What John Le Carré’s novels did for the Cold War in terms of detailing the human cost of that conflict, Omar Shahid Hamid’s new book does for the covert ops war between neighbours India and Pakistan. Apart from giving insights into the details of surveillance and intelligence work, Hamid’s new book is a fine observation of both the murky nature of the job as well as of the dilemmas that practitioners in the field are faced with on a daily basis.
On the face of it, Betrayal is a fast-paced spy thriller; it’s a page-turner with plenty of racy ingredients – power games, money, steamy sex, love and deception – but it is, at heart, the story of the plight of the few ‘honourable men’ who work in this ‘world of shadows.’
The novel is concisely and neatly plotted: the story moves along at a pretty breathless pace and takes the reader into an international web of intrigue and espionage –the action moves from the Iran-Balochistan border to the CIA headquarters in Langley, from the PM House in Islamabad to the residence of the Spymaster in Delhi, from the glamour and glitz of the Paris fashion world to the immigrant ghettoes of the city where frustrated young Muslims fall into crime and are ripe for radicalisation. And along the way in this dizzying journey the reader gets some interesting glimpses of the realities and the sort of ruthless expediency which actually determine the survival or interruption of the democratic and peace processes in the Subcontinent.
As he did in his previous novels (Betrayal is his fifth), Hamid draws on real life events, ones that have made sensational headlines that we are all familiar with. This lends an air of familiarity and credibility to the plot and pulls the reader quickly into the narrative. Thus, the book begins with the abduction of an Indian spy near Pakistan’s Balochistan border, an obvious reference to the incident involving Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadav who was picked up by the Pakistani authorities in March 2016. In the novel, the arrest of the Indian spy leads to the information that there is a mole inside the Pakistani security establishment, somebody who has been giving the Indians information and it is this hunt to find the traitor that drives the story.
As he did in his previous novels (Betrayal is his fifth), Hamid draws on real life events, ones that have made sensational headlines that we are all familiar with. This lends an air of familiarity and credibility to the plot
The characters involved in the story are well drawn and memorable (the female characters perhaps less so), particularly the ‘grandmaster’ spy chief V.S. Krishnamurty who looks more like “a Maths professor than a spymaster” and who is an agnostic who has somehow managed to “remain secular to his core” even while working for a government led by a right-wing Hindu PM. He is an intriguing character, sharp and in control of the game, ‘five moves ahead’ of his opponents – so much so that he even elicits admiration from his adversary, the wily General across the border. Then there is Sameer Ali Khan, a central character in the story, who is also interesting but certainly not as intriguing as the Indian spymaster. He is an incorruptible police officer with an impressive record, whose family was killed in a militant attack and whose troubled personal life then gets caught up in a web of surveillance and political machinations. When these two men come face to face, their meeting evokes strongly the relationship of Le Carré’s George Smiley and his Soviet counterpart Karla: two people trying to do a difficult job well, playing a dirty game but trying to achieve a positive outcome.
This racy novel also provides a peek/insight into Pakistan’s troubled relationships with its neighbours India and Afghanistan, with whom it has had a long history of distrust. The story gives useful insights into the realities that elected politicians and governments must confront when their efforts for regional peace are thwarted at every step by anti-peace lobbies and institutions. And the realities of corruption and the power of party donors and funders is well illustrated through the narrative as well. Hamid sets up characters with wit and humour and his oblique references will certainly amuse Pakistani readers. One example is of the Prime Minister’s advisor and major funder, a character called Arshad Tareen Malik but known widely as ATM – i.e. cashpoint. Other entertaining details are the names of desi Brit intel agents – ‘Hamza but call me Haz… Tasneem, but we call him Taz’.
The female characters are all fairly unlikeable, mainly the troubled and gutsy ex-supermodel Aleena Khan and her arrogant mother, but my favourite of all of Hamid’s characters is surely the unglamorous investigator, Constantine De Souza of Karachi. Constantine first appeared in Hamid’s debut novel The Prisoner (2013) and despite being a hard-boiled policeman, he was somebody who had retained a certain integrity and clarity of purpose in his work. The dogged Constantine De Souza is a masterly creation and one who ranks along with memorable fictional creations like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Matt Reese’s Omar Yussef. Although Sameer Ali Khan is a central character in this novel, Constantine is, in many ways, the hero of the story – he maintains a certain moral integrity despite inadvertently helping to bring about the downfall of one of the ‘good men’ operating in the shadows.
The story also illustrates the ironies and the element of chance which is involved in surveillance and investigations – how very often intelligence leads are purely accidental and how sometimes mistaken leads can, inadvertently, take investigators in the right direction
Betrayal is a pacy and insightful novel. It makes for easy and enjoyable reading and although I personally think that the details of steamy passion in the central relationship were repetitive and often unnecessary, these do not actually detract from the overall plot. This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking book.