On a hot summer afternoon in Delhi, a teary-eyed Harinder Sikka recounts the story of Sehmat Khan, the fictitious name the author gave to the real Indian spy, whose inspiring story is now reaching people through his book Sehmat Calling, and the Alia Bhatt-starrer Raazi, a film inspired by the book.
Sehmat, a Kashmiri Muslim, is portrayed as a vulnerable, inexperienced 20-year-old, who marries a Pakistani army officer with the aim to pass on classified information to the Indian Intelligence. It is an incredible story of how someone gave up everything for the nation, of how she was embedded in Pakistan as a spy, of her stellar spirit, of the dangers she straddled to save lives of so many people back home and her trials and tribulations. And all of this is being discussed across the country, thanks to Sikka. The story of the role the unsung heroine had played during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the liberation war of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), wasn’t easy to get or write, says the author.
“I joined the Indian Navy in 1979 and I took pre-mature retirement in 1993. During the Kargil War in 1999, I got permission to go to the battle grounds as a journalist. Since I was a retired soldier, and like they says, ‘once a soldier, always a soldier’, I took this opportunity to repay my debts to the army. But I was quite disillusioned by the state of affairs there. Once I expressed my anger, branding fellow soldiers as traitors. That’s when one of them replied, ‘Not everybody is a traitor; my mother wasn’t.’ That line stuck with me and I scouted for the officer and his mother. I reached Sehmat’s village and almost intruded in her private space. She didn’t want people to know about her. She lived a low-profile life. She refused to talk and in three meetings, she gave me only nine minutes of audience,” says Sikka, remembering his encounters with Sehmat, who had a burden of death on her mind, which made her lead a life of recluse.
However, Sehmat’s story reached the world when Meghna Gulzar made the film Raazi with Alia Bhatt in the titular role. Running successfully in theatres, Raazi embodies the spirit of Calling Sehmat , which, Sikka, the ex-Navy officer, says emphasises on casualties of war, which most often than not, cannot be quantified.
Sikka says Sehmat had suffered deep depression after she returned to India, completing her task as a spy, where she passed important secret information of Pakistan’s plan to attack INS Viraat, an incident which was averted, saving many lives. Later she came in a contact with a saint and influenced by his teachings, accepted Sikhism as a way of life, says Sikka. “She had some kind of spiritual power. When I told her that her work needs to be recognised, she refused. Due to security reasons, I had very less material to write the book. I went to Pakistan, made contacts and did research and got details. And the information which she passed to the Indian intelligence used to match with her info. So I found the connect,” adds Sikka, who had initially written the book with photos, retaining the original name of Sehmat. Sikka had shown the manuscript of the story to Farooq Abdullah, who recognised the Kashmiri family and advised some changes. “I incorporated them,” says Sikka.
The author who is an ex-Navy personnel showed some of his collectibles, too.
(Manoj Verma/HT Photo)
After the book got published, Sikka met Gulzar and expressed his desire to give him the story to make it into a film. Despite his persuasion, he refused to direct it. In fact, Gulzar was much annoyed when Sikka approached him for the second time to make a film with it. “Not many know that it was actor Akshay Kumar who introduced me to Meghna Gulzar and she saw the possibility of a film in it. Meghna had asked me at least thousand questions and I was happy that if not Gulzar Saab, his daughter was making it,” he says.
During the process of writing, Sikka would show Sehmat chapters of the book and she would only underline those lines she wanted to be omitted in the book. And when Sikka informed that Alia Bhatt was essaying her role in the film, she had just sent a message ‘K’ (meaning okay) to express her consent. Unfortunately, she died in April this year, weeks before the film released.
So, why was he not a part of the promotions of Raazi, a film that is so close to his heart? “Unhone bulaye nehi; Bulate toh aa jaate. Main film industry se nehi hu. Woh aachi terah se promote kar rahe hai. Maine film nehi dekhi, but I am sure it’s going to be Alia’s best performance,” says Sikka who received a thank you call from Mahesh Bhatt after the film released.
In the film and the book, Sehmat’s transformation from a vulnerable girl to an intelligencer is relatable. She was trained in karate, shooting and to interpret and send morse codes. Sikka believes that a spy’s life in 2018 is getting increasingly difficult. Advanced technologies like face recognition and finger printing techniques are adding to the risks of being caught. Sikka feels that during 1970s, too, there were other challenges, which Sehmat overcame. “She wasn’t a trained agent. She was a part of the listening watch team. She went out of her way to gather information and that’s what most spies do. But, they remain unrecognised and lead a life of oblivion and die in the same way,” says Sikka.
Interact with the author at @nabanitadas09