The Storyteller and the Spy
VIJAY BALAN, a long-time resident of Atlanta, worked on NASA’s Space Shuttle propulsion system as an aerospace engineer. But then, after earning an MBA from Wharton, he pivoted to banking technology and held managerial positions at various companies in the payments space. Then came another pivot when, after six years of research and writing, Balan became the author of The Swaraj Spy, a novel recently published by HarperCollins India. It was inspired by the life of his granduncle, Jemadar Kumaran Nair, who had joined the secretive espionage wing of the short-lived Indian National Army (INA), a pro-independence armed unit led by Subhas Chandra Bose during the Second World War.
You grew up in Ooty, India, and studied electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. Then came a career in aerospace during which you were part of the design team for the Space Shuttle propulsion system. What was your most thrilling achievement in aerospace?
You know, there are times when you have the good fortune to be part of something much, much larger than yourself. This was one of them. The raw power of the Space Shuttle's liquid propellant engines is impossible to describe. Those engines were tested in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. You drove through bayous past alligators looking askance at you to get to the test rigs—great metal scaffolds with an engine mounted within. When they lit up the engine, even from a concrete block house some distance away, the vibrations bounced pencils, coffee mugs, and faint hearts all over the place. I'll never forget feeling insignificant in the face of such raw power. That was only one engine... the Shuttle had three!
How did you go from aerospace and business executive roles to creative writing?
I've always been a lover of books, and in fact we bought our house because of the built-in bookshelves. All that reading fueled an ability to articulate thoughts with ease in both the written and spoken form. I wrote for myself—mostly short pieces, to hone my craft. I considered taking formal courses in writing, but the demands of my career put paid to that. Just as well, perhaps, because I developed my own style as words that swirled in my mind found expression on the page. Like many people I nursed dreams about writing a book someday, until an epiphany I had about 13 years ago spurred me to action. That led to my first book.
Tell us about that epiphany and how The Swaraj Spy came about.
The Swaraj Spy (www.theswarajspy.com) is based on the life of my granduncle, Jemadar Kumaran Nair, who was part of the little-known espionage wing of the Indian National Army (INA) in World War II. He was rained as a spy in a secret school in Penang, Malaya. For those who may not know, the INA was created with the help of the Japanese to get Indians fighting for Britain (about two million of them!) to switch sides. The strategy was to knock Britain out of the war and gain independence for India. The book traces his journey from India to Singapore, Malaya, Burma, and back to India as Kumar is sent on a rescue mission to save agents from the school who had been betrayed by a double-agent and possibly captured by the British. The book is about machination and adventure, but also about how the savagery of war transforms a person, and affects loved ones anxiously waiting elsewhere.
My late father told me stories about this man when I was growing up. Those stories stayed with me until, as I said, I decided the story had to be told. So I started digging, only to find that the over 80-year-old trail was frozen. I traveled to different parts of the world, spoke to people, and reviewed papers. The story that emerged out of the fog, so to speak, was even more fascinating than the bits and pieces my father had shared with me. I decided to write a story that stayed as close to the facts as possible, using fiction as a vehicle to convey those facts. It took a lot of knocking on doors to get published—and, of course, Covid played a part in the delay.
You recently spoke at the Kerala Literature Festival. How does it feel to engage with your readers? Did they have any questions or perspectives that took you by surprise?
It was an amazing experience to speak at an event attended by 500,000 people over three days! I was bowled over by the level of interest in books from young people— there were long lines of people waiting to buy books. Since the event was held in Kozhikode, the protagonist's home town, there were several people who talked to me after my session about having a Malayalam version of the book. It felt good to know that despite the trail having gone dead over the decades, there is still interest in the story of an unsung hero.
Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com
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