Ranjana Sengupta Reviews Stephen Alter’s ‘Birdwatching’

An atypical thriller, slow-paced like the art of birdwatching, and also rewarding

An atypical thriller, slow-paced like the art of birdwatching, and also rewarding

Bird watching is set in the unflappable world of New Delhi in early 1962, a time when the roads are wide and empty, and people sit in wide, shaded verandas to discuss who will be invited to the ambassador’s reception American for the visiting American First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. Guy Fletcher, a young American Fulbright scholar, is among those who receive an invitation. He grew up in Delhi, where his father worked for the US aid program. Always more at ease in India than in the United States, where he feels like a foreigner, the story begins when, having graduated in ornithology, he returned to India after graduate studies in the United States with the intention of study the migratory habits of bar-headed geese in Bharatpur.

One day, while birdwatching on Delhi Ridge, he stumbles upon a corpse. The man is white and he was clearly shot – this accidental discovery triggers wide-ranging reactions. For reasons Fletcher does not then understand, an elaborate cover-up ensues, apparently engineered by Indian and American intelligence agencies, and he finds himself expelled from India by an American official who, Guy correctly suspects, is a CIA agent.

Useful assets

And once in the United States, the CIA approaches him, telling him that his fluent Hindi and his ornithologist cover are very useful assets. Fletcher accepts their offer to join the company for various reasons, including being able to live in India. After his training, he was sent to Kalimpong in West Bengal, where a ragtag group of Chinese spies, Indian intelligence agents, underground communists and Tibetan freedom fighters had gathered in preparation for the Indo-Chinese war of 1962.

There, Fletcher meets the lively and attractive Kesang, daughter of a local doctor, and the dashing Indian Army Captain Imtiaz Afridi of the 13 Kumaon Regiment; together they attempt to untangle Chinese intentions, albeit with different agendas and with varying degrees of success. It’s hard to describe the intricacies of the conspiracies without giving away the plot, but suffice to say it’s complicated, especially when considered in the context of rising Indochinese tensions and competing US interests, Chinese, Tibetan resistance and India’s need to maintain border security.

Graham Greene style

As Fletcher maintains the fiction of studying birds while navigating the social shoals of Kalimpong, real and fictional characters intertwine. Among the former is Kazini, the flamboyant Scottish wife of Sikkimese politician Kazi Lhendup Dorji, whose actual interventions in Sikkimese politics are well documented. A visit to Sikkim brings Fletcher into the fold of American debutante Hope Cooke, who has married the Chogyal (the traditional ruler of Sikkim) much to the discomfort of the Indian political establishment.

The book’s rather low-key tenor makes for the final climax in the remote forests of Bhutan, as Fletcher and Captain Afridi seek to recover the material that was the trigger for the entire cloak and dagger enterprise from the time of the discovery of the corpse. . Birdwatching is a common thread in this book. Each chapter begins with a description of a bird and the bird finds its way into the chapter, often just a flapping of its wings, but a happy distraction from the combustible geopolitics of the moment, a sign that the natural world continues even as the men prepare to kill each other over several kilometers of frozen ground.

Fletcher is not in the dashing mold of James Bond, or even a cerebral George Smiley. He’s a quiet American in the style of Graham Greene, who doesn’t wear his convictions on his sleeve but can shoot and climb mountains like the best of his kind. Much like Fletcher, who, as his CIA handler approvingly notes, has the ability to blend into the background, Stephen Alter unfolds the plot too smoothly without drama. Even the emergent triangle of Kesang, Afridi, and Fletcher seems like one of those entanglements that humans (unlike birds) are prone to, but can easily survive.

Politics is equally discreet. It’s clear that Fletcher is no Cold War warrior and distrusts the CIA’s version of events from the moment he found the corpse, leaving you to wonder why he decides to join them. Also, after joining the CIA, he mostly follows instructions, but occasionally charts his own course, much to the chagrin of his handlers. Meeting fellow agents in Bangkok, all young, racy and very American, who “became instant experts after a few days on the job,” says Fletcher: “[They] were kind of like the Peace Corps, but the dark side, a shadowy brotherhood working to preserve democracy and freedom, even though most of what they did was to undermine popular uprisings and replace them with regimes totalitarians… But that didn’t seem to bother these men. They were there as much for the game as for the convictions. With jokes in the locker room, they counted their “victories” and their “losses”.

Bird watching is an atypical thriller. It has a certain deliberate, unhurried pace much like, one imagines, the art of birdwatching. And also like the latter, the results come slowly, but are rewarding when they do.

bird watching; Stephen Alter, Aleph Book Company, ₹799

The reviewer is a former associate editor of Penguin Random House India and author of Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Improbable City.