Book Review : Calling Sehmat

I’d like to call Calling Sehmat, an exception to my reading repertoire. Since it’s usually the book that gets me interested in the movie. This time, it was the opposite. Also, very rarely do I feel that any movie that’s inspired by a book can do full justice to the book. Here too, while Raazi, the film thats based on the book, touches upon most of the details in the tale, it is a masterpiece in its own right. One that takes a life of its own.

A true story of a woman in her 20s, chronicled by Harinder Sikka, the story is set against the backdrop of a post-partition India. In a time where relationships between the nation and its neighbour Pakistan were only souring with each passing, with the former’s support to the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) being the bone of contention. In such a scenario, RAW (India’s Intelligence Agency) had established an entire network of spies who were assigned to go undercover┬áto various places including Pakistan, and seek out invaluable information that would safeguard their country. Sadly enough, none of these people went down as heroes in the pages of history, becoming faceless silhouettes instead, whose stories we never learn about until people like Sikka go searching for them.

One such character is Sehmat Khan(name concealed to protect identity), the daughter of Kashmir based businessman Hidaayat Khan who also doubles up as a RAW undercover agent, using his regular trips to Pakistan as a means to gain information about Pakistan’s military and political actions, which he ultimately passes on to RAW. When Hidaayat learns of his terminal cancer, with a stone hearted spirit, he appoints his young daughter Sehmat as his successor. Within a jiffy, Sehmat’s nikkah (marriage in Urdu) is arranged with Iqbal Sayed, the son of Hidaayat’s old friend and a top brass military officer in Pakistan. The underlying intention behind the alliance is to use Sehmat’s position in the family as the younger daughter-in-law to gain access to top-level military information, which can only be attained by an insider.

A majority of the book covers stresses on Sehmat’s espionage career, right from the time when she is introduced as a diligent student at a Delhi college, discovering her first taste of falling in love with a fellow classmate Aby, After which she is abruptly called home to Srinagar, where the details of her father’s impending disease, and his plans of Sehmat carrying forward his legacy are revealed to her. Despite the dangers and risk involved, the young Sehmat agrees, in a heartbeat. And overnight, from an innocent college student, she is wed to Iqbal, with whom she travels across the border to begin a new life – as a wife and spy. Throughout the book, the reader is subjected to highs and lows of what it really takes to carry out an undercover mission, where a single wrong step can mean anything from murder to heinous torture. Two specific heart-wrenching moments in the book are when Sehmat crushes Abdul, the old faithful servant of the Sayed household under the truck, and consequently her brother-in-law Mehboob, for the fear of her identity being revealed. In both these moments, the author does a phenomenal task of explaining how murdering both these people almost killed Sehmat herself, but it was the sanctity of the love for her country and the gravity of her mission that kept her sane and focused. Moments where humanity conflict with her patriotism. The reader cannot help but marvel at the various means Sehmat employs to expedite her mission of finding information. The story ends with Sehmat’s return to India on completion of her mission, pregnant and heavy-hearted. to lead a life of solitude, one where her past would stay with her for a lifetime, even haunting her occasionally.

In a nutshell, Calling Sehmat is a delightful, descriptive, even informative read. And a story well retold. While at times it might come across as a little too focused on the details, overall, it is a book that once you’ve finished reading, you cannot help but express admiration at the spirit of the protagonist, along with the writer’s prowess and conviction at ensuing that the tale is narrated in a manner that it strikes a chord with the reader, which it sure does. If you’re a curious, empathetic person with a liking for people and realistic fiction, read the book. And even better, watch the movie. It’ll be time well spent, I promise.

Star rating: 3.5/5

P.S.: You can purchase Calling Sehmat on Flipkart, or Amazon.

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