts meandering towards the end. It could have used multiple rewrites with a good editor.. I am not even sure why one chapter of a failed Indian navy attack was described. That would have been better in an appendix or could be the matter for another book.

Despite all the courageous self-assurance displayed by Sehmat during her mission, her life ends in tragedy. Well almost. Memories of the ruthless things she had to do haunt her. Since her life in Pakistan was messy, chaotic and non-formulaic, she ends up suffering from depression. The book describes her encounter with a fakir who gave her spiritual lessons from various scriptures including the Upanishads to get her out of her gloom. In turn she was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in her area and it required an intervention from RAW.

Her life was about love; to her country, to her parents and to her college mate. There is also a movie based on the book, but it leaves out multiple dimensions of Sehmat. As always, the book is better.