Diary item: Rediscovery of Olga Gray

Good old-fashioned escapist literature beckons. It’s that time of the year

Written by M J Akbar | Updated: November 13, 2015 12:00:25 am

The Cold arrives, as punctually as Diwali, just before winter has decided when to come. Neither caution nor precaution is any use. The viral demon lurks within the deceptive whiff of delicious change in the air, and suddenly strangles your throat from inside, sits heavily on your chest, boxes through your head and lights up a fever that inflames the body.

Self-pity, that stupid but irresistible siren, induces a quarrelsome mood. In practical terms this means picking up petty disputes with a wife now highly skilled in the art of the shrug. My more mature confrontation is with the English language. Why is the Cold called cold when you feel hot all over? Why isn’t it known as a Volcano, in tribute to that awesome sneeze rising from unsuspected depths, scattering germs with inhuman force. “I’ve got a heavy Volcano coming,” sounds like a more honest warning. Or a Waterfall, to describe the running nose that can make a handkerchief weep?

Well, the British did not turn the English language into a world power by answering peevish questions, so the only realistic means of escape was some good, old-fashioned escapist literature.

***

The addictive charm of Agatha Christie murder mysteries lies not in the fact that you can read her effortlessly, but that you can re-read her continually, taking care to remember to forget who the murderer was. A successful formula sells across generations. Agatha Christie is the Coca Cola of books. The secret ingredient? Quite simple really. You will never get stuck. There will always be a Hercule Poirot with manicured moustache, egg-head and thriving grey cells to decode the clues. By coincidence, the three books at my bedside were Peril at End House, The Secret Adversary and Destination Unknown. A wry thought struck me. Each could have served as a title for political thrillers.

***

The real ripsnorter, however, was not fiction but narrative history, written with the British commitment to anecdote as the best lubricant for reading. Calder Walton’s Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire is what it claims on the label, although it would have been more accurate to say Spy Stories You Had Better Believe for They Come Straight from Classified Files. The gem in this treasure house is a story from 1935, when an MI5 agent codenamed Miss X arrived in India to figure out which Indian communist leaders were in the pay of the Soviet Union.

Her real name was Olga Gray. A double agent, she travelled to India as a courier of the British Communist Party. The story began to ring instantly true when Walton noted that her trip “was so badly organised by the British Communist Party that without MI5’s help it is unlikely she would ever have got to India”. Efficiency has never been the strong suit of comrades. What was Miss X’s cover story? That she was a prostitute. Ahem. Clearly the big boys in British intelligence calculated that a bed was the quickest route to the mind of a red.

And thus doth one more illusion fall into dust. I always imagined that the founding fathers of Indian communism were sincere and serious chaps in horn-rimmed spectacles who occasionally forgot to shave and discussed the merits of Lenin over Trotsky during a sparse breakfast. Well, not all the time, as young Olga might put it.

This, by the way, is only an appetiser. A feast awaits those interested in the art and craft of spooks.

***

A blockbuster waiting to be written: Revenge of the Bookshop. Computers have been gamechangers in my lifetime, but the one aspect that I find entirely resistible is purchase of books online. One knows the arguments, of course. But books are just too personal to be left to a machine. Books are a taste business. Taste needs choice. Choice requires a browse, and perhaps a quiet word with the owner-manager who will never risk his credibility for a mere purchase. E-sales-wallahs will never be persuaded, of course, but buying a book on Amazon is a sterile deal, not a warm one. You only order what you know. You never really discover.

Has Amazon acknowledged the virtues of what it tried so hard to kill, the bookstore? One feels vindicated at the news that Amazon is now going to open bookshops. Raise a cheer.

***

The Indian Express established an early lead and then romped home in a gallop in the Bihar election predictions sweepstakes. Well done. For all of us who got it wrong, better luck next time.

The writer is national spokesperson, the BJP

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

More From M J Akbar
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement