History, as Eliot says, has many “cunning passages and contrived corridors”, but there are some alternate pathways which require some effort to discover. One such—the life of A.C.N. Nambiar—has been recovered by Vappala Balachandran. Nambiar lived in Europe in the turbulent decades before World War II, was a journalist for various newspapers, was an associate of Pandit Nehru and, later, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s representative in Nazi Germany. Then, he served as India’s ambassador to Sweden and West Germany. Balachandran retired as a senior officer in R&AW and was one of the two members of a committee tasked to look into the Mumbai police in relation to the 26/11 attack.
Balachandran’s book has given us an unusual Indian perspective of
the complicated 1920s and ’30s in Europe. Through Nambiar’s life and
activities, Balachandran etches vividly the rise of Nazism, the German
occupation of Czechoslovakia, the chaos and confusion accompanying the
fall of France and the tumultous period following Netaji’s arrival in
Germany and the establishment of the Azad Hind Office there. He also
gives us a picture of the gritty circumstances in which many of our
freedom fighters lived during the war, especially in its closing period,
when they were hunted by British intelligence.
Into this story he weaves the details of how Nambiar became close to
Nehru, and subsequently his family, at a time when Kamala was ailing
and, accompanied by Indira, had come to Europe for treatment. Equally
fascinating was his relationship with Bose, who he first met in the mid-
1930s and who he tracked to his hideaway in a French village at the
Spanish border in 1941 after his dramatic escape from India. Soon, Bose
was to seek his help in setting up the Azad Hind Office.
Balachandran has, of course, benefited from his own, somewhat shadowy
association with Nambiar beginning in 1980, when he was asked by his
superiors, at the behest of Indira Gandhi, to contact him at his home
in Zurich. He speaks somewhat elliptically of this relationship, which
ended when Nambiar passed away in 1986 in New Delhi. By then,
Balachandran did manage a long interview with Nambiar, but he has also
scoured the files of British intelligence and the Bombay Special Branch
for information on Nambiar and his divorced wife, Suhasini
Chattopadhyay, and marshalled information available from a variety of
Significantly, the book throws light on the Nehru-Bose relationship.
Nambiar may have been Bose’s deputy, but after independence,
Panditji appointed him ambassador to various European countries and it
was Indira who sought him out. Nambiar was cut off from his own family
and it’s clear from Indira’s letters to him that she loved and respected
The book questions the notion, popularised by a certain class of
people whose political progenitors did not participate in the national
movement, that Bose and Nehru were irreconcileable adversaries. Through
the eyes of Nambiar, Balachandran describes the courtesy that marked
the Bose-Nehru relationship and Panditji’s efforts to help Bose’s
widow Emilie Schenkl after the war.
The one area that Balachandran does not explore in detail is the
allegation, made in some British intelligence documents, based on the
information of a Soviet defector, that Nambiar was a spy working for the
Soviet military intelligence. Perhaps there is not much there to
explore. There is no doubt that Nambiar was a Leftist of sorts; Suhasini
was associated with the Communist Party of India. His own columns in
newspapers reflected his distate for Nazism. But, his importance in the
records comes from his role as an aide to Bose who, it is clear, had a
high opinion of his abilities.
Achievements by themselves do not guarantee a place in history, nor
do notoriety or good deeds. What gives life to the art of history is
the manner in which we constantly interrogate our past to understand the
present, often through the prism of our contemporary concerns.
By that measure, Nambiar’s place would have been secure, as he was
amongst the handful of Indians living abroad who contributed to our
freedom struggle, and was an associate of both Nehru and Bose.
But Nambiar was naturally self-effacing and insisted on living, as the
title suggests, a life in the shadows. So it has taken another person
used to such a life to shine some light on him. Balachandran has made an
enormous contribution by bringing to life a person who would have been
quite content to die in obscurity.
Outlook March 27, 2017