A BOOKSHELF OF BOSE
Who was A.C.N. Nambiar? Was he a spy? If so, for whom?
Who was A.C.N. Nambiar, and what did he do? Is he deserving of so engrossing, stimulating and well-written a tribute as Vappala Balachandran’s A Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of A.C.N. Nambiar, A Forgotten Anti-Colonial Warrior?
Balachandran retired as special secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat. He got to know Nambiar during the final years of his life, in Geneva, looking after and keeping him in good cheer. This was not easy, as Nambiar led a ‘messy’ and disorganised life. This book is a labour of love.
A man whose close friends included Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Indira Gandhi and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit must have been endowed with rare qualities. Nambiar spent many years in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Horthy’s Hungary, Petain’s Vichy France and Benes’s Czechoslovakia. He was under surveillance by British intelligence for most of his life. He was always broke, always helpful and had several mistresses.
Bose met Nambiar in Europe in the mid1930s. As an indication of the high esteem he held Nambiar in, when Bose left Europe—in a German submarine bound for Singapore, after two frustrating years in Berlin—he put Nambiar in charge of the Indian Legion.
Another anecdote that underlines the trust between the two men: before Bose left for Singapore, he had secretly married Emilie Schenkl, an Austrian, in December 1937. Nambiar was perhaps one of the very few Indians in Europe who was privy to this major event in Bose’s life. No one in India was aware of the marriage.
The Nehrus had met Nambiar in Europe and remained intimate friends until the deaths of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. After Independence, Nehru had appointed Nambiar ambassador to West Germany and Sweden.
However, questions remain. Was Nambiar a spy? “During his Prague years, Nambiar seems to have without his conscious knowledge provided intelligence to the British,” says the author.
But was he a spy? If so, for whom? The Russians, the Nazis? The British? Balachandran concludes that, “There is no evidence found anywhere that Nambiar was an active asset for any agency…. Nambiar spent his life in the shadow of time.” The book ends with more than a dozen letters from Nehru and Indira Gandhi to Nambiar, which have never before been published.
When Bose left Europe, he put Nambiar in charge of the Indian Legion