The Rataban Betrayal, Stephen Alter, Penguin, 2013, pp 350 , Rs 299
1969, Jigme, an eastern Tibetan Khampa tribal, watches the mighty Himalaya — buttressed with ice falls and glaciers — in melancholy. He prays silently for the fellow trekker, an American, lying dead on the ice and who will soon be left alone for a sky burial.
He also watches another American who stares at his dead companion without a hint of remorse. Fast forward to a few decades later, a Christian missionary, again an American, is shot dead. The shooting is soon followed by the burning down of a press that prints Bibles.
If you assume that the first death is a Himalayan expedition gone wrong and the second shooting a racial crime, think again! This is the backdrop for Stephen Alter’s The Rataban Betrayal, a novel of International intrigue. Imagine a mix of John Le Carre’s slow unspooling spy novels and the vivid time and place descriptions of Wilbur Smith. Add to this an in-depth knowledge of the Indo-China-Tibet issues, and what you get is a fine espionage thriller that gives a gripping account of the murky International politics.
Through The Rataban Betrayal, a thriller set in the tranquil town of Mussoorie, Alter brings to light the shadowy dealings of international espionage, weaving an interesting story around the sensitive Indo-China issues. Throw in a few Indian and American secret service agents, a right wing American vigilante who has sided with the Tibetan rebels, and you have a book that keeps you reading with twists and surprises.
There are many varied characters in the novel typical of any good thriller. At the helm of things is the protagonist Colonel Afridi. Though injured and rendered lame by a Himalayan expedition while on duty, he refuses to give up his fascination for the mountains.
Now a grand old man, he works for RAW, lives in Mussoorie to keep an eagle eye on India’s high-altitude borders. The other main characters are Jigme, a contemporary of Afridi who is a Tibetan in exile, his son Renzin, a maverick who works undercover for Afridi; Karan Chauhan, a second generation American immigrant, a CIA agent, deputed to India; the feisty, BMW driving Annapurna, aka Ann, who is a speech synthesis expert with RAW. Many subplots involving these well-etched characters merge to piece together a bloody conspiracy of revenge and murder.
As exciting as the espionage drama in the novel is the great sense of the Himalayan Mountains it summons — the mighty mountain in its tranquillity, beauty, and fury.
Here is the Rataban peak from a trekker’s perspective: “Above Camp 2, the western ridge of Rataban ascended to an exposed flank, where the wind had sculpted shelves of ice overhanging the glacier. The altitude here was 5,700 metres. Eventually, they reached an icefall that was almost perpendicular, with a sheer drop below. Now they would have to traverse this exposed stretch of ice in the storm. Even with their crampons it was difficult to keep from slipping. The footholds they had cut a few hours earlier were frozen slick and their axes barely penetrated the hard surface.”
One of the chapters gives a bird’s eye view of the spectacular western Himalayan region — Kedarnath, the confluence of temples at Rudraprayag, the Vishnu Ganga gorge below Joshimath, Nandadevi, and Trishul.
“As they flew out of the Bhagirathi valley and began to climb over Pawali ridge, towards Kedarnath, turbulent air currents shook the helicopter like a shaman’s rattle...Along one flank of the Bhyunder Valley, a dozen waterfalls, like braided strands of liquid glass, were dangling from the crags. The birch trees with their white bark and yellow leaves, shimmered in the afternoon light.”
The author also draws attention to many facets of Mussoorie throughout the book. He begins with the crowded and chaotic ‘Mall Road’ and how once you escape its clutches the serenity of the mountains descends on you: “Mussoorie had a chaotic, accidental appearance... she entered the town, manoeuvring through the crowded taxi stand and passing along the Mall Road. By the time she reached the top of the hill, the air was sharp and clean, redolent with the fragrance of cedars and oaks. She felt as if she was on top of the world.”
This is a book that is not just a spy thriller, but also a cultural essay and an astute observation on the human psyche. It is simply amazing how well-informed the author is — from the intelligence agencies across the world, the Tibetan uprising to the Tibetan religious rituals and Mandalas — the author offers you nuggets of information you want to read slowly and digest.
To summarise, if you are looking to read an edge-of-the-seat, action-packed thriller, a la Jack Higgins or Robert Ludlum, then this is not the book for you, because the side descriptions, which are in plenty, do slow the pace. However, this book is worth any reader’s time for its intricately crafted plot and lucid writing.