Aditya Sinha’s The Spy Chronicles, co-authored with the former Intelligence chiefs of India and Pakistan, has made headlines in both countries. Here, the author takes us through the making of the book

Fortunately for retired three-star general Asad Durrani, ISI director-general in the early 1990s, the government of India did not give him a visa to attend the May 23 launch in Delhi of The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace — co-authored by him, former RAW chief AS Dulat and myself. The government is not enamoured of the book since it is a message of hope and peace, as opposed to an official hardline, ‘muscular’ policy. Since Durrani could not attend, he sent a video message. The beginning of the message expressed a fear that haunted him from the start of the project, and that has lingered: “I suspected [the book] might be a trap!”

This thought didn’t cross my mind when we began the project in May 2016. Dulat asked me about doing a book since he had already written two papers with Durrani. Both made for dull reading. To me, it would only work if the two spy chiefs allowed me to conduct it interview style — after all, the interview is one of the purest forms of journalism, and the longer or deeper it is, the better — and though Dulat preferred doing it by email, a more ‘controlled’ environment for each participant, I prevailed. And in Istanbul, I met General Durrani for the first time, at the terrace restaurant of our hotel where Dulat and I were having a kebab lunch, and Durrani had just arrived from the airport.

Dulat stood and stretched both arms out for an embrace, smiling broadly; the General reciprocated. I politely shook his hand. He scrutinised me as we sat, perhaps disapproving in a typical military way at how indisciplined I was. “Why do you want to do this book?” he asked. I muttered some cliché about peace between our countries.

We had easy conversations. I had many questions, and their answers prompted supplementary questions. Also, I did not wish the General to think that I was Dulat’s henchman, and so in the beginning, I gave him more chances to answer. Their styles differed vastly. For one, Durrani spoke softly, chewing his words, and I found he was barely audible in the recordings. The transcription became heavy weather throughout the project. I often wondered: was this mumbling a deliberate ISI ploy to prevent electronic eavesdropping? Were they trained like this?

Dulat, on the other hand, had a booming voice. This reflected their personalities as spies: Dulat enjoyed befriending and running agents; Durrani preferred the solitude of cold analysis. Moreover, Dulat is an optimist, Durrani a realist. Dulat impatiently waited for his turn to speak, tapping a pencil on the tabletop; Durrani often took notes while Dulat spoke. And every session opened with the General asking me: “So Aditya, what do you want us to talk about next?”

The evenings were filled with camaraderie, lubricated by whisky. There’s been criticism of The Spy Chronicles, which is okay because it is just one view on bilateral relations with Pakistan; there are others, especially those supporting the current government, who believed differently: democracy in action. Some critics in India and in Pakistan, however, have attacked the book because none of us shied away from a drink. Sad. James Bond is less suave in the Ian Fleming novels than he is in film portrayals because of his heavy drinking; John le Carré’s Cold War warriors are all calm, heavy drinkers. Soldiers and spies are hardened drinkers the world over. It is a tool of their trade, in spycraft. It is churlish to deride the drinking as a criticism of the book.

One a March night in Kathmandu in 2017, our day’s sessions done, we met in Dulat’s room for a drink. Dulat had been posted in Kathmandu during his Intelligence Bureau days in 1976-80 and he made many friends, two of whom had hosted us for dinner on two nights. The bonhomie and stories exchanged often made me regret I was not recording these sessions as well, but then the evenings were made for unwinding.

For dinner, we chose a nearby Chinese place, but as we left the hotel I saw the General tottering. Literally. We somehow made our way up to the empty restaurant, chose a table and sat down, and suddenly the General sprang up. “I’ll be back,” he announced, and disappeared. I followed him down the stairs, out of the restaurant, and watched as he went down the narrow lane, lurching from one wall to the other. I returned and asked: “Is he going to be sick?” Mrs Dulat replied, “No. He’s probably gone to get his credit card.” Unlike me, the General did not feel comfortable with Dulat paying for our lunches and drinks.

Since we were meeting on the sidelines of a Track 2 “Intel dialogue” for retired officials from our countries, sponsored by the University of Ottawa — the convenor was Peter Jones, whose background isn’t purely academic — we often ran into other retired officials like the ISI’s General Ehsan-ul Haw, former Pakistan High Commissioner Aziz Ahmed Khan, the RAW’s CD Sahay and the IB’s KM Singh. They knew we were brewing something though they weren’t clear on the details. It was obvious that some were reporting regularly to their establishments about the “Intel dialogue”; at least one of them had likely spoken about “a book project” to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who hit the roof with disapproval over this “unauthorised” book.

In Bangkok, in January 2017, we had dinner at the hotel’s all-purpose riverside restaurant. Sahay joined us, having stayed an extra night after the Track 2 dialogue concluded. We were all cheerily pulling each other’s leg over the coming Assembly elections in Punjab and UP, the results of which Sahay — now a member of the Doval-founded Vivekananda International Foundation — predicted absolutely correctly. At one point, both Dulat and Durrani were away from the table to get more food from the buffet spread, and Sahay hissed at me: “You people, who give so much izzat to Durrani.” I was shocked. Dulat must have already borne the brunt of Sahay’s bitterness. It was then that I first realised that not everyone would be impressed by this book.

We met a second time, in Bangkok, in October-end, for our final session, and Durrani was subdued. The Track 2 meeting had not gone well — instead of dialogue there had been combative power-point presentations, bitter recriminations, and general resentment. Dulat tried cheering him up. I suggested we simply dive into our sessions. “Well, now I’ve started this, there’s no backing out,” Durrani said.

There were a couple of moments, Dulat later told me, when the General seemingly had cold feet about the joint book. Dulat himself asked me on two occasions, back in India, whether the book would be worth it. He never said why, but I now assume he was feeling the heat from high up in the government. Once the book went to the publishers, some in India’s intelligence community asked him to reconsider publishing. Yet the fact was, Dulat had much less to lose than Durrani. Because whatever the reaction, the book had two Indian authors, and it was published in India.

When it came out, there was uproar in Pakistan. “Durrani has walked into an Indian trap,” one politician tweeted. Conspiracy and betrayal were common words bandied about the General; several said he had been fooled by RAW. Incidentally, on Twitter in India, both Dulat and I also faced right-wing opprobrium: we were called Pakistani agents and jihadis.

The Pakistani Army, nervous that one of their most solid pillars was perhaps compromised by the other side, grounded Durrani. Last week it instituted a court of inquiry under a sitting two-star general against him. He was put on a no-fly list. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called for inquiries against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and others. The book’s consequences have not yet played out fully.

During our sessions, Dulat had mentioned one failure of RAW (and it is in the book): he said how it had not been able, at least till his time, to recruit an ISI officer. Remember, he was the one who preferred running agents to sitting around doing analysis. If you read our other book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, he says that in his first visit to Pakistan, for a conference, he openly asked the Pakistani attendees if they could arrange for him to meet a retired ISI chief. Sometimes I wondered whether Dulat used his lifetime of interpersonal skills to befriend a former chief and coax him into this project. Maybe the other side figured out his intention but played along, hoping to turn the tables. It’s something we may never know. — The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace launches in Mumbai on June 7.